The Manhattan Project

Curtiss Brennan's Interview

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Curtiss Brennan's Interview

Curtiss Brennan lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He and his wife Mary moved next door to Dorothy McKibbin, "the Gatekeeper to Los Alamos," in the late 1970s. In this interview, Curtiss describes how he met and became friends with Dorothy. He explains how Dorothy designed the house to her unique specifications. He also discusses the restoration project he and his wife undertook when they bought the house after Dorothy's death.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
October 17, 2017
Location of the Interview: 
Santa Fe
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. It is Tuesday, October 17, 2017 and I am in Santa Fe. I have with me Curtiss Thomas Brennan. My first question is to please, say your name and spell it.

Curtiss Brennan: Okay. My name is Curtiss Thomas Brennan and it’s Curtiss, C-U-R-T-I-S-S and Brennan, B-R-E-N-N-A-N.

Kelly:  Perfect. Now we’re sitting in Dorothy McKibbin’s former house. I hope you can enlighten us to something about why she built this house and why she built it the way she did.

Brennan: Well, my association with Dorothy started the day we moved in next door. I was sitting in the front door directing movers to which box went where and this older lady came walking up with her little Scottie on a leash and presented me with her card.

Kelly:  What year was this?

Brennan: What was it? 1978, ’79. Something like that. So we became friends. She kind of needed someone to kind of help her out over here because she was all by herself. In return, she kind of introduced us to the neighborhood and instantly a lot of older [Manhattan] Project people, which was extremely interesting. 

Kelly:  So what was she like?

Brennan: She was quite elderly at that point and she didn’t seem too well, which meant that she’d call me over when anything happened, if she knocked the television over or something like that. It’s by her bed. I saw a lot of the house at that point, which was a little bit disturbing sometimes, because in the winter time the first thing you noticed when you opened the kitchen door was the smell of gas. 

You could see the place was not being kept up and she couldn’t tell because she didn’t see that well. We kind of kept an eye on her. She had a lot of friends at that point still and so that’s the way it went on until she finally passed away, gosh I’d have to guess 10 years later or something.

At that point, Kevin [McKibbin], who was their only son and was towards the end of his career as a park ranger in the [National] Park Service, was the head ranger up in Bandelier up near Los Alamos, had to decide what to do with the house.

The problem was his wife for some reason didn’t care for the old Santa Fe style and all this sort of thing. One reason they lived up in Los Alamos where everything looks like it’s  transplanted from Minneapolis or something, which was fine with her. She had all these wonderful ideas of what she was going to do with the house which horrified Kevin. So he decided, “Well gosh, have to sell the house.”

There were a list of people. Friends and so forth that were interested. They all came. My wife Mary was talking to Kevin over the fence one day and said, “Well, put us down.” 

“Okay, but there’s six, or seven, or eight people ahead of you.”

Then I came down with an adult case of chicken pox, which is no fun at all. I was flat on my back and Mary comes in one day, “We got the house!” I immediately almost had a relapse because I knew what the situation was over here. [Laughter]

So we got the house. Well, the first idea was to get it plaqued historically both because it needed it, deserved it, and also because it helps us to avoid bringing everything up to code which would have meant destroying the house, literally. So that took about four months.

Thing about the house was, Dorothy fell in love with northern New Mexico and the Spanish heritage and so forth and had designed the house with the help of her architect friend to replicate an old Spanish – we call it Spanish here. Southwestern Spanish heritage ranch house. Farm house. Which is different from the usual stuff which is modeled after formal colonial Spanish architecture, like for churches and civic buildings. This was rural.

Instead of squared off beams with colored notches in them and so forth, there’s round peeled logs. We call them vigas. Instead of fancy corbels supporting them, they have these little hand-hewn things. So things like that.

She had been touring the mountain country around here taking photographs of buildings and architectural features. Incidentally, when houses were either falling down or they’re being remodeled and they’re throwing stuff out, she’d toss it in the back of her truck. Old doors, vigas, woodwork, that sort of thing, and then saved it to incorporate in her house when it was built. Some of these doors go back all the way from the 19th century to before the Pueblo Revolt, which would be late 1600s.

