TN town built to construct atomic bomb helped inspire postwar suburbia

A story connecting Chicago to the development of the atomic bomb included this paragraph about Oak Ridge, Tennessee:


Aerial image of Oak Ridge, Tennessee (via Google Maps)

The decision had already been made that the atomic bomb would be manufactured in a rural stretch of eastern Tennessee. Designated “Site X,” it quickly became Oak Ridge, a city of 30,000 — designed and constructed under the strictest security. The architects of Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had to draft a master plan without knowing where it would be built. Oak Ridge’s curving roads, dotted with clusters of single-family homes, would become a template for the postwar suburban building boom.

The classic historical work Crabgrass Frontier includes this bit about Oak Ridge:

The mobile home park concept was pioneered in the 1920s and 1930s, but the largest experiment with manufactured or prefabricated houses came in World War II. This 1945 aerial photograph was taken of a part of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a community that not even existed in 1940. In the next few years as atomic workers poured into the area, more than 5,000 trailers supplemented 9,600 prefabricated houses and 16,000 barracks to provide temporary dwellings in this top-secret facility.

Another scholar connects Oak Ridge and Levittown:

His Levittown wasn’t so very different from the utopian plan of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, designed during the way by the prestigious architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings, Merrill, a community itself modeled in part after the TVA communities of the Depression-era utopian Roosevelt planners.

One irony is that the development of the atomic bomb helped lead to existential fear in later suburbs even as the development process helped pave the way for more suburbia.

A connected thought: this is another way that World War II helped contribute to the subsequent decades of sprawling suburbs. In addition to Oak Ridge, World War II helped lead to new loans for returning veterans, pent-up demand for housing (add the war to the Great Depression and little had been built in roughly 16 years), the flowering of the American Dream as including a suburban home (already partly in place in the 1920s), and postwar prosperity with the United States emerging as a victor.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s