Thursday, December 15, 2011

Alphabet Houses

Selection of a principal location for the war-time Manhattan Project involved multiple criteria. The selected location had to have sufficient electrical power, it should be far enough inland to protect it from enemy attack, and it should be in a sparsely-populated region, both to avoid displacing large numbers of residents and to aid in maintaining secrecy. An area just northwest of Knoxville, Tennessee, met those criteria. It's now known as Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Secret City.

Next came the building of the factories that would produce the materials for the world's first atomic weapon, and the creation of a town to house the workforce required. For security reasons, the town needed to be entirely self-contained, providing not only housing but all goods and services needed by the population. And since a large part of the population would be young, highly-educated engineers and scientists, and most would come from urban backgrounds, the housing needed to be comfortable, and recreational and intellectual opportunities had to be provided. And, oh, by the way, we need it yesterday. That seemingly-impossible job was given to the firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.

The firm came up with a series of five basic house plans that could quickly be assembled on site. Designated types A, B, C, D, and F, the houses quickly became known as "alphabet houses." They were wood-frame construction sheathed in cement-asbestos, or cemesto, panels, each with a coal-fired furnace and a wood-burning fireplace. In all, some 3,000 cemesto houses were built, with one being completed every 30 minutes. The houses were expected to be needed up to seven years and no thought was given to making them last longer than that. But starting in 1955 the government began selling the houses to residents and speculators, and they continue to be occupied after what is now 68 years after they were built.

Type A house

All of the cemesto alphabet houses have been modified over the years, although the A-house above has had minimal changes made. It still shows the cemesto panels. A-houses are the smallest, only 768 sq. ft. (71 square meters), with two small bedrooms. The B-houses are similar, with 960 sq. ft. allowing for slightly larger bedrooms. The type, and thus the size, of a house was assigned according to family size, although the employee's position in the project also could lead to larger housing if the person were important enough.

Type C house

Most houses have been remodeled to the point where it's sometimes difficult to tell they started out as a cemesto, although the neighborhood is usually a sufficient tipoff. This C-house (1184 sq. ft.) has three bedrooms.

Type D house

This D-house (1584 sq. ft.) now looks to be a typical brick rancher. It also has 3 bedrooms, but somewhat larger ones than in a C-house. Most D-houses are D1s, that is, they have only one bathroom. Our son and his wife have a D2, which has a second bathroom off the master bedroom.

Their D2 is also the reverse floor plan of the brick D-house shown above, and has an added carport.

 
Type F house

The F-house is 1620 sq. ft., also with three bedrooms. Supposedly one had to be important to get an F-house, and there aren't nearly as many of them as there are D-houses.

So, what happened to the letter "E," you might ask. That letter was reserved for 4-unit apartment buildings that were located at the edges of residential neighborhoods. The one below is now operated by the hospital as a hospitality house.
Type E apartments

Construction workers were assigned to  one of 16,000 hutments (one-room boxes with 4 or more beds in them) or barracks; 13,000 dormitory rooms; or one of 5,000 trailers. I had two aunts who lived in trailers with their construction-worker husbands during construction of the Y-12 plant. One said her memories of Oak Ridge were of "being in mud up to your chin with dust blowing in your face."

29 comments:

  1. Enjoyed this post; I have a friend living there in Oak Ridge!

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  2. There is a village near Milwaukee called Greendale. It was one of the three designed in part by Eleanor Roosevelt. The small "original" homes are now quite valuable. The lots are small, but there is greenspace behind each house and walkways through the village. Very interesting to learn about Oak Ridge.

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  3. Fascinating, Jim! Thanks so much!!
    Elora

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  4. As the owner of an "F" house I am pretty sure that the picture you show of an "F" above is in fact not an "F," but a modified "B." An actual "F" would have two windows to the left of the main entrance -- one for the bathroom and one for the second bedroom.

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    1. I would sooner believe modified C. As you know, many of these houses have been modified to the point where it's hard to tell what they began as. The outside dimensions should tell the tale; 500 sq. ft. difference will show. As I recall, this house is at the corner of Vermont Avenue and Venus Road. Check it out next time you're in the neighborhood. I'll take a closer look next time I'm in Oak Ridge, as well. Thanks for calling this to my attention. Jim

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    2. The photo has been updated. The new photo definitely is an F-type. A friend formerly owned it.

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  5. I live in a "G" When I first bought it, I thought that was a typo but no there are a few of them, 8-10 I believe. They are at the beginning of East Village. Smaller than an "A" and no fireplace.

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    1. I checked with Oak Ridge historian D. Ray Smith and he confirmed the existence of G and H houses. What I've seen confirms what you said, that there were few of them. And it seems they were built some time after the A-F series, possibly in the 1950s. I have not yet been able to determine if they were cemestos or of some other construction, and I haven't actual seen one that I'm aware of. We lived in a west village house back in the late 60s-early 70s, and they, like the east village houses, were not cemestos. I plan on visiting the Wildcat Den soon and seeing what I can find there.

