Each time my team works on a building it usually involves digging down to see what has come before. As you can imagine, throughout six-plus decades, the campus has transformed itself numerous times. Buildings have been added, while others have been taken away.
Peeling back some of these older buildings is like opening a time capsule into the past. Making repairs and upgrades when working with older materials and building codes requires some finesse and ingenuity. I’ve seen all the odd places these buildings have been. It’s our job to make sure they keep going in the right direction.
That brings me to the oldest and original buildings on campus, the current kindergarten classrooms. Come November 2022 these structures will be 65 years old. These rooms have seen it all. In 1957 they welcomed our first students out of tents, have housed multiple grades, and have seen countless teachers and classes pass through them. Before the tree names (Sequoia, Hickory, and Holly) they were named Green, Blue, and Yellow. They were also meant to be temporary. One question I always have is: “Where did they come from?”
I’ve heard rumors that they are used WWII cast-offs, modulars from a failed Lake County development, or possibly some discontinued Sears Roebuck mail order catalog items. Who knows? As interesting as it may be to think they were originally built by Rosie the Riveter and used as a command station on Midway, I had my doubts. I began to think this would be a question never answered.
This past summer, I finally had a breakthrough. While my father, visiting from the east coast, was on campus he took one look, and asked “How did you guys get Oak Ridge Flat-Tops out here?”
Wait…what?! Oak Ridge? Flat-Tops?
The city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee was established by the US government in 1942 to serve as a home base for the top-secret Manhattan Project during WWII. Back then it was a remote location, over 60,000 acres. In less than three years the population of Oak Ridge went from 3,000 to almost 80,000. Very few of the resident employees even knew the overall purpose of the facility. The city had 13 grocery stores, theaters, multiple swimming pools, a library, an orchestra, and swing dancing on Saturday nights. With stable employment, free housing, and a very Mayberry-like setting, why even ask questions? It has been referred to as the Secret City because at the time it officially wasn’t even there. Then-Vice President Harry Truman didn’t even know of its existence.
The buildings in the Secret City were known as Alphabet Housing, labeled Type A through V depending on design, size, and construction materials. The Flat-Top models were known for being unique in their simplicity, form, function, and space. The building structures were designed by the legendary architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Why legendary? You may have heard of some of their work, the Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago, One World Trade Center in New York, or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world.
After the end of the war, the Alphabet homes remained popular. By the 1950s there were several manufacturers in the northwest developing entire neighborhoods using the Alphabet designs.
The kindergarten classrooms were likely brand new Flat-Top shells (no interior walls). In 1957, similar Flat-Tops sold for approximately $1,300. The classrooms arrived at the school in 8 feet by 25 feet framed sections. They were placed on concrete footers and were fit together piece by piece. Within only 50 short days, MCDS had buildings and the beginnings of a new campus.
Five of the original seven buildings —Sequoia, Hickory, Holly, Banyan, and the Lower School music room – are all still standing and used each year. In the 1980s, during Head of School Tim Johnson’s tenure, the buildings were all earthquake-proofed and in subsequent years the interior spaces have been remodeled on more than one occasion.
We may never know the true origins of those original buildings. What we do know is that the MCDS founders and the school’s first families, teachers and staff were incredibly resourceful, and what they accomplished in those early days with little money, but lots of determination, is truly remarkable.
Brooke Pitcher is the Director of Campus Operations at MCDS. This article was inspired by archival photos, records and drawings as well as MCDS: The Early Years, Historic Interviews.