The Pyramid in winter, Los Alamos Ranch School, c. 1924. Courtesy/Los Alamos Historical Society Archive
By Sharon Snyder
Los Alamos Historical Society
In the first three years of the Los Alamos Ranch School (LARS), the masters and boys all lived in a large, two-story log building known as the Big House. It contained rooms for students and masters, sleeping porches for the boys, a small library, classrooms, a kitchen and dining area, and a common room with a large fireplace.
Perhaps with an eye to the future, LARS Director A.J. Connell had a square wooden structure built to the west of the Big House c.1920. The plain frame building couldn’t have been called aesthetic, but it offered quarters for two masters, each room with space for a desk and dresser and a bed on a sleeping porch. The new accommodations were soon referred to as the Pyramid, an appropriate name for a building with a four-sided pointed roof. The masters who moved into the Pyramid gained privacy but left behind modern amenities such as electric lights, indoor plumbing, and hot water.
In 1924, LARS Master Fermor Church married Peggy Pond, the daughter of ranch school founder Ashley Pond Jr., and they became the next occupants of the Pyramid, living in one side while the school’s secretary lived in the other. Peggy recalled cooking on a two-burner hotplate when she and Fermor weren’t taking meals with the boys. She took baths in the Big House because the Pyramid had no hot water, and she described “awakening in the depths of winter under piles of blankets, her face nearly frozen to her pillow.” These accommodations worked for a year until the couple built their own cabin to the north. When they vacated the Pyramid, Headmaster Fayette Curtis and his bride, Daisy, moved in.
For more than a decade, all of the boys had lived in the Big House, but the school was growing in enrollment and needed more room. In 1927, the Pyramid was remodeled and became a dormitory for the senior boys of Spruce Patrol, and thus the name changed to Spruce Cottage. A larger sleeping porch was added to the structure, and the iconic pyramid shape was replaced by a pitched roof. A nice common room was created, and rustic logs were added to the walls to sustain the style and character that was developing for the school’s architecture. Another renovation for Spruce Cottage created a master’s quarters so that a faculty member could be in residence.
In 1935, Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem remodeled the residence for the older boys and expanded the faculty quarters to make room for Master Cecil Wirth and his young wife, Virginia. Their two sons, John and Tim, were born while the family lived in Spruce Cottage. Four years later the Wirths left the cottage, and Master Harry Walen and his wife, Betty, just recently married, became overseers of the senior boys. Betty Walen had come from the east, but she soon learned to cook breakfast on a small wood cook stove. The Pyramid/Spruce Cottage seemed to draw young newlyweds, and the practice of changing cottages in a fashion like musical chairs continued. There was still to be one more. When the Church family’s oldest son, Ted, went away to college and middle son, Allen, was a LARS boy, Fermor and Peggy sold their cabin and, along with younger son, Hugh, moved into Spruce Cottage, but it wasn’t too long before they were moving out, uprooted by the Manhattan Project.
The first occupants during the World War II years were members of the Women’s Army Corps. The building was designated as T-115 but was more often called the WAC Shack. The WACs were evicted when Spruce Cottage was converted to three apartments to be occupied by Trinity Test Director Kenneth Bainbridge and his wife, Peg; physicist and future Nobel Prize winner Norman Ramsay and his wife, Elinor; and physicist Lyman Parratt and family.
After the war ended and the laboratory continued, Spruce Cottage was arranged into two apartments, one occupied by physicist Jerry Kellog and the other by physicist John Manley and wife, Kay. In 1949, mathematician Stan Ulam and his wife, Francoise, became neighbors in the cottage with John and Kay Manley, and from 1951 to 1996, the James and Betty Lilienthal family occupied the cottage. From that time to the present, the historic home has been lovingly cared for by owners Bart and Colleen Olinger.
What a history for a meager wood building that started out with a pointed roof!
These articles are written by the Los Alamos Historical Society Staff. Many of these articles were originally published by the