The woodwork from the front and back porches or portals is from the mid-19th century. We had a couple of people who knew this stuff come and have to give us their readout on the whole thing when we first got the place. It was a very thoughtful design but she went a little—in one sense she was good because she did not do the traditional thing.

The traditional foundation on these old houses was you dig a little ditch and then you get big river cobbles from some place and you drop them in the bottom of the ditch and you pour adobe over it and you have your foundation. This is not a recipe for longevity [Laughter]. But Dorothy did it. I mean, the whole place under the crawl space and if you look underneath there, there’s these enormous concrete foundations that would support a parking garage or something, it looks like.

Things like that she did. But the other part, the adobe went up traditional style. Traditional unfired sundried adobes, not the fired ones they use nowadays. She then plastered them with mud like they did in the old days, which means rain comes in, the mud washes off. You need to remud them every four years. The whole house was like that and the earliest pictures of it shows that. This didn’t last very long.

The men went away for the war and at that point they probably stuccoed it with some concrete stucco except under the portals which remain mudded. The one in the front is with mud from one area; red mud. The one in the back is yellow mud from another area. Inside the house, instead of paint they used traditional whitewash. They call it calcimine around here. Which if you brush against it leaves nice white powder on your clothes.

Again, is a maintenance problem. Besides the fact that although at least back then when we got the house you could still find this stuff, you couldn’t find anybody who knew how to apply it. So we eventually found someone who knew how to paint over it. We decided that was a little too much authenticity unfortunately. But other than that, it was simply a matter of restoring the place. Every surface just about inside and out needed to be handled in one way or another. All the exterior woodwork that wasn’t under a portal and protected, it was rotted and had to be replaced.  Another feature was originally a traditional dirt roof, which they did before the Americans came in and before the railroad came in and they had to bring in corrugated iron which immediately was adopted for peaked roofs.

But that’s all they had around here in the old days. They had flat roofs. Peeled sticks and they covered that with the brush and they covered that with dirt and that would be your roof and ceiling. A very thoughtful and usually prosperous husband would get a big long large piece of muslin the size of the room, tack it up, fill four corners of the room, ceiling and side, put a rock in the middle with a string dangling down and a bucket underneath. The drips would then hit the muslin and migrate down and then drip down the little line into the bucket, as well as the dirt would start sifting down from the ceiling.

We had this dirt roof and very quickly at some point and they decided to put a regular paper composition roof on top of it. Which at this point was peeling away and flapping in the wind and leaking. The problem with that is if dirt gets wet, it gets very heavy and then the beams start to sag. We were waiting for the certification for the plaque to come through. Then we could start doing stuff. Meanwhile, the summer was passing.

Finally got it in the late summer, early fall. We had an engineer come in and look at the roof. He said, “Dirt’s gotta come off.” Period. End of story. We got some guys and they started shoveling a whole dump truck full of dirt off of the roof of the main room here in the east side. You could see –you could look up and see the sky through [inaudible]. Then we got the roof down. Next day it snowed [Laughter]. The ends of the beams would stick out in traditional style from the house, viga ends on the outside. It rotted right back through the stucco through the holes in the wall, leaking water.

The tops of the parapet walls around were cracked and leaking. We had no idea what was going on inside the stucco. We were told by people who knew that if it goes on long enough, these old bricks just turn right back into dirt and you have an Oreo cookie, so to speak, of stucco and dirt instead of an adobe wall.

We had to peel all the stucco off at least halfway down the walls to let them dry out. Fortunately, it was in time. The bricks were still intact; they were just wet. We had to let it dry out for a month or six weeks and then we restuccoed it. Then the woodwork again had to be replicated and put back in and fake viga ends put in so to keep up appearances. That was just the outside. [Laughter]

It was a vigorous restoration project. But we felt that it was a restoration project, not a remodeling project, because we wanted to put things back as much as possible as the original condition. And we had to put in a new furnace, but we kept the old radiators which are gorgeous and worked just fine. 

