LOS ALAMOS – Clay Perkins is the kind of guy who can pull a photo out of his wallet that shows him astride a tilted nuclear weapons casing, holding on with one hand and waving a hat with the other, re-enacting the famous scene in “Dr. Strangelove.”
And he’s also the kind of guy who can own that nuclear weapon casing, along with a host of other Manhattan Project and Cold War memorabilia.
On Wednesday, he and his wife, Dorothy, made public a $530,000 donation to the Los Alamos Historical Society that will significantly expand that group’s exhibition space and its efforts to describe the history of the Atomic City.
Most of that money is being used to acquire a home at 1350 Bathtub Row that once housed scientists who became Nobel laureates: Edwin McMillan in chemistry and Hans Bethe in physics.
Within a few years, the Historical Society also expects to acquire the home next door, which housed J. Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the nuclear weapons lab that became Los Alamos National Laboratory, according to Heather McClenahan, executive director of the Historical Society.
She said the society hopes renovations in the new addition will be completed by March. In January 2015, the society’s main museum will close for repairs, such as updating the plumbing and climate control systems, she said. “We really hope that sometime in 2015 everything will be opening up,” she said.
The Bethe House, as the 1350 Bathtub Row residence is known, will house the Harold Agnew Cold War Museum, named after the physicist and former LANL director who died last month. (Bathtub Row got its name because the houses there, used by administrators at the Los Alamos lab, were among the few with bathtubs for lab workers.)
Perkins said Agnew was a good friend of his. When he first told Agnew of the planned donation, he said his friend responded, “OK.” Then, after a little more information, Agnew said, “That’s fine.”
But his enthusiasm burst forth upon seeing a photo of the house, Perkins said, as Agnew recalled that “I stayed there a lot!” on his trips back after leaving Los Alamos.
Maybe he stayed there as much or more than Bethe, who lived in the house less than a year, according to John Ruminer, historical properties chairman for the Historical Society.
But Bethe got the naming honor to recognize his influence, both as head of the theoretical division at the lab during World War II and in many visits back during the Cold War period, Ruminer said.
From homestead to atomic lab
The site itself has a colorful history, with the area homesteaded by two friends around 1908. Mack Hopper, who owned that particular plot of land, sold out to his friend Harold Brook. Brook lived there “until he found out raising beans on the Pajarito Mesa was a tough way to earn a living,” Ruminer said, and sold all his property in 1916 to Ashley Pond for the boys’ school that Pond (yes, the namesake of Los Alamos’ centerpiece water feature) was establishing.
A wooden plank house at the site housed the headmaster of the Los Alamos Ranch School, then “a couple of young bachelor masters” moved in – until a fire in January 1931 that burned the house to the ground, Ruminer said. Later, it was found the fire may have been fueled partly by “a 30-gallon keg of corn whiskey in one of the bedrooms,” he added.
The Ranch School was doing well, so it rebuilt the house – with stone this time – where the school’s business manager lived for 10 years, until the federal government took over the property in 1942, Ruminer said.
The house was in private hands before the Perkins couple enabled its acquisition by the Historical Society. The owner was Richard Morse, but his son, John Chalfant, took control after his father developed medical problems, McClenahan said.
“He really appreciated the historical house. His dad did, too,” she said. Chalfant spent a lot of money and time restoring the house in a historically sensitive manner, and attempted to rent it, McClenahan said. But potential renters thought it was either too small or too old, she said.
Then, last January, someone driving by saw water “pouring out of the door.”
“The 80-year-old boiler went out,” she said. Water damaged the flooring, the plaster walls from the floors to 2 feet up, and the paint – “it couldn’t have been a worse disaster,” McClenahan said. Unable to face a second restoration, Chalfant asked the Historical Society if it wanted the residence, and gave its administration six months to find a donor to fund it.
And that’s where Clay and Dorothy Perkins came in. They’re going to own the house, pay for the restoration and exhibition development, while the Historical Society rents it for $1 per month, McClenahan said. Then they’ll donate the property to the Historical Society next September, she said.
“This shows that developing the history of Los Alamos is not something you have to do alone. You can get people from the outside (to help),” Clay Perkins said during a ceremony at the house Wednesday. “Dorothy and I are delighted to do that.”
A long fascination
Perkins said he was fascinated by the Manhattan Project since he was a boy. “I was only 11 years old in 1945 so I couldn’t get in … but the Manhattan Project got into me,” he said.
When he was in high school, he wrote a theme estimating that, based on published reports, the United States had about 100 nuclear bombs in 1951-52. “I found out since that we had somewhat more than that,” he said.
Perkins went on to study physics himself, earning a master’s degree at the University of Texas, but he decided then that “nuclear physics was the old physics, and I went into space physics.” In San Diego, he spent 10 years in that field, which included projects such as missiles that could both carry nukes and lift satellites into space.
Then he “drifted into business and real estate development.” That, Perkins said, “is why I now have enough money that I can do this.”
He spends part of that money on memorabilia related to the Manhattan Project. He showed a picture of his wife standing next to a replica of Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The replica stands in their backyard in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
He showed another snapshot of two plugs, one with a red cap, one with a green cap.
The green-capped one was a safety plug that was pulled out of Little Boy after the Enola Gay reached 9,000 feet.
After those plugs were removed, the bomb was armed by inserting red-capped arming plugs in their place, Perkins said. The military men aboard the plane carried extra arming plugs, in case one or more got dropped into the bombing bay during the arming procedure, he said.
The red-capped plug he owns, he said, is one of the extras that was not used and returned with the Enola Gay.