Germantown Natural History

Germantown Site History

U.S. Department of Energy
Germantown Site History

Why Germantown?

 At the end of the Second World War, Congress established the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to foster and control the peacetime development of atomic science and technology. Reflecting America's postwar optimism, Congress declared that atomic energy should be employed not only in the Nation's defense, but also to promote world peace. After months of debate among politicians, military planners and atomic scientists, President Harry S. Truman confirmed the civilian control of atomic energy by signing the Atomic Energy Act on August 1, 1946.

On January 1, 1947, the fledging Atomic Energy Commission took over the atomic energy program from the Manhattan Engineer District. President Truman appointed David E. Lilienthal, former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority as the first chairman of the agency. The first permanent headquarters for the Commission stood at Nineteenth and Constitution Avenue, NW. The building, originally constructed in the 1930's for the Public Health Service, now houses the Department of Interior (South).

The new Commission faced a challenging future. World War II was followed by the Cold War. In September 1949 the U.S. Air Force detected a large radioactive mass over the Pacific, indicating that the Soviet Union had successfully detonated a nuclear device. When news of the detonation reached Washington, there was a general sense of concern. America was no longer safe from nuclear attack, and major strategic installations were at risk.

The AEC Division of Biology and Medicine prepared a report entitled The City of Washington and an Atomic Bomb Attack. It revealed that, "in the event of an attack upon the Atomic Energy Commission building the building would be completely destroyed and following the attack those who emerged from the shelter would be quite helpless to carry on the far-flung operations of the atomic energy program." On November 4, 1949, AEC Chairman Lilienthal submitted the report to John Steelman, Acting Chairman of the National Security Resources Board, noting: "The recent atomic explosion in Russia brings closer the time when decisions must be made on major issues of civilian defense, including the matter of dispersal out from congested urban areas of facilities such as those of Government in Washington."

A bill to relocate the Atomic Energy Commission headquarters outside of Washington received Congressional approval on April 25, 1955. The Commission was then faced with the task of finding an appropriate site. It was decided that the building should be located approximately 20 miles from the Washington Monument and west of a north-south line running through the Monument grounds in order to comply with "reasonable dispersal criteria." This distance took into account the largest weapon conceivable at the time, 20 megatons (the bomb dropped over Hiroshima had a yield of much less than one megaton). The proximity to Washington would enable the Commission to maintain frequent and personal contact with Congress and other government agencies. Criteria for the new headquarters site included good access roads and developed communities to relocate the staff.

In July 1955, after considering over 50 locations, the Commission selected a 109-acre farm at the junction of Route 118 and the Washington National Pike (Route 240) near the town of Germantown, Maryland. The government purchased the property from Mr. William O. Dosh of Gaithersburg for $64,000. AEC employees were cautioned by John Derry, Director of the AEC Division of Construction and Supply, in a memorandum dated August 9, 1955, "In the event you personally visit the site in the near future, you should be careful not to trespass on private property."

Voorhees, Walker, Smith and Smith, a New York architectural firm, designed the building, and the construction contract was awarded to John McShain, Inc., of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Construction of the facility began May 29, 1956 and was completed in eighteen months.

The headquarters was designed to be functional with many protections built into the building to safeguard against a nuclear blast. The structure was lined with reinforced concrete faced with brick, with the building facing in a north-south direction to help absorb the blast. It had all the conveniences of a modern office complex including air conditioning. In all, the facility, about one-tenth the size of the Pentagon, had a floor space of 516,000 square feet and was designed to hold 1,600 employees. It also included a modern cafeteria and auditorium. Congress had appropriated $10 million for the project. However, the final cost reached in excess of $13.3 million due in part to labor disputes and minor changes to the design.

The dedication of the new headquarters building took place on a cold, rainy afternoon in November 1957 before an audience of some 3,000 persons. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, accompanied by AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss, arrived by helicopter to help dedicate the facility. Besides the five Commissioners, the guests at the ceremony included Members of Congress; Federal, state and local officials; and members of the diplomatic corps.

The President, with the assistance of AEC Chairman Strauss and the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE), Carl T. Durham, laid the cornerstone behind which was placed a sealed metal box containing mementos of milestones of the atomic age including linens from the Dead Sea Scrolls dated 35 A.D. by radiocarbon technology. Strauss noted in his remarks that radiocarbon dating had originated with AEC Commissioner Willard Libby.

In his dedication speech Eisenhower echoed his "Atoms for Peace" address, urging the need for atomic research for scientific and energy purposes. As part of the ceremony, President Eisenhower pressed a button, actuating a mechanism powered with batteries charged by eight of America's nuclear reactors, which unveiled a dedication plaque for the lobby of the building.

About 1,500 AEC employees moved into the building in early January 1958. The previous July, Congress authorized construction of an addition to the headquarters building. A new wing extending southward was completed October 1, 1958. In the meantime, a contract was awarded in early September for an extension to the cafeteria. Less than a year after its completion, the new building was expanding.

Over the years, Germantown has hosted many distinguished guests. Shortly after his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy met with the Commission. Accompanied by Chairman Glenn T. Seaborg, the President left the White House by helicopter at 9:15 a.m. on February 16, 1961, arriving at Germantown at 9:30 a.m. After providing the President with an overview of AEC programs, the Chairman presented several policy questions. "The President seemed to be very interested and asked many questions throughout," Seaborg later wrote in his Journal. Seaborg also noted that the discussion included a general appraisal of Russian and United States nuclear weapon capability, and that, "the President asked a number of questions."

Dr. Seaborg served as AEC Chairman for ten years, longer than any other Commissioner in the 28-year history of the agency. He resigned in August 1971 to return to educational and nuclear energy research pursuits. When at the Germantown site, Chairman Seaborg often walked along the path which winds through the wooded area and is known today as the "Seaborg Trail".

Dr. James R. Schlesinger followed Seaborg as Chairman, serving until January 1973, when he left to become head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Schlesinger later became the first Secretary of Energy in 1977.

In February 1973 Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, a marine biologist from the state of Washington, succeeded James R. Schlesinger as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Dr. Ray, the first woman to head the AEC, took over at a time when the nation was faced with reconciling energy needs with environmental concerns and economic goals. In June 1973 President Nixon asked Dr. Ray to undertake a review of America's energy program, and six months later, she submitted a report entitled The Nation's Energy Future. The President's energy proposals to Congress the following January reflected the recommendations submitted by Chairman Ray. The Ray report also supported the President's recommendation to establish an Energy Research and Development Administration.

The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 abolished the Atomic Energy Commission. The Act called for the creation of the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) which assumed the Commission's research and development responsibilities, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), assumed licensing and regulatory functions. As a legacy to ERDA, the Atomic Energy Commission passed on its unique facilities, including the Germantown site. Three years later ERDA, like the AEC before it, became part of an even larger organization when Congress passed the Department of Energy Organization Act and the Department opened for business on October 1, 1977.

Although the Cold War has passed, the Germantown site, twenty-three miles from "ground zero," serves as a reminder of a bygone era. Today the U.S. Department of Energy Headquarters occupies the Germantown site, as well as the Forrestal Building in Washington, DC.

Last modified: 3/18/2013 10:15:18 AM