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Cold War bomb shelters more than holes in the ground

If you're of an age to remember diving under your classroom desk during nuclear attack drills, you probably look back on that as ludicrous. We've seen enough movies to know that an atomic conflagration wouldn't be something we'd just dust ourselves off from, in time for recess.

Likewise, those fallout shelters that some families built during the Cold War seem about as useful as the desk. What was the game plan, anyway? Hunker down for a couple of weeks, then emerge to life as we knew it? More likely, the better decision might have been to stay underground forever.

And that's what many of the shelters in Susan Roy's new book, Bomboozled: How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and Its People Into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear Attack (Pointed Leaf Press), seem to have been designed for: forever.

Surrealistically optimistic, fallout shelters went from being temporary, rough-hewn bunkers to subterranean versions of Shangri-La in just a few years.

Roy focuses mainly on the government's misguided but well-intentioned effort during the Cold War to reassure people that nuclear disaster was survivable if you only had an underground refuge. In the course of her research, she uncovered a startling trove of information on how shelter designers, architects and the wealthy strove to create safe havens fully loaded with luxuries and comforts.

In reality, grim living

By 1960, nearly 70 percent of American adults believed that nuclear war was imminent. By 1965, an estimated 200,000 shelters were built — but that's just an estimate. It's hard to know exactly, because people didn't talk.

A permit wasn't required to build one; the feeling was that if you had a refuge, the world would be beating down your door when the time came. If you only had room for four or six, things could quickly go a little Twilight Zone.

As Roy points out, the fallout shelter was a conceit of suburban life. Close-quartered urban dwellers were on their own. Within your secret haven, however, life would be almost normal. Illustrations of shelter life invariably show Mother in pearls and pumps fussing about the quasi-kitchen, Father in a comfy chair with pipe in hand, and two youngsters playing nicely on the floor.

Bathrooms? Lighting? Fresh air? The cutaway views in these pictures belie the fact that basic shelters would have been grim living indeed.

Ranging from corrugated metal tubes to lumber-clad root cellars to cast concrete capsules, the reality was dark, tiny, airless and hot. Despite the hype, shelters were more scary than reassuring, and the government had a hard time selling the public on them.

In 1959, the Civil Defense Agency decided to position the shelter not only as a bunker, but as a multipurpose extra room.

Bringing style to shelters

Members of the American Institute of Decorators took the task to heart. You might shake your head at the Pollyanna-esque designs, but it's hard not to admire the care with which decorators, designers and architects thought about how to make post-conflagration living normal.

Dorothy H. Paul of Los Angeles created a Fun Room, with a leafy town square painted on one wall, game tables and an area for editing home movies. New York City's Tom Lee did an elegant Utility Sewing Room with black-and-white-striped banquettes that could serve as beds.

In Chicago, Marc T. Nielsen's Family Room of Tomorrow included modular, multipurpose furniture, cave paintings and reassuring maps of Earth on walls and closet doors, as well as a shuffleboard court laid into the linoleum floor.

John Hertz, of car rental fame, had architect Paul Laszlo design and build an elaborate below-ground compound in his Los Angeles back yard.

And in Florida, a wealthy Mount Dora financier built an underground compound called the Catacombs to support 100 people for six months. The exact location is still unclear. People paid $2,000 deposits for a place in the fortress, which had its own medical facility, private family rooms and weapons arsenal. The owner told those not in the know that he was building a tennis court.

But it was Texas builder Jay Swayze who took the fallout shelter to a new level. Aghast at its claustrophobic nature, he devised a "ship in a bottle" concept: A full-sized "normal" home could be built within the protective confines of a concrete shell, and the shell's interior could be decoratively painted to represent the outside world.

A whole home underground

Swayze built one for himself and his family, and liked it so much he lived in it for four years.

He was passionate about underground living, convinced it was better even under normal, peacetime circumstances. With no weather or airborne pollutants, home maintenance and allergies would be a thing of the past. And a homeowner's aboveground property could be used for lawns, gardens and so on — doubling the land use, Swayze said.

In his book, Underground Gardens and Homes, one illustration shows a family frolicking around a subterranean swimming pool amid bicycling tots and faux trees, while a maelstrom of radioactivity and tornadoes rages above ground.

The award for most spectacular shelter arguably goes to Swayze's design for Girard Henderson, a wealthy Texas recluse who ordered up an underground "home in a bottle" in Las Vegas complete with putting green, swimming pool, luxurious upholstered rooms, formal dining room with chandelier, fully outfitted kitchen, sunken bathtubs and fake flowers everywhere.

Ultimately, fallout shelters fell victim to the 1960s mind-set: If only the wealthy could afford them, and protection meant pitting neighbor against neighbor, there was no appetite for that. Cold War preparedness reverted to the essential: large structures designed to house big groups for bare-bones living.

And even then, pragmatism was taking hold. The Twilight Zone's creator, Rod Serling, who could have afforded to build one, didn't. "If we survive," he asked, "what do we survive for? What kind of a world? If it's rubble, and there's poisoned water and inedible food and (we) have to live like wild beasts, I'm not sure I want to survive."

In writing Bomboozled, Roy says, she found that wealth allows the creation of "a very expensive security blanket." But resiliency is class-resistant. "Even faced with apocalypse," she says, "hope springs eternal."

Cold War bomb shelters more than holes in the ground 08/23/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 4:30am]
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