The Manhattan Project’s Lingering Manhattan Legacy
The advent of the Oppenheimer era has once again brought the legacy of the Manhattan Project to the surface of our thoughts. Those who saw the movie–or any of the other plentiful media surrounding the endeavor–were likely enamored by the illicitness of the whole thing: the secret towns constructed from scratch, the moral ambiguity of the ordeal. In actuality, though the Cillian Murphy memes and “Barbenheimer” craze may have seemingly reignited the love affair with the proven conspiracy, the Manhattan Project’s ghost has perpetually lingered, especially for those of us living in New York.
Many people believe that the sheer magnitude of the project necessitated wide open spaces for sprawling research complexes and buffer zones for test detonations. It seems as though the Manhattan Project was tucked into the corners of society, away from the critical and curious public eye. However, perhaps surprisingly, the Manhattan Project is aptly named. Not only was the Project’s first headquarters located on 86 Chambers St., but eight locations scattered across the island both contributed to and managed the project in plain sight.
The Manhattan Project’s first name was Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials, but contributors believed this name was somehow still too indicative of their goals. After their headquarters’ location, they dubbed it the Manhattan Engineering Division, which eventually became known as the Manhattan Project. Even after headquarters moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the project name remained.
As did some of its sites. Though the refining of uranium and plutonium used for the atom bombs took place in secret towns around the country, many of those processes were determined and standardized in New York. In Columbia University’s Pupin Hall, Dr. John Dunning and Dr. George Pegram built a cyclotron, a particle accelerator used to research how the bomb may react. (Columbia claims parts of it are still locked up in Pupin Hall’s basement, after it was dismantled in 1965.) Unknowingly, the football team played a crucial role in these experiments, transporting hundreds of pounds of uranium into the basement without ever being told what they were moving. Not so much as a plaque on the building designates it as a Manhattan Project site.
A few blocks north, in the Nash Garage Building, Columbia scientists produced the barrier material for Oak Ridge’s reactors, an essential component to the refinement process and therefore to the fueling of the atom bomb. Columbia still owns this building; again, no trace of the Manhattan Project remains.
But the epitome of hiding in plain sight remains with the Woolworth Building. The world’s tallest at one point, the building stands not even a block from City Hall. Four floors held the Kellex Corporation, a front company started by W. M. Kellogg (yes, the cereal guy) to hide those keeping payroll and designing sites for the Manhattan Project. Physicists including the infamous Klaus Fuchs also worked there, planning procedures and keeping track of the refineries’ progress. Oak Ridge’s main refinery, K-25, was named for the Kellex Corporation, as it was designed in the Woolworth Building.
The Manhattan Project was not only responsible for the creation of the atom bomb, but for the dawn of atomic culture, nuclear mythos, and a fervor for the unseen. We are drawn to things we will never know in full, admittedly satisfied by sifting through scraps to learn what we can, piece the story together little by little. In Manhattan, this unseen is in plain sight, if you know which shadows to interrogate further.
Art by Rory Coughlin