My sister Sarah recently sent me a book about our hometown of Los Alamos, New Mexico. The book is entitled “Los Alamos and the Pajarito Plateau” and was co-written by the Los Alamos Historical Society. Though I regretted the book did not contain more pictures from the 1970s and 1980s when we were growing up, I was struck by the mention on page 88 of the first home sales to residents in the 1960s.
Though I was only five when we moved to Los Alamos, I remembered my mother’s stories – the government had just begun selling houses in 1965, shortly before we arrived in February 1966. We initially rented a house but by April 1966, we had bought one half of a duplex in the Northern community area of town, 2291 A 48th Street.
I began looking for the congressional documents and legislation which I assumed would have been necessary to authorize the sale of houses which had been constructed by the government in the 1940s and 1950s. Since I knew the year the sales had begun, 1966, I began by looking for legislation between 1964 and 1966.
I found a 1966 law, Pub. L. 89-693, which transferred administrative control of lands near Los Alamos County to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). This one page law did not refer to houses or even to property within Los Alamos County. However, when I turned to the Senate report on this law, I found the reference I needed. Senate Report 89-1696 of October 7, 1966, by the Senate Committee on the Interior and Insular Affairs referenced the Atomic Energy Community Act of 1955.
According to the 1966 Senate report, this law had articulated the policy of government ownership and management of communities owned by the Atomic Energy Commission. The law was entitled “An Act To facilitate the establishment of local self-government at the communities of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Richland, Washington, and to provide for the disposal of federally owned properties of such communities.” The first section of this law, Declaration, Findings and Purpose, makes for an interesting read. The purpose of this law was threefold: 1) to establish local self government; 2) to transfer to local government municipal functions, utilities and installations; and 3) to provide for the “orderly” sale of property within the community to private purchasers. At the same time, the law provided that the U.S. government would continue to provide funds to assist in the operation of these communities. The law stated that this was due in part to the “fiscal problems peculiar to the communities by reason of their construction as national defense installations.” This law laid out the procedures for the sales of residential property to private persons. After the properties were appraised by the Federal Housing Commissioner, the Atomic Energy Commission was directed to establish a detailed system of priority rights applicable to the sale of the government properties to private purchasers.
However, Los Alamos was not included in the 1955 law. The town was still considered a security risk and indeed the “front gate” to the town was not open to the public until February 1957. Finally, in September 1962 an amendment was passed to the 1955 law “to provide for the disposal of federally owned properties at Los Alamos, New Mexico.” This law Pub. L. 87-719 provided for the sale of residential properties to private purchasers once the various residential properties had been classified. Reading between the lines, it appears as though some of the housing which had been constructed in Los Alamos provided challenges for classifying residences. Section 8 of the law which modified 42 U.S.C. 2331 suggests there were some problems in classifying units to be sold:
For the purposes of this Act, each such residential structure will thereafter be deemed to be a single family house, a duplex house, an apartment house, a dormitory, or a residential structure containing two or more separate single family units in accordance with its classification. In determining the classification of each such residential structure containing two or more single family units, the Commission shall consider (1) the practicability of selling separately the single family units, and (2) the insurability of mortgages …
This is not perhaps surprising to those who know something about the history of the Manhattan Project. At the end of World War II, the future of the town was in doubt. Los Alamos had been a military post maintained by the U.S. Army, but at the end of the war the army withdrew and the future of the town and scientific facilities were in question. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946, Pub. L. 79-585, 60 Stat. 755, created the civilian body titled the Atomic Energy Commission to oversee and control the atomic energy programs for the federal government. Although the 1946 law does not mention Los Alamos by name it does give control to the AEC of all facilities associated with the Manhattan District Engineer – which was the code name for the entire atomic bomb project, hidden in the U.S. Corps of Engineers. In terms of residences, this meant much of the wartime housing remained in place along with additional prefabricated housing brought in from closed military installations (Los Alamos, p. 69).
To this day, much of the early housing still stands in Los Alamos though the streets in Northern Community where we first lived were hard hit by the Cerro Grande fire in 2000. However, the house we purchased in 1966 still stands.