By SHARON SNYDER
Los Alamos Historical Society
The houses of Bathtub Row have seen many occupants through the years and have many stories to tell, but the name Oppenheimer lends a special aura to one of those houses. It had existed for thirteen years before it became the temporary home for Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer, their young son, Peter, and daughter, Toni, who was born during World War II.
The history of the house began in 1929 when A.J. Connell, the director of the Los Alamos Ranch School (LARS), designed a home for his sister, May Connell. May had followed two of her brothers to New Mexico after growing up in New York and spending time in France studying art. A.J. offered her a job to teaching voice, music appreciation, and painting, and planned to build her a cottage.
After living in New York City and Paris, May didn’t want to live in something that resembled a log cabin. She wanted stone walls, and for the necessary wood components, she envisioned logs. In view of the fires that had destroyed LARS buildings in the past, the stone seemed to be a good alternative. May and A.J. designed the cottage together, accommodating the needs of an artist. She wanted an open, bright living room that could double as a studio with high ceilings and a large north-facing window for the needed light.
Other features in the house included a large fireplace, a sleeping porch on the west side, a bathroom with its own small fireplace, and a kitchen behind the studio. There were hand-hewn beams over windows, hardwood floors, and a sitting porch that led to the front door. The spacious living room was the centerpiece of the house, as it still is today.
For the stonework that had not been attempted at the ranch school previously, A.J. hired homesteader Marcos Gomez, who spent more than a year setting the 14″ stones by eyesight. His craftmanship is still apparent almost 100 years later. The log and stone design of Master Cottage #2 became the concept for future ranch school buildings after A.J. recognized the advantage it gave to fire prevention.
It wasn’t long before the school needed accommodations for families rather than a single person, and May gave up her cottage. However, she was ready to move to Santa Fe and mingle with the inceasing number of artists there. In late 1930, Master Tommy Waring and his wife, Anita, moved into Cottage #2, remaining there until they left to open the Waring School for boys in Santa Fe. The next occupants were Master Cecil Wirth, with his wife, Virginia, and their two little boys, John and Tim. The Wirths eventually moved one cottage north to Master Cottage #3 when the Fermor Church family moved to Spruce Cottage in 1940. The empty Cottage #2 was then taken by Master Harry Walen and his wife, Betty, because they were expecting a baby. All of the house shifting had seemed like a large version of musical chairs, but that came to an end when the Manhattan Project took over the school.
As Project Y arrived, two LARS employees stayed to work for the government. Jerry Pepper became the director of the recreational program, and his wife, Esilda, taught at the community school. When LARS closed, the Peppers settled into Master Cottage #2, but that didn’t last long. Their choice of housing changed quickly when the Oppenheimer’s selected that cottage for their wartime home.
After the war, the home was occupied by scientists. Manhattan Project metallurgist Eric Jette and his wife, Eleanor, were the first, followed by Frank and Betty Hoyt. When the government sold off the townsite property in the 1960s, physicist Bergen “Jerry” Suydam and his wife, Helene, bought the house that would come to be known by the name of its most famous occupant. The Suydams understood they were living in a historical home and cared for it in that regard for many years. Eventually they honored that history by donating the Oppenheimer House to the Los Alamos Historical Society, with an arrangement that they could live there as long as they wished. Bergen Suydam died in 2011. With Helene’s passing last August, the house has been transferred for the last time, and it becomes a national treasure.
These articles are written by the Los Alamos Historical Society Staff. Many of these articles were originally published by the
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