March 5, 2013 | 3
There it was, completely nondescript. Nobody could ever tell what the room was used for more than half a century ago. But then I thought that that sounded apt; after all, nobody was supposed to know in the first place what went on in there. To that extent it perfectly served its intended purpose. An unexceptional but heavy iron gate right next to it was the only object that possibly enforced the gravity of the situation.
The March air in Santa Fe was crisp and characteristically clear. I looked around and saw the usual tourists ambling along and taking photos of the plaza with its numerous Indian craftsmen peddling their pretty artistic wares, and of the impressive church that seemed like an anomaly among the low-lying, colorful adobe stores and restaurants. Nobody was taking photos of the door and the small room inside, and there wasn’t any reason why anybody should have. What was so special about it? It blended perfectly into its surroundings. The room hosted a shop that sold pretty dresses, bed-sheets and candles. It was right next to a well-known local restaurant and a winery. The entire set of shops and restaurants resided along a contiguous structure under one roof, with a courtyard inside with clear signs that the buildings had seen many such evenings; a sign located inside the courtyard indicated that parts of the construction dated back to the early 1600s, a time when this small town was one among many provincial seats of the vast Spanish Empire then straddling the globe.
The place was so nondescript that in 1943 and 1944, many young people missed it and walked straight past it. These were young men (there were very few women among them) from diverse backgrounds. Many had been picked right out of universities for their particular talents. They were from every part of the country, from Princeton to Berkeley, from Chicago to New York. They were men and women of different dispositions, religious sentiments or the lack thereof, married or single, with an average age of 25 years. Many of them spoke English with a heavy accent. But all of them had one thing in common; all had been asked to report to 109 East Palace Avenue in downtown Santa Fe, where I was now standing. None of them knew what would happen next. All they had been asked to do was to take a train to Lamy and report to 109 East Palace. There, they would be given further instructions by Dorothy McKibbin. She would send them to a place that no one had ever heard of.
Dorothy McKibbin herself had never wildly guessed that she would be at 109 East Palace. A plucky, courageous and determined woman, she had come to Santa Fe in the 1920s stricken with TB. At that time, the clear air and bright sunlight were deemed to be salutary for TB patients, and many affected by the terrible ailment came to the historic town with the expectation that the disease would either break them or make them. It did make Dorothy, who had already lost two sisters to TB. But fate had more in store for the Smith college graduate. She fell in love and married a former World War 1 soldier who got stricken with Hodgkin’s disease, then an incurable condition. He died, and the grief-stricken Dorothy decided to come to her beloved Santa Fe again with her baby son to spend the rest of her days. There she seamlessly blended into the town life and became close friends with most of the townsfolk. When World War 2 began, she lost her job as an accountant at an Indian trading company due to personnel shortage. She had been offered another job and was seriously considering to take it, when a friend of hers asked her whether she would be interested in working for the government as a secretary. The job would pay a little better, and it would last at least as long as the war.
Dorothy was summoned to the Hotel La Fonda, a couple of blocks from East Palace, to discuss the job with her friend. Waiting in the lobby there she was still undecided about it, when a man in a porkpie hat and the bluest eyes she had ever seen ambled over and talked to her about it for a few minutes. She was astonished when she found herself accepting the job after 10 minutes. That was probably not surprising. J. Robert Oppenheimer had that effect on everyone, whether janitor or Nobel laureate; his powers of persuasion were legendary. The job he offered Dorothy was supposed to be top-secret and she could not tell anyone about it. She would be an important person for a very important government project. It would be run out of 109 East Palace. It would be Dorothy’s job to manage personnel.
But over time, her job description expanded. She became much more than a secretary. She would be secretary, personnel and materiel manager, mother goose for depressed souls, officiator of marriages and agony aunt for couples in love, friend and confidant of some of the most brilliant minds of the century. Ultimately she would become the gentle but firm and efficient supervisor for the front office of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, a place that did not exist on the map. Dorothy McKibbin became the gatekeeper of the atomic bomb. For three years, she ran the front end of the most secret scientific project in history from 109 East Palace, from inside that small room in front of which I stood. It was her job to guide the brilliant and clueless young men and women to Los Alamos after they arrived in Santa Fe, often dazed and lost, not knowing where to go. Everyone- and everything including material- without exception who worked on the bomb passed through the doors of 109 East Palace, because it was Dorothy’s job to issue them the secret passes that would open the gates of the secret lab high up in the mountains.
It would also be her job to make sure the project remained secret in Santa Fe. To this end she would always be careful never to address anyone as “Professor” or “Doctor” or even mention the word “scientist”. With the deluge of European accents from world-famous European émigré scientists that flooded the town, it was hard to do this to say the least. But Dorothy managed it very efficiently. Her calm demeanor and absolute dedication won her the respect and endearment of Oppenheimer and his band of prima donnas, along with a dozen top military officials not known for exuding warmth. 109 East Palace and her home became focal points for social occasions where famous scientists could let off steam and spill their frustrations about living in an inaccessible, cloistered, alternately freezing and scorching place that nobody knew about. Even if she was not officially told, by the end Dorothy became aware of what was going on in the mountains through her close association with the thousands that worked there. Her home and 109 became places where scientists and their spouses could find some solace from the tortuous implications of what they were doing. Domestic spats, complaints about living conditions, strained relationships, baby epidemics, shopping troubles and gossip about other scientists’ wives were all directed towards Dorothy’s sympathetic ear.
