Cold War Leftovers : Now That Nuclear Paranoia Has Died, Homeowners Are Turning Old Bomb Shelters Into Havens for Underground Adventure
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, what many people really lusted after for their suburban dream home wasn’t a spa or a tennis court, but an underground bomb shelter.
Death lurked in the atom, and the Russkies--later, the Chinese--stood ready to bomb America into submission. By the early 1960s, fear of nuclear holocaust had become a national mania as the federal civil defense distributed millions of pamphlets explaining how citizens could build their own bomb shelters.
Across the United States, tens of thousands did exactly that, digging themselves holes in which to await Armageddon.
Today, Russia is our friend and half of what we buy is “Made in China.” And back-yard bomb shelters stand as curious remnants of a Cold War paranoia that once held a generation in its icy grip.
But what to do with an out-of-fashion bunker? Across Southern California, imaginative homeowners are finding new uses for them.
When Randy Nerenberg bought a bubble-shaped house in 1979, built by prominent architect Wallace Neff, he was surprised to find the Pasadena landmark came with a bubble-shaped bomb shelter.
“The realtor was calling it a wine cellar,” Nerenberg, now 41 and a contractor, recalls as he sits 15 feet below the ground, his words echoing in the dome-shaped room.
“But when I bought it, I was 24, and there were a lot of ‘six-pack and bongos’ evenings.’ ” Nerenberg says he also used the bomb shelter “right off the bat for primal scream therapy. And it was great if you were into chanting or meditation.”
When the 75-ton orbiting Skylab space station fell to Earth in pieces in 1979, the shelter seemed the safest place for Nerenberg and his wife, Marilyn, to throw a Skylab party.
These days, he often climbs down the wooden stairs with buddies to jam on the guitar. Over the years, the shelter has also served as a rumpus room for their two kids, a soundproof music studio and a New Age getaway.
No one knows how many bomb shelters were built between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s. But erecting them was a Cold War ritual for thousands of families. Their merits were extolled in newspapers, on TV, at social clubs and even from the pulpit.
Today, when death from random gunshots, AIDS and earthquakes are our biggest bogyman, they stand as mute reminders of that earlier era, a potent reminder that the “Leave It to Beaver” years were not as blissful as nostalgia would lead us to believe.
At wedding showers in the late 1950s, says Karal Ann Marling, a cultural historian at the University of Minnesota, popular gifts included bomb shelter supplies such as cases of baked beans or crackers.
Some people had formative experiences in bomb shelters. One of Marling’s girlfriends at Vassar “was forced into an early marriage because her parents caught her and her boyfriend doing the dirty in the family bomb shelter,” the historian recalls.
“That’s one of the best uses for a bomb shelter, to practice life instead of death,” asserts Marling, who adds, “I think people should preserve them as monuments to complete nuttiness.”
Bomb shelters also seared themselves into the collective psyche in contemporary literature.
In Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “You Must Remember This,” family patriarch Lyle Stevick in Upstate New York agonizes over where he will find money to build a bomb shelter. He finally borrows from his boxer brother and constructs a shelter with a submarine-like periscope so he can survey the outside world from his underground cocoon.
John Cheever takes on bomb shelters and adultery in his short story “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.” Charles Pasterns, a right-wing military type who wants to bomb Cuba, builds a bunker on his Westchester County property, then initiates an affair with his neighbor.
When Pasterns’ mistress asks him for a key to the shelter, Pasterns is affronted, but takes the warm bit of metal, “a genuine talisman of salvation, a defense against the end of the world--and dropped it into the neck of her dress.”
Eventually, however, it is adultery, not the atom, that does the golf widow in.
The first California bomb shelters were built after Pearl Harbor, when many in coastal communities thought a Japanese bombing or invasion was imminent. Photos published in the Los Angeles Times during those years show a family in Brentwood huddled happily in their shelter, ready for the apocalypse.
After World War II, the enemy shifted from Asia to Eastern Europe as the Cold War heated up. People watched hydrogen bombs explode on their TV screens and heard scientists debate survival techniques and thought they had better get ready.
Jeffrey Hudder, a Santa Monica psychologist who grew up at the dawn of the atomic era, recalls the anxiety he felt as a child.
“These people weren’t necessarily rabid right-wingers, they were genuinely scared. The government wasn’t going to take care of you and you felt anxious, vulnerable and threatened.”
Back then, the federal government only fanned the hysteria when its civil defense began printing and distributing millions of detailed pamphlets on how to build your own bomb shelter.
Professional contracting firms did a brisk business digging up people’s back yards. Some new suburban home tracts even included built-in bomb shelters as a selling tool.
Vintage footage in the movie “Atomic Cafe” shows one such tract outside Denver. The billboard welcoming potential buyers reads: “Designed with Atomic War in mind, built with $1 million worth of protection.”
In a display of American capitalism, bomb shelter supply companies sprang up to produce protective suits, generators, portable toilets, water tanks, storage shelves and bunk beds.
Some experts urged families to take tranquilizers underground with them to ease the stress and claustrophobia. Clerics were shown on TV discussing “bomb shelter ethics” and defending the right of a family to take arms into their bomb shelters. In the Oates novel, Lyle Stevick agonizes over whether to buy a shotgun for his bunker, imagining crazed neighbors with crowbars trying to pry their way in.
Jeffrey Knopf, an assistant professor at the School of International Relations at USC, says the threat of atomic war divided Americans into two camps. The majority were resigned to what fate would bring.
“But clearly there was a subset of people who thought the government wasn’t going to help you anymore so you’d have to do it for yourself. There is that undercurrent in American culture of people who really distrust Washington and the central government,” he adds, pointing out today’s militias who have fortified contemporary bunkers in places like Idaho.
Wallace Neff (1895-1982), best known for revival Mediterranean homes such as Pickfair commissioned by movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, built a bubble-shaped bunker to match his Bubble House in Pasadena upon the urging of his scientist brother Andrew Neff.
Far from being terrified, the neighborhood kids saw it as a playground, a sort of underground treehouse, much as Nerenberg’s children do today. As a child, the architect’s son, Wally, spent many happy hours in the underground concrete room.