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    2. An update from Ray Smith included the floor plan and specifications for a G house. They are cemesto and have 672 sq. ft., 96 sq. ft. smaller than an A house.

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    3. Yes they are cemestos. To put a nail in an inside wall you have to drill a pilot hole, they may be cemesto too, not sure on that though. Sorry I only just now saw your reply, I would have happily invited you to visit! I thought though that is was around 800sf. Mine has siding and new windows and a little bit of renovation to the kitchen but otherwise is original. I love the wood floors, had the carpet torn out and the floors refinished about 8 years ago. Let me know if you visit again and you can stop by if you like.

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    4. We just called those an "East Village Home" or if they were in The Robertsville road area (west of Louisiana avenue)A "West village Home". They were built after in the late 40's or early 50's. They all went on sale to the residents of Oak Ridge in 1957 (according to my long time neighbor Eva Melton). That is when She and her late husband John bought the home at 404 Michigan.

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  6. I would have been surprised that a F house was on Vermont. Most were on the ridges & many have beautiful views. If you do come to OR go to the Museum of Science & Energy. There is a book in the gift shop that has most of the floor plans.

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  7. Does anyone know of a link for the original floor plans for these type of houses? A friend just bought one and we believe it started as a B but are unsure.

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    1. The Oak Ridge Historical Preservation Association has copies of all the floor plans.

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    2. a book of floor plans is available from the museum of science and energy for $10 :) -Josh

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  8. I rent a type A house in oak ridge but my floor plan is backwards to the floor plan picture in this post. The house now has siding but inside the house has all the original hard wood floors, original cabinets in the kitchen, and the details in the rooms match pictures I've seen from the 40s. When i moved in i was told that the house was built in 1942 but i thought that these houses were built a year later. Does anyone know specifically when these houses were begun? The house is on kentucky ave right up the road from Jackson square.

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    1. General Groves did not approve Oak Ridge as a site until September 1942. Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill wasn't tasked with designing the town until February 1943 (Stephane Groueff, Manhattan Project). So I think it's safe to say your house could not have been built before 1943.

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  9. I live in the Type E Apartments. I have been fascinated with Oak Ridge's history since I moved here recently. This was an interesting article!

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  10. Do you, by any chance, know what the streets are in the black and white aerial shots at the top of the page?

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  11. Do you, by any chance, know what the streets are in the black and white aerial shots at the top of the page?

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  12. That "A" house is mine! At 403 Michigan ave. It is acttully a Backwards "A". The "C" house is my neighbor, up hill'formerly owned by Colonel Murphy and the first "D" house is my neighbor down hill, formerly owned by David and Ann Miller. The second "D" house is at 102 Malta road near the corner of Michigan and Malta.

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  13. I loved finding this blog and all the comments. I grew up in a Cemesto in northern Illinois which I moved back into when my parents passed away. It is a Model 300 (basically a 3 br version of a B house) built in 1947-48 by my father and grandfather. Probably the only Cemesto existing in Illinois. The outside walls were COLD in Illinois winters. Even had all Cemesto interior partitions. We expanded it twice, insulating and encapsulating the asbestos, but from the street view it is still obviously a Cemesto to those who know. The front door is still original. My grandfather "disappeared" from 1943-46, only sending my grandmother daily censored letters. When he returned home he explained he had been building Oak Ridge as a superintendent for Celotex. After the war he took his crew around the country building Cemesto model homes for returning war vets, but they never caught on. One Model 300 was built on Columbus Circle in NYC and another on the Stevens Hotel parking lot in Chicago. Models were built in places like Kansas City and Bismarck, ND.

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    1. Interesting comment, Earl. I have seen flat-top houses around the area, but never a cemesto house unless it had been moved from Oak Ridge. It's interesting to know about them being built elsewhere around the country. I'm not surprised that they never caught on, though.

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    2. Thanks for the reply. I visited Oak Ridge in high school because I was so intrigued by my grandfather's stories. Is there a way to send or post photos for your blog? I have a photo of the Columbus Circle model home and of my home when it was under construction if you are interested.

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  14. My family and I lived in that D house at 102 E Malta! I was so surprised to see it pictured! We lived there 7 years while Joe worked with the city. Great home and wonderful memories.

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  15. My daughter lives in Oak Ridge in a cemesto home, on Judd. Her husband grew up in that house. Anyway, the windows on the houses don't reflect what the windows look like in her neighborhood. The windows in the houses are about 2 feet tall and higher up on the walls. They are a little wider than they are tall, and, for example, there are 4 of them in a row along one wall of the living room. Her husband pointed out that some people have replaced the windows to reflect the ones shown in your pictures, but there are many houses in her neighborhood with the originals.

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    1. It's hard to tell from the Google street view shots of the houses on Judd Lane, and I haven't yet gone there to see for myself, but the houses look like they're "Flattops," and not the "alphabet" cemesto houses found further east in Oak Ridge. I have a blog on the Flattop houses January 25, 2012.

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