Then the only other issue was the electrical, which was state of the art in 1937. And it hadn’t been abused like many of them are by too much power going through them. But there was only four circuits in the house. There was one for the kitchen and there was one for the furnace room and there’s one for the rest of the house. The fourth is dummy. No 220 volts. Which meant there was no washer and dryer or anything. The day she passed away, they did all the laundry in the kitchen sink which was these big double cast iron sinks.

We converted the—there was a big storeroom near the kitchen and we turned that into a laundry room running 220 power and the crawl space was there. Guys just went into there and took all these wires that came down and made them up into a bunch of new circuits. So that worked out. We worked on that.

We finished the floor. She was so proud. It has traditional pine except for the living room here, which is brick. Traditional pine floors, big broad beams. She was proud to point out that there was not a knot in any of the pine, in any of the boards. If you look, there aren’t any. You can’t get that anymore. Period. End of story. So we had to replace one board. If you look at that board, it’s got a couple knots. 

Kelly:  That’s marvelous.

Brennan: Yeah.

Kelly: Can you kind go room by room and sort of describe some features of it?

Brennan: Okay. Well, the house was designed to be essentially in form a traditional Hispanic ranch house. In the sense that the center of the house is one what they call the great room, which is where we’re sitting now. It’s a big room. Functions both as a dining room and a living room with a big fireplace. In this case, Dorothy had a brick floor on it. Decorative-wise, one of the few crafts that impoverished Hispanic people had in the days before the 18th century, late 19th century, early 19th century was tin. Canned meat would come from back on the east of the US in these big tins, and they’d take the tins after they were emptied and use them to make artistic things. Picture frames, decorative things and so forth.

If you turn one of these things over, it’ll say on the back stamped “Armour & Co.” and so forth. Dorothy collected a lot of that when it was still just kind of laying around, so to speak, and decorated the house with that. She had tin light fixtures made for the overheads. Screw the bulb in, but it’s a little tin fixture.

In what would be the west end of the house is two bedrooms and a bath. One room was Dorothy’s room and one was for her son Kevin. Dorothy built into her room a little makeup nook with a design table and stool all painted up, which is still there. Those are the rooms that have these white pine floors in them. Kevin’s room is similar without the makeup station.

Then the other end of the house you have the kitchen. Dorothy was not really focused on cooking and that sort of thing. She was a modern woman and had other interests and it was something you had to do. If you had a kid what are you going to do? The kitchen floor was covered with what we call battleship linoleum. The cabinets were just cabinets with plain quarter inch thick doors and they had this big cast iron double sink. And wooden countertops which were all beat the heck up. We figured the place needed a little help. This was a place we might make some improvements. We pulled up the linoleum and there was this gorgeous pine subfloor under there.

We thought, “That looks nice. Let’s leave that.” Finished it up, put a finish on it, and we replaced the doors on the cabinetry with some carved doors that are taken off – a motif taken off of some of the antique doors in the house here. We replaced the double sink with a little corner sink and the big cast iron sink went into the laundry room where it is now. It’s perfect for that. The rest we kind of left. We put tile down in the countertop. Then that was good enough for that. Then the bathroom is a similar situation. It was very kind of basic. Some of the fixtures were so worn that we tried to replace them and some we left.

We didn’t want to Mexican-ize the place with tile. We eventually found some Spanish tile that looked kind of like a fit and so we put those in the two bathrooms. Put white tile down in the floor and it was again the size of the modifications we made. This looks a little nicer than it did, you got to admit. The rooms off the kitchen were—there’s a small bedroom there, which functions kind of as a third bedroom if you have lots of people.

That was originally intended for the maid because Dorothy was from Kansas City. She moved here in the ‘30s and that’s what you did. That didn’t last very long. I think that idea disappeared certainly by World War II and it never came back.

There’s a little room there that we still call the maid’s bedroom for lack of any other—there’s a bathroom there and then there’s this room we converted to a laundry room. That whole wing is the kitchen and utility in the house and the furnace room is in there and so forth.

