Alphabet Houses
The Hanford nuclear site rose out of the sagebrush of Richland, Washington, in the 1940s. So did thousands of houses built for Hanford workers. They're called the Alphabet Houses. Richland correspondent Carol Cizauskas explains from the Alphabet House she calls home.

YOU'RE PROBABLY FAMILIAR WITH THE B REACTOR. THE ALPHABET HOUSES WERE ALSO NAMED AFTER LETTERS. I LIVE IN A B HOUSE. I'VE LIVED HERE SINCE JANUARY. I WANTED TO KNOW MORE ABOUT MY LITTLE DUPLEX AND THE HISTORY OF MY NEW TOWN, RICHLAND.

NORDGREN: "People had a sense that this was very different, very attractive, and they were proud to be part of it."

RICHARD NORDGREN IS AN HISTORIAN WHO CONDUCTS WALKING TOURS OF THE ALPHABET HOUSES TWICE A YEAR. HE'S LIVED IN RICHLAND THIRTY YEARS.

AS WE SIT AT MY DINING ROOM TABLE, HE TELLS ME ABOUT THE HOMES IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD. RATHER THAN TYPICAL DRAB GOVERNMENT HOUSING, THE ALPHABET HOUSES WERE DESIGNED IN SEPARATE STYLES, FROM FEDERALIST TO CAPE COD SALT BOX BUNGALOW.

NORDGREN: "They did not have air-conditioning in these houses or forced ventilation. The windows provided flow-through cooling in the summer."

THE SPOKANE ARCHITECT RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS ATTENTION TO DETAIL WAS G. ALBIN PEHRSON. TO CATCH THOSE SUMMER BREEZES, SOME OF THE HOUSES HE SET AT ANGLES TO THE STREETS, CREATING A SERIES OF SHORT, PERPENDICULAR BLOCKS.

HE ALSO USED QUALITY MATERIALS. NORDGREN SHOWS ME THE JOISTS IN MY BASEMENT.

NORDGREN: This wood was harvested from Oregon. The quality of this wood, you will not find on the market anymore.

BUT SOME PEOPLE THOUGHT THAT WAS EXTRAVAGANT.

NORDGREN: "Leslie Groves, who was the general in charge of Manhattan engineering district, was, to put it mildly, annoyed that the government had built the quality of homes that it had here in Richland."

GROVES WANTED SOMETHING CHEAP. HE LIKED PREFAB HOMES.

IN ALL, NEARLY SIX THOUSAND ALPHABET HOUSES WERE BUILT.

REPORTER: "Is this one here an Alphabet House?"

NORDGREN: "Yes, this is an F. It has the characteristic dormer windows..."

AS WE WALK AROUND THE NEIGHBORHOOD, NORDGREN POINTS OUT THAT IT'S A COMMUNITARIAN DESIGN. THERE WERE LARGE, COMMON BACKYARDS, WHERE NEIGHBORS COULD MEET AND SOCIALIZE.

LORRAINE RIGGS: You had loads of space, and children played back there.

LORRAINE RIGGS IS MARRIED TO LARRY RIGGS. THEY'RE MY NEIGHBORS, BOTH IN THEIR MID-NINETIES. THEY'VE LIVED IN THE SAME B HOUSE SINCE LARRY CAME OUT TO HANFORD TO WORK ON THE SAFETY OF THE EQUIPMENT AND BUILDINGS. THAT WAS IN 1944.

BACK THEN, IT WAS A HOT AND BARREN LANDSCAPE, COVERED WITH THOUSANDS OF NEW HOUSES.

LORRAINE RIGGS: "'Course, they were all brand new with nothing, not a blade of grass, not a bloom, not anything...just dirt. There wasn't a tree around anywhere."

BUT THE GOVERNMENT WAS THERE TO HELP. TO ITS WORKERS MOVING INTO THE NEW NEIGHBORHOODS, THE GOVERNMENT GAVE AWAY A LOT OF FREE THINGS. FREE TREE SAPLINGS, FREE GRASS SEED, FREE USE OF A LAWN MOWER ONCE THE GRASS GREW.

RENT WAS CHEAP, EVEN BY 1940S STANDARDS. TENANTS PAID THE GOVERNMENT LANDLORDS THIRTY-TWO-FIFTY A MONTH FOR A B HOUSE WITH TWO BEDROOMS AND A BATH. AGAIN, RICHARD NORDGREN.

NORDGREN: "They certainly had a velvet glove that they used to stroke the workers, but beneath that, there was a hard-fisted reality."

TO LIVE IN A HOUSE IN RICHLAND, YOU HAD TO WORK FOR THE GOVERNMENT OR ONE OF ITS CONTRACTORS OR PROVIDE A MUNICIPAL SERVICE LIKE GARBAGE REMOVAL.

NORDGREN: "If you lost your job for whatever reason, you also lost your house, and you had five working days to get out."

BUT THOSE WHO DID KEEP THEIR JOBS FOUND THEMSELVES LIVING IN WELL-DESIGNED HOMES.

IN 1958, THE GOVERNMENT SOLD THE HOMES. PEOPLE LIKE THE RIGGS CHOSE TO STAY ON. IT REFLECTS HOW THEY FELT ABOUT THEIR COMMUNITY AND THEIR WORKPLACE, HANFORD.

NORDGREN: "They had contributed to something that the world had never seen before, and that was nuclear weapons. And there was intense pride that the occupants felt for their contribution to ending the war."

THAT PRIDE LIVES ON. YOU CAN HEAR IT IN THE VOICES OF PEOPLE LIKE THE RIGGS AS THEY TALK ABOUT THEIR HANFORD YEARS.

LORRAINE RIGGS: " Well, it's been a very good life."

LARRY RIGGS: "Very good. I don't know how we could have improved it, really."

LORRAINE RIGGS: " Very, very good, I think."

I'M CAROL CIZAUSKAS, LIVING IN A B HOUSE, IN RICHLAND, WASHINGTON.

℗ Copyright 2006, N3 News
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