An atomic marker hidden in plain sight

In the courtyard of a gift shop decorated with colourful ceramic frogs and dragonflies, it’s easy to overlook the historic marker.

Perhaps that’s fitting for a secret site.

In the early 1940s, the world’s top scientists and their families trudged through this patio, bedraggled from a cross-country train trip. Most didn’t know where they were headed. All they had were classified orders to report to the address “109 East Palace, Santa Fe, New Mexico”. When they opened the wrought iron gate, they entered what the National Historical Landmark plaque calls a “portal to their secret mission”, which was to build the atomic bomb.

“They came in through the courtyard,” said Marianne Kapoun, who with her husband owns The Rainbow Man gift shop, which occupies the formerly classified facility. Visitors now enter the shop through a front door; the historical entrance where scientists like Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman once passed, is blocked, and the walkway cluttered with dangling ceramic chillies and hand-painted jack-o-lantern gourds.

The newcomers, which included a contingent of British scientists, were issued security passes and loaded from the facility onto a bus or a Jeep for the last leg of their journey. Their destination lay 35 miles away, up tortuous, unpaved mountain roads, in the hidden settlement of Los Alamos. And what they eventually accomplished, the plaque says, was “one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history”.

But few modern visitors to Santa Fe, a Spanish colonial city known for its adobe buildings and art galleries, realise they’re crossing paths with Nobel laureates – and a nest of spies.

During World War Two, the small city was on the frontlines of the race to build the atomic bomb. Over a period of 27 months, the US Army built the secret Los Alamos research laboratory in the Jemez Mountains and designed an unimaginably powerful weapon that eventually destroyed two Japanese cities, effectively ending the war and ushering in the atomic age.

The East Palace address, located half a block from the historic Santa Fe Plaza, was the only public-facing site of the Manhattan Project, the code name for the bomb-building effort. The storefront, marked with an inconspicuous sign reading “US ENG-RS”, an abbreviation for “Engineers”, handled correspondence for Los Alamos and processed new residents.

“These rooms right here were the offices,” Kapoun said, waving her hand past guidebooks and historical Native American photographs on sale in the store’s back room.

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The gift shop occupies a mere corner of a 17th-Century hacienda that once belonged to a Spanish conquistador and covers most of a city block. The building is also home to the popular Shed Restaurant, where lines form daily for its green chile enchiladas.

The US military history of 109 East Palace dates to 1939, when Albert Einstein wrote a letter to US president Franklin D Roosevelt warning that the Germans were on the cusp of developing an atomic weapon. Eventually Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist at the University of California, was tasked with leading the effort to beat them to it. He chose the remote Los Alamos Ranch boarding school to build a military research site.

As the project geared up in 1943, Oppenheimer established a five-room Santa Fe office on East Palace and hired a personable young widow named Dorothy McKibbin to be his assistant. She became the public face of the project, welcoming scientists and other recruits and shooing away inquiries from curious locals. Historians now call her the “First Lady of Los Alamos”.

The US Army hoped Los Alamos’ isolation would keep its activities hidden. Officially, the lab didn’t exist. The entire project and its eventual thousands of residents shared the mailing address of PO Box 1663, Santa Fe, which was even listed on the birth certificates of babies born there during the war.

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