This presentation is part of Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: WWII to the Cold War, Fredericksburg, Texas, June 4-6, 2019.

By Julie McGilvray and Robert Melnick


Understanding, documenting and preserving cultural landscapes of the Manhattan Project’s early atomic era provides an important opportunity to comprehend both the obvious and often obscure workings of the national, and very secretive, effort to develop the atomic bomb during World War II.  These sites, and the machinations that led to their development, are only now on the verge of coming open to public access.  They are a window into a critical time in our nation’s history, when the outcome of the war was far from certain, and the military and civilians cooperated, but were often at odds with each other.

The Pajarito Site (Site), also known as TA-18, is part of a larger set of testing areas located within the remote mesas and canyons of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), New Mexico.  The Site was developed during World War II for plutonium chemistry research and following the end of the war, it was the primary location for critical assembly work.  In 2015, the Site and two other atomic weapon development locations at LANL, became part the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.  The park is jointly managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Department of Energy (DOE).  Following park designation, the NPS worked closely with DOE staff to determine preservation priorities and necessary steps forward for site development and public access.  While preservation of extant historic buildings at the Site (Slotin Building and Pond Cabin) were deemed critical, the NPS encouraged the DOE to pursue a cultural landscape study to better understand and protect the evolution of the Pajarito site including the larger landscape setting and features.  In 2018 the NPS partnered with the University of Oregon Cultural Landscape Research Group to complete this study.

This project, and this paper, address key questions:  How were landscape and laboratory functions critically intertwined at the Pajarito Site?  How did natural systems aid in establishing boundaries, research and testing locations, and how did those natural systems aid in the protection and defense of the area? Further, the paper explores how the NPS Cultural Landscape methodology and methods have revealed valuable cultural layers at the Site that may seem invisible at first glance.  These resources include key building placement of the Cold War Era, circulation and connection patterns to the larger LANL structure, critical views and vantage points, and the use and importance of archaeological sites (cavates) as the Pajarito Site was constructed and engaged. Finally, the paper raises key issues about documentation of secretive, and very dynamic, nationally significant cultural landscapes, and the message they bring to the public about behind the scenes events and wartime policy.


Julie McGilvray is the Cultural Resources Program Manager at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas.  Ms. McGilvray holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and a Master of Science in Historic Preservation from the University of Texas at Austin.  She holds a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of New Mexico (UNM) and teaches graduate level courses in cultural landscape preservation and conservation within UNM’s School of Architecture and Planning.  Ms. McGilvray’s research interests include the preservation of regional modernism in the Southwest and creating new frameworks to improve integration of cultural and natural resource management and planning.

Robert Z. Melnick, FASLA, is professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, and Senior Cultural Resource Specialist with MIG, Inc.  He has been working in cultural landscape studies – research, planning, and stewardship – since the 1980s. His most recent award-winning work, as PI for the UO Cultural Landscape Research Group, addressed the impact of climate change on cultural landscapes.  Melnick is co-editor of the award winning book, Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America, (2000).  In 2008, he was awarded the James Marston Fitch Award by the National Council for Preservation Education for lifetime achievement in historic preservation education.

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