Good morning. It’s Wednesday. Today we’ll look at what the blockbuster film “Oppenheimer” mostly skipped over — the Manhattan Project’s connections to New York City.
You could watch “Oppenheimer” and wonder if the Manhattan Project had anything to do with, well, Manhattan. Even at three hours, “Oppenheimer” couldn’t put everything on the screen about the wartime scramble for nuclear weapons.
But the Manhattan Project wasn’t only about New Mexico, where J. Robert Oppenheimer presided over the birth of the atomic bomb. At its height, it is said to have employed about 5,000 people in New York.
Why the Manhattan Project?
It wasn’t called the Manhattan Project because Oppenheimer was a product of Manhattan, although he was. More about that in a moment.
It was christened the Manhattan Project by someone else with some New York connections, Colonel Leslie Groves (Matt Damon in “Oppenheimer”). But where he came from and where he had been educated had nothing to do with it. (He had been born in Albany — although he grew up on one Army post after another, as the family trailed his military-chaplain father — and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point.)
“It was Groves who decided that the first location of this project would be Manhattan — ‘We’ll park it there for the time being,’” said Robert Norris, a historian of the atomic age and the author of “The Manhattan Project” (2007).
The first headquarters were in an office building across from City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan where the Corps of Engineers already had an outpost. Other important Manhattan Project work was done by scientists who were given space in the offices of a front company in the Woolworth Building, at 233 Broadway.
One name that was suggested for the new, supersecret effort was a mouthful that Groves worried would get noticed — Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials. Groves opted for plain vanilla, calling it the Manhattan Engineer District as “a way to make it sound normal,” Norris said. “No one would be suspicious of what was going on.”
Even that was too long to be conversational, and the endeavor became known as the Manhattan Project.
The M.E.D. was a district with no boundaries. Groves soon moved its headquarters from Manhattan to Oak Ridge, Tenn. “But he ran things out of Washington,” Norris said.
Oppenheimer himself was a product of the Upper West Side: His parents lived at 250 West 94th Street when he was born in 1904. Later they moved into a new building at 155 Riverside Drive, at West 88th Street, steps from the high-columned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.
“Maybe opulent is not the right word, but they were wealthy, well-off and privileged,” Kai Bird — who with Martin J. Sherwin wrote “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” on which “Oppenheimer” was based — told me. “They had three maids, or maybe a cook and two maids in that apartment.”
It was on the next-to-the-top floor, 10 rooms with views of the Hudson River (and three bathrooms and 16 closets). On the walls were a Picasso, a Renoir and three van Goghs, along with a Rembrandt etching. Bird told me they had paid $12,000 for one of the van Goghs, not quite $205,000 in today’s dollars.
They had other status symbols. One was a Packard. Another was a chauffeur to drive it. They also had a weekend house in Bay Shore, on Long Island, and, when Robert turned 16, a 28-foot sloop. In “American Prometheus,” Bird and Sherwin described him as an impetuous seaman who “loved sailing in summer storms, racing the boat against the tides through the inlet at Fire Island and straight out into the Atlantic.”
Oppenheimer’s father, Julius, had done well in the textile business. Julius “had an eye for color and in time acquired a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable ‘fabrics men’ in the city,” according to “American Prometheus.” Oppenheimer’s mother, Ella, also had an eye: She was a painter who had spent a year in Paris as an art student and later taught at Barnard College.
Oppenheimer came from a family of first-and second-generation immigrants. His father “arrived in this country as an immigrant and was not well-off,” Bird told me. Julius came to the United States later than most of the socially and financially powerful German Jewish families that Stephen Birmingham wrote about in “Our Crowd,” he said.
“But he very quickly became successful, worked his way into that Upper West Side society — the big apartment, the chauffeur and all that,” Bird said.
The family belonged not to a synagogue but to the Ethical Cultural Society. Oppenheimer himself attended its school on Central Park West.
Some things at the building on Riverside Drive have changed since Oppenheimer lived there: The apartments were divided up after World War II, sandwiching five onto a floor where there were originally only two. One thing has not changed: The building is still a rental, unlike others in the neighborhood that went co-op decades ago.
The superintendent, Joe Gugulski, sighed as he told me that the building probably was more famous from its recurring cameos on the sitcom “Will & Grace.”
“Sadly or whatever, we had more questions about that than Oppenheimer,” he said. “In the age of sitcoms, shows like ‘Will and Grace,’ they get more publicity than the life of the scientist who basically transformed science and possibly the outcome of the world.”
Much of the early work on the Manhattan Project took place at Columbia University, where the faculty included the physicist Enrico Fermi (Danny Deferrari in “Oppenheimer”). But after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, he moved to the University of Chicago — to be safer in case of an attack from the Atlantic, according to one Columbia account.
Fermi had not been on hand in January 1939 when Columbia posted a breakthrough (he had gone to a conference in Washington). Scientists working in Pupin Hall on the Columbia campus confirmed reports they had from European counterparts. “Believe we have observed new phenomenon of far-reaching consequences,” Dr. John Dunning, one of the physicists who was involved, wrote in his diary after an experiment that had succeeded in splitting uranium atoms.
The cyclotron they used, known to non-physicists as an atom smasher, was dismantled and scrapped in early 2008 — the parts that were not given to the Smithsonian Institution, anyway. By then years had passed since it had guided any subatomic particles or split any atoms. It was covered in dust and graffiti.
It’s going to be a mostly cloudy today with temperatures in the low 80s. At night, expect temps around the low 70s.
In effect until Sept. 4 (Labor Day).
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Five years ago, my partner took me to an Armenian church in Lower Manhattan to explore his ancestry. The priest was very proud that his loyal congregation came from all over the metropolitan area, and my partner left a $100 bill in the donation plate.
From there, we walked to MacDougal Street for a delicious Italian meal and a bottle of wine. The two people seated next to us were from England and California.
My partner, in typical fashion, began to chat with them about how we had recently spent time in England and were returning from a trip to Sonoma County.
Eventually the couple left, and we lingered over our wine. When we got up to pay the bill, we learned that the couple had taken care of it: exactly $100.
— Yvonne Siegel
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Morgan Malget, Kellina Moore and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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James Barron is a Metro reporter and columnist who writes the New York Today newsletter. In 2020 and 2021, he wrote the Coronavirus Update column, part of coverage that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service. He is the author of two books and was the editor of “The New York Times Book of New York.” More about James Barron