Of all the concerning revelations that have emerged from “Rage,” the recently released book by Bob Woodward about President Trump, one of the more disturbing disclosures may be that the United States has developed a new nuclear weapons system. Whether the claims end up being substantiated or not, the potential for a renewed nuclear arms race brings back memories of another fearful era and raises the question of whether its most iconic symbol — the fallout shelter — is ready for a comeback.
You may be surprised to learn that there were thousands of public fallout shelters situated across the United States at one point in our history. Many were in familiar buildings we still see every day. So why were they there, and what happened to make us think they were no longer needed?
What Is a Fallout Shelter?
As defined by Merriam-Webster, a fallout shelter is “a shelter built underground to protect people from radioactive fallout.” It originally entered the American vernacular in the 1950s due to increasing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The nuclear arms race actually began in 1945 after America dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan to end World War II. The power of those two blasts killed an estimated 150,000 people.
Fearful the United States would use its newfound power to dominate the world, the Soviet Union initiated its own nuclear arms program, successfully conducting the first test in 1949. Over the next decade, the two countries built nuclear arsenals. Many began to panic at the thought of such deadly force being only the push of a button away. To prepare, Americans believed they needed something to survive the radiation from an attack.
The Rise and Fall of the Fallout Shelter
Over the ensuing decades, seven more countries — the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — acquired nuclear weapons. As the threat grew, so did the number of fallout shelters. Many were built by private citizens to safeguard their families. But around the globe, governments created community shelters. In the United States, chances are you’re familiar with the bright placards featuring three orange-yellow triangles set against a black circle to indicate that a building is a public fallout shelter.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the fear of nuclear annihilation subsided and the need for public shelters waned. There was also a growing question about their effectiveness. With the advancements in nuclear weaponry, experts argued that the idea of cowering in an elementary school basement bordered on the absurd. They also thought the majority of Americans would ultimately reject the idea of burrowing underground to try and survive a potential nuclear attack.
Famous Fallout Shelters Around the World
Today, most of the fallout shelter signs are gone. But you may be surprised to discover the everyday structures once called upon to save civilization.
The Brooklyn Bridge
For nearly 50 years, the iconic New York landmark housed a secret shelter deep within the masonry foundation on the bridge’s Manhattan side. The 2006 discovery uncovered a treasure trove of survival items, including blankets, cans of water, a shock-prevention drug and 350,000 crackers stored in metal containers. The dates on the found items indicated they were placed there in 1957 and 1962.
Boston Police Academy
Police and fire stations were a popular choice for public fallout shelters in the Massachusetts capital. Both of Boston’s Hyde Park fire and police stations were designated locales — as were Engine 30/Ladder 25 in Roxbury, Engine 53/Ladder 16 in Roslindale and the former Boston Police Headquarters on Berkeley Street. Even the Police Academy at 85 Williams Avenue was tapped, displaying its fallout shelter sign until 2013 when it was removed during renovations.
The City National Bank Building
The downtown Los Angeles City National Bank Building on Grand Avenue holds the distinction of being America’s first privately sponsored Civil Defense shelter. Opened in 1961, it could accommodate up to 4,000 people. Food and supplies were purchased by the building’s owners. For their sense of civic duty, they received recognition from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Kennedy.
The Roy Wilkins Auditorium
Built in 1932, the St. Paul, Minnesota landmark has hosted a range of notable sporting and theatrical events, including concerts by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner and The Grateful Dead. And, for a time, it was also a designated fallout shelter. As Bill Lindeke noted on MinnPost.com in 2016, the shelter sign still hangs above the auditorium’s old entrance. “The St. Paul auditorium, where I found the sign, was supposed to have housed 3,150 people in its basement fallout shelter.”
The Chicago Loop
Chicago once boasted approximately 1,000 fallout shelters. Notable locations in the Chicago Loop downtown included City Hall, the Chicago Federation of Musicians and Saint Peter’s Church.
The Oyster-Adams Bilingual School
In 1962, the Oyster-Adams Bilingual School basement in Washington, D.C. was earmarked as a fallout shelter. This was ultimately forgotten until David Krugler, author of “This Is Only a Test: How Washington D.C. Prepared for Nuclear War,” unearthed it in 2017. In a photo essay for The Washington Post, Krugler revealed that cans of water, sanitation kits (portable toilets) and boxes of survival biscuits still remain in the school’s underground bunker.
The Sonnenberg Tunnel
The Swiss created what may be the world’s most unusual fallout shelter. Located in Lucerne, the 1,550-meter motorway is also considered the world’s largest fallout shelter. The shelter, constructed between 1971 and 1976, can house over 20,000 people in the event of a nuclear incident. In addition to bunk beds, the tunnel also features a command room, hospital, prison and radio studio.
The Bottom Line
It’s quite possible one of the buildings in your city that you walk by every day was once a fallout shelter in a previous life. Be on the lookout for signs containing three orange-yellow triangles set against a black circle to help you identify them. The good news is these shelters are no longer needed and have instead become an interesting part of architectural history.
(Photo by Moussa81 / GettyImages)