Now, as I stood in front of the small enclosure, my mind wandered back more than half a century to what went on there. For the first few weeks Oppenheimer worked out of 109 East Palace with Dorothy. As he chain smoked and pondered the stark reality of what he was making, his dazzlingly erudite mind must have straddled enormous moral and philosophical dilemmas. Enrico Fermi would visit the project and make calls to Los Alamos from this small room; later he moved permanently to the secret lab. He would stand there, twirling a pencil in his hands while he offered advice on some obscure calculation, his eyes twinkling, sometimes staring quizzically at Dorothy as if he expected her to pipe in with a clever suggestion. Prankster Richard Feynman would have certainly stepped foot in there more than once. He would have engaged in his usual tomfoolery, all the time shouldering a tragic burden as his wife lay dying in a sanitarium in Albuquerque. The wise and great Niels Bohr who, wrestling with this unusual paradox of creating a weapon so powerful that it might abrogate war, visited Dorothy several times and endeared himself to her. The steadfast Hans Bethe, the volatile Edward Teller, the intrepid Otto Frisch who worked out nuclear fission with his aunt Lise Meitner, even the spy Klaus Fuchs, all had to pass through the gates of 109 East Palace on their way to Los Alamos. With these extraordinary souls Dorothy undertook a world-changing journey that nobody would ever forget. It would be a journey that fundamentally changed the nature of man’s animosity towards his fellow human beings.
I was suddenly jolted back to reality. I had been standing in front of 109 East Palace for almost an hour. It was dark. I became painfully aware of the cold, biting, clear air of New Mexico. High up in the mountains, the ponderosas must have been casting silhouettes, shadows that Robert Oppenheimer retreated to in moments of quiet introspection. Around me the tourists had started dwindling. The shop owner closed the room and lit up the pretty dresses in the windows with a soft, glowing light. I took some more photos and started walking back to my hotel. Beside 109, 111 beamed with restaurant visitors engaged in casual and lively banter.
At that moment, 109 East Palace looked like 111 and the other rooms’ poor cousin. But it occupies a unique and special place in history of singular value, one that should be commemorated at that spot but sadly is not; the Manhattan Project was a testament to the ingenuity and resolve that this country can summon and it’s fading from memory. 109 is a testament to a remarkable woman, a remarkable group of men and women, and a truly remarkable time that changed our world. Legendary names- Oppenheimer, Bohr, Fermi, Bethe, Rabi, Teller, Feynman to name only a few- passed through that door. All of them sincerely believed that their work would save the world, a world gone half mad in the throes of inhumanity. Their fond hope was that the weapon they were creating would be so terrifying that it would, in Bohr’s words, propel humanity into a completely new situation that could not be resolved by war. The implications of their work woefully turned out to be more complicated. But one thing was for sure. None of them would ever forget 109 East Palace.
This is a revised and updated version of a previous post on The Curious Wavefunction.
1. 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos – Jennet Conant, 2006.
2. The Making of the Atomic Bomb – Richard Rhodes, 1986.
3. The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians – Cynthia Kelley and Richard Rhodes, 2009.
Update: John Ruminer who heads the Los Alamos Historical Society was kind enough to write me a detailed note pointing out that the real entrance to Dorothy McKibbin’s office was further inside on the left. Of course that means that I must now visit Santa Fe again to check out the original correct location. Here’s the description provided by John:
“I enjoyed reading your article entitled “The Gate: Contemplating the secret portal that led to the atomic bomb”. It describes a truly unique period in our history. It is easy to understand how you were captivated by the experience of standing near a spot where so many of the giants of science had earlier walked.
Unfortunately, you were not standing in front of the war-time 109 East Palace Avenue doorway, and that was not Dorothy McKibbin’s office that you were looking at. You are not the first to be misled by the inaccurate street number now posted. During the war the doorway you were looking at was marked 109-1. The real 109 doorway and gate were located just to its left, where you now see a large entryway to the courtyard. Dorothy’s office was at the back of the courtyard, on the left side. There is a bronze plaque just outside the doorway of Dorothy’s office commemorating her 25 years of service as the gatekeeper to Los Alamos.
Also please note that Dorothy’s name is spelled McKibbin, not McKibben.
The good news is that you now have an excuse to return to Santa Fe to walk into the actual office and reclaim that sense of awe that you previously felt. Even better, take a side trip to Los Alamos. There you can walk along historic Bathtub Row and see the former homes of Oppenheimer, McMillan, Bethe, Fermi, Chadwick, Kistiakowski, and others. You can visit the guest house where General Groves stayed during his trips to Los Alamos. You can also visit Fuller Lodge, where as many as six Nobel prize winners may have dined at the same time.
We are fortunate that the 109 door jam and gate were rescued when they were removed from Palace Avenue in the 1980s. They were donated to the Los Alamos Historical Society. They are now prominently featured in our Historical Museum along with other exhibits about the Manhattan Project and earlier periods of Los Alamos history.
We are working with historical preservation groups in Santa Fe to correct the misinformation conveyed by the current Palace Avenue address. We hope to one day better tell the story of the remarkable people who passed through that portal on their way to the secret city.”