Housing & Town Life

Oak Ridge was the first Manhattan Project site and became the largest of the Project communities with a population at its peak of over 75,000. The original community was designed by the architectural-engineering firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill to accommodate about 12,000 people. This suburban community design adapted the gently winding streets to the contours of the ridge, preserved trees and natural areas, provided attractive home sites, and required minimal cut and fill. Single family homes were grouped into the three neighborhoods of Pine Valley, Cedar Hill, and Elm Grove, each of which featured an elementary school and essential shopping within walking distance including a drug store, dry cleaners, shoe repair, grocery store, beauty parlor and barber shop. Homes were sited with living areas oriented toward green belts, views, and individual gardens. Five home designs designated “A” through “F” according to size (thus how the houses became known as Alphabet houses), included central heat, porches, and fireplaces. Homes were assigned according to family size or, in some instances, job importance.

Construction workers lived in 16,000 rudimentary wooden hutment and barrack spaces, 13,000 dorm rooms, and 5,000 trailers which had little room and no frills. Three thousand cemesto houses, which took two hours each to build, were completed at the rate of one every thirty minutes. Children would return home to find an entire subdivision had been built while they were at school. To save time and labor in providing housing for the thousands of newcomers, prefabricated houses, complete with cabinets, plumbing, curtains, and even some furniture, were brought in by trucks, half-a-house at a time.

House rent included heat, water, and electricity. A typical “B” house, with two bedrooms and one bath, rented for $35 a month. Coal was used for heating. Renters were not allowed to improve housing in any way – painting, planting, remodeling – without special permission. It was not until 1955 that citizens were allowed to own the property they had lived on.

Streets were laid out systematically. Main arteries were named after states, by alphabet, starting at the east end of town and working west. All side streets branching off a main artery bore the first letter of the state’s name. For example, all streets branching off New York Avenue began with the letter “N.”

The local hotel, the Guest House, served as a rest stop for many of the world’s leading scientists, industrial executives, and politicians after its opening in August 1943.

While food was scarce due to government allotments, fresh garden produce provided a welcome treat for the townspeople who could seldom find enough of the essentials, such as milk and flour. Facilities for dry cleaning and laundry were no more modern than the rest of the city, and long waits for service were not uncommon.

Grocery shopping was frustrating, as one store would attempt to serve 10,000 residents with only basic stock and undependable food shipments, since many suppliers often refused to ship orders to a city that was not on a map. Standing in long lines became second nature to Oak Ridgers, whether they were shopping or cashing pay checks.

Churches, schools, cafeterias, grocery stores, and drugstores were built and enlarged.