Kelly: Tell us about how that maid’s room sort of reflects a little bit of—

Brennan: Well, Dorothy, she was the antithesis of any kind of the white glove society lady. That’s why she moved here. But there’s—you grow up, things stick, and the thing was that you did have a maid. There were certain standards. The whole house is built with triple adobe except that utility wing which is single adobe. I didn’t mention that the roof of the big great room here is latillas with peeled aspen, and the rest of the other bedroom wing has got split cedar ceilings with beams. The utility room side with the maid’s bedroom has beams and so forth, but it has milled lumber ceiling, not split cedar. I mean, it was nice, but it wasn’t like the rest of the house, quite.

The one modification we made to the house was we tore out the little wall that separated the maid’s bedroom from the hallway and so had a little more space and the cross-ventilation and so forth. I moved the door so that you can shut that off from the kitchen. That’s the only change we made in the house’s architecture.

Kelly: What do you envision, I’d say, twenty, fifty years from now, this house will be used as?

Brennan: Well, we have a problem because we are somewhat concerned of passing this on. We feel like we’re more custodians of a heritage than a homeowner, so to speak. When Dorothy built here, this was the edge of town and it had been just recently subdivided by – it’s a lady’s name. They had a big compound that is now the School of Advanced Research. They owned this whole end of town and the subdivided part. There were covenants riding on it and the covenants still stand and have been upheld and so forth.

One of the important thing is you can’t subdivide the land which is zoned R2. Which would mean two houses per acre. So the other is that is has to be used as a private residence. It’s not like you can convert this into an office for a charitable organization or anything. It’s an issue. I don’t know. It’ll be somebody’s home. Set up now, it’s a perfect second perfect vacation home or possibly a retirement home. It lacks the amenities that people look for now with the big master bath and big closets and the whole nine yards. We’ll see. It’s an issue to be addressed.

Kelly:  Well, you did a fabulous job in restoring it and the care you’ve taken to make sure it’s going to withstand at least several more decades.

Brennan: Well, it had its 80th birthday last year. I think Dorothy had been looking at something. She moved here in the fall or winter of ’36.

Kelly:  Then she lived until ‘79, ‘86.

Nathaniel Weisenberg: I want to say ‘85.

Brennan: Is that right? Yeah. Yeah. I expect that was it.

Kelly: Fifty years.

Brennan: And she didn’t change a darn thing except for the little bows to necessity that I mentioned. Stuccoing and roofing and so forth. 

Kelly:  Is there anything else you want to point out?

Brennan: Well, Mary has covered a lot of the social activity that took place during the war and after the war. I just mentioned my role before when Dorothy was still here kind of taking care of things off and on. We took care of things for her and she did the quid pro quo by introducing us to all these interesting people, and including us in things like that. Social things and meeting them and so forth. So it was a wonderful entrée into Santa Fe and its history and heritage.

I mean, a whole dinner set of Maria [Martínez] pottery. Nowadays if someone had a Maria pot, it would be up in a glass cabinet, precious and insured for a zillion dollars. A dinner set. Toss it and wash in the sink. And the story about her, it’s not only that she had all this china and stuff stashed away in the original wrapping. She had oriental rugs from fancy stores in Kansas City rolled up still in their paper wrappings from such and such departments stores stashed in that storeroom I was talking about. Didn’t want all that stuff. She had Indian rugs.

Kelly:  That’s great. Was she friends with John Gaw Meem, or did he have any influence on this house?

Brennan: I don’t know. Only by what do you call it? Katherine Stinson was part of his circle and did things quite—it was influenced and so forth by him heavily. But interestingly, because I’ve seen other places that she’s done around the town here, and they don’t really look like Dorothy’s. This design was pretty much Dorothy’s. Katherine typically did more of the traditional decorative style, Pueblo style. So she was the architect. Mary likes to say it’s obvious two women did this house because there’s lots of closets. The kitchen was set up properly. Katherine did the technical stuff but I think Dorothy was heavily into, this is the way I want it and this is the way I want it to look.