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Historic Preservation

Thoughts on history and preservation

Kiosk at Oak Ridge Welcome Center, which promotes Manhattan Project heritage tourism

Today’s Oak Ridger has the first installment of  the responses that City Council candidates provided when D. Ray Smith asked for our thoughts on city history and historic preservation. My complete responses are here. His request was:

What I would like to have to include in a future “Historically Speaking” column are your thoughts on the following:

 1. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park

2. Preservation of the Alexander Inn

3. K-25 Memorandum of Understanding (the history center there in the Fire Hall, the replica building, the viewing tower and the footprint being preserved)

4. The importance of Heritage Tourism as one of the economic development strategies for Oak Ridge

5. Any other thoughts you might have on historic preservation

What I told Ray in response:

Oak Ridge is a place where ordinary people accomplished extraordinary things that contributed to changing the history of the world. I was reminded of the tremendous significance of the Manhattan Project a few days ago when the BBC website had a feature story about “Five of history’s most important places,” listing Los Alamos alongside places like Athens, Greece.

The story of what happened in Oak Ridge needs to be made available and accessible to future generations. I am excited about the prospect of establishing a Manhattan Project National Historic Park because I believe that the National Park Service has the expertise to help us do a more effective job of telling our story and because National Park affiliation will bring more visitors into our city. Oak Ridge won’t become a tourist mecca on a par with Gatlinburg, but we can expect solid economic benefits from bringing more customers to our hotels, restaurants, visitor attractions, and specialty shops.

It’s a shame that none of Oak Ridge’s three Manhattan Project “signature facilities” can be seen by visitors on a regular basis. The Beta 3 calutron building at Y-12 is in a high security area, the Graphite Reactor can be visited only on public bus tours in the summer, and the K-25 building is being demolished. I am still disappointed that DOE did not see clear to preserving a part of the K-25 building. I recall that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation consultants who visited some years ago said that the massive scale of that building was something that visitors in future centuries would be impressed by. Since we couldn’t keep a piece of K-25, the projects spelled out in the K-25 Memorandum of Understanding are a reasonable substitute.

I am very pleased by the news that the Alexander Inn Guest House likely will be preserved and restored. It was an important part of Manhattan Project Oak Ridge; it’s a treasured landmark in the lives of most long-time Oak Ridgers; and a restored Alexander Inn will help tie the Jackson Square area together as a historic commercial district and visitor attraction. Some residents have told me that the Alexander doesn’t have sufficient historic significance to be worth preserving. I agree that it doesn’t meet the same standard of exceptional historic significance as the three “signature facilities,” but very few historic properties anywhere can meet that high of a standard. (The Graphite Reactor is one of fewer than 2,500 national historic landmarks in the country, and the other two facilities are also deemed worthy of that exalted designation.) All in all, I think the Alexander is a significant physical piece of Oak Ridge history that is worth trying to hang onto.

Note: That response was written almost two weeks ago, before City Council voted (unanimously!) to approve a tax abatement that will help make the Alexander Inn restoration a reality.

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AMSE’s flattop evokes memories for an Oak Ridge visitor

This piece on the Roane Views website is a nice feel-good story about preserving little bits of local history: Number 68 Comes Home

The author lived in a flat-top house on West Outer Drive around 1950, and was able to visit the flat-top that’s now on display at the American Museum of Science and Energy, apparently during the Secret City Festival. The experience made this visitor proud to have lived during that era, and the visitor says: “I think it’s a great addition and wonderful way of preserving history.”

They even posted photos on Flickr

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Much good news in my e-mail inbox

Two bits of good news in a row:  (1) The Oak Ridge Revitalization Effort now owns the Alexander Inn and (2) an additional trail segment has opened on the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement in westernmost Oak Ridge. Hurray for the people whose volunteer efforts are making good things happen!

On the Alexander Inn, Kate Groover says:

It’s official. The Oak Ridge Revitalization Effort now owns the Alexander Inn/Guest House.

Plans are underway to begin cleaning up the grounds as quickly as possible. The Rogers Group is generously providing 250 tons of gravel to fill the stagnant swimming pool immediately and Robert McNabb is providing the trucks and labor.

We encourage all those interested in this property to join us in City Court on Monday, December 21 at 8:00 AM to show your support during the hearing scheduled to address current code violations.

On the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement, Tom Dunigan says:

For your holiday enjoyment, an additional 0.8 miles of trail have been opened in the NE corner of the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement. See updated trail map and Google maps at this page on Tom’s website.  The new trail includes the boundary gravel road section (0.3 miles) that descends toward Blair Road, connected back to the entrance gravel by 0.5 miles of single-track (Twisted Beech Trail). Trail work and design were guided by TWRA’s Jim Evans and Larry Creech with help from numerous volunteers.

Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement includes 3,073 acres on Black Oak Ridge and McKinney Ridge in the western part of Oak Ridge. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and DOE manage the site. It contains interesting community types and species such as hemlock-rhododendron forest, beech maple forest, cedar barrens, fringe tree, spider lily, spreading false-foxglove, white-topped sedge, Vaseys trillium, Tennessee dace and southeastern shrew. Some of these species are unusual for the Ridge and Valley region. The area currently has more than eleven miles of trails, mostly on gravel roads, which are considered moderately difficult. The trails are open daily from daylight to dusk, and are limited to hikers and bicyclists. No motorized vehicles or animals are permitted, with the exception of motorized wheelchairs and service animals.

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DC takes note of K-25

It’s not just people in Oak Ridge who hope that something can be preserved from K-25: That Was Then on Washington Monthly website

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Secret City serendipity

\ Visitors to the Oak Ridge Welcome Center, currently located at the Midtown Community Center, are catching a glimpse of early Oak Ridge history when the stop in for information brochures.

Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association volunteers have decorated a room, visible from the corridor through a large window, with wooden dormitory furniture from early Oak Ridge and other memorabilia from the World War II years.

It’s clear that folks are having fun with this. Every time I stop by, the display is a little different, as items get rearranged and more objects from people’s attics and scrapbooks get added to the room.

I hope the city’s visitors are appreciating this, too. I think it helps convey the message that Oak Ridge is a community with an interesting story to tell.

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Speak up for K-25 preservation!

Tuesday, February 19, is the day when local residents can tell DOE that we want the K-25 North Tower (a big structure, but a small part of the massive K-25 building) preserved to help tell the story of the Manhattan Project to future generations. Old postcard shows K-25 building from the air (

A meeting to get public input on the future of K-25 is being held Tuesday from 5-8 pm at the New Hope Center at Y-12 (that’s the fancy new building on Scarboro Road). The meeting, cosponsored by the Oak Ridge Site-Specific Advisory Board and the Oak Ridge Reservation Local Oversight Committee, is being conducted for the express purpose of telling DOE what the public thinks. If you can’t make it to the meeting, you can express an opinion online at K-25 Historic Building Questionnaire — fill in the questionnaire and hit “Submit”; an email message containing your responses will be generated, ready to send to DOE.

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An exciting future for K-25

There was an air of excitement at Thursday evening’s meeting of the Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association (ORHPA). Professional museum consultants who have been working with the Partnership for K-25 Preservation, the local Oak Ridge Heritage and Preservation Association, and the national Atomic Heritage Foundation unveiled their concepts for making part of the K-25 site into an historic museum and a heritage tourism attraction that tells part of the story of the Manhattan Project. There were even two different brand-new scale models of the museum concept on display.

The group has done marketing studies that give them a pretty good idea where future visitors will come from and what those visitors will want to see and do. (What a concept! I’d feel better about the Crestpointe proposal if I thought that the city was basing its decision-making on that kind of solid market information.) Oak Ridge already has great appeal for heritage tourists, and we could attract more such tourists and keep them longer if we could offer more visitable historic attractions.Old postcard shows K-25 building from the air (

The massive U-shaped K-25 building is scheduled for decontamination and demolition over the next couple of years (the schedule is uncertain due to uncertainties in the Department of Energy budget). The concept for K-25 includes keeping the north tower (the base of the U) and converting it to an indoor museum and visitor center. Although it’s a small part of the entire K-25 building, the building is huge. It would have space for several uranium enrichment cascade units, as well as other exhibits. (I can imagine parts of this great space becoming desirable as venues for after-hours business receptions, and possibly even social events). It’s not certain that the building can be preserved, but the Partnership for K-25 Preservation has high hopes…

The perimeter and height of demolished parts of the K-25 building would be marked on the ground and with a series of lighted poles. The “highwalls” formed by the basement walls on the interior of the U would become a pair of 1/2-mile-long murals. The long public space that would be formed was compared to the National Mall in Washington, DC (which is longer), and long plazas at Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The consultants even showed plans for where the visitor entrance would be (off Blair Road, where it will give visitors a great initial view and avoid interference between the museum and future industrial park tenants in other parts of the East Tennessee Technology Park) and where people will park. I can already imagine watching the visitors arrive…

The group plans to get the K-25 overlook spiffed up before the Secret City Festival in June. Heritage trails in the vicinity, covering the Wheat community, Happy Valley, the S-50 site, the African Burial Ground, and other surrounding sights also should be marked and ready to visit soon.

City support is necessary to make this happen — from both citizens and the City Council. According to spokesmen Bill Wilcox and Gordon Fee, measures needed from City government include:

  • - making heritage tourism a key strategy for future economic growth (I believe this is an important direction for the city as a whole)
  • - getting support from CROET to ensure that the overall ETTP site plan is consistent with this strategy
  • - getting Chamber of Commerce support for this future direction
  • - aggressively supporting the National Park Service study of sites associated with the Manhattan Project
  • - collaboration with the Atomic Heritage Foundation, East Tennessee Historical Society, and other regional and national heritage groups.
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