Some of you may be wondering why we chose to leave Mid Century Mecca in central Ohio to move to Tennessee of all places? The short answer is the weather, lakes, mountains, etc....but why we specifically chose Oak Ridge is another story.
Many people may not know that Oak Ridge (otherwise known as the Secret City) was the home of the Manhattan Project. It is the town in which the atomic bomb was made to end WW2. However, it wasn't a town, city or even a plot on any map during the war. It was quite literally, the secret city. In 1942 the government purchased an area of land between lakes and mountains that could easily be gated off. They bused people in to work but did not tell them where they were going or what they would be doing. The population grew from 3,000 to 75,000 in 3 years. They built dorms for the workers and cemesto houses for the scientists (A, B, C, or D - A being the smallest), dirt roads, a grocery store, and all the amenities a "town" would need. There were guard gates at every entrance and unless you had a badge, you did not come or go. At first the town was known only as "site x", later changed to "Clinton engineer works" and after the war it was officially renamed to Oak Ridge and opened to the public.
Only the lead scientists knew why they were here. Propaganda signs were strewn all over town "programming" people not to talk about their work. We have personally heard stories from people who were here during that time stating they knew of individuals that "talked" and were immediately escorted out and sent to other parts of the country (depending upon how much knowledge they had about the project). In fact there was a front called "Acme Insurance Company". People would drop letters into cloaked drop-off points around town to report "talking". Within 24 hours of the letter reaching Acme - you, your family and all of your belongings would be removed. It was a big deal, and even to this day people don't really talk about what they do. The Y12 plant and national laboratory are still very much in operation and still today, large parts of Oak Ridge are owned by the government and are off-limits. No guns are allowed in this city.
The cemesto houses were prefab homes built of cement and asbestos. Workers turned 30-40 houses over to occupants each day. Because of the speed and severity of influx to accomplish this great task, rather than performing time consuming grading - the houses were adjusted to fit the contours of the land. The kitchens faced the street to minimize the length of plumbing and utility lines needed. Today, many of those original houses remain. They have been modified over the years by different owners so they don't look exactly the same as the next one, but the original cemestos are what make up this little town.
In 1955 the government opened up some land for private purchase in which individuals could build custom homes, most of which were Mid Century design. Which is exactly what the owner/builder of our current home did. Our house was inspired by the design of Frank Lloyd Wright and sits on an acre of land where a row of "B" houses once stood. The original owner was one of the lead scientists on the Manhattan Project and was one of the few that knew why he was here, but until the bomb was dropped - not even his wife knew of his work. We acquired the property after his wife passed at the age of 94.
One of the best things about Oak Ridge is that it is a giant park. It feels like a small, park like community rather than a neighborhood - because that's what it is. There are 13 nationally protected green-ways with 85 miles of trails that run along the ridges of Oak Ridge. They are accessed by random trail heads around town, quite literally between the houses. There are 20 different city parks, as well as Haw Ridge Park which by itself is a 780 acre park with 30 miles of trails. There is Melton Lake with rowing competitions on the east side, Cumberland mountains to the north, Smokey mountains to the south. There are 9 lakes and 11 rivers in this area, so water is around every turn. Norris Lake is a 20 minute drive. Knoxville, the Tennessee river and Fort Loudon lake is 15 minutes away. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Dollywood are 45 minutes away. The location and feel of this little town is incredible!
We love the history, the reminders of time past such as the guard gates which still sit at the entrances. There is a wonderful atomic museum which fully details the history of this town as well as the atomic bomb, nuclear fission, the war, etc....Oak Ridge is also home to one of the largest public swimming pools in the nation. It is spring fed water, has an off shore island and large grass beach area. There is Jackson square which was originally built as the towns "community center" with a theater, restaurants, shops, etc....Big Ed's pizza is an icon in Jackson Square that every local raves about and very little has changed in the last 50 years. There is a farmers market every Saturday. The original Alexander hotel is now a retirement home, and the old bus station, grocery stores and shops have turned into other things.....but the bones are still there. The history is still there. You can't go anywhere in Oak Ridge without being reminded that this was and is "The Secret City".
** Photo credit to the late Ed Wescott - the Manhattan Project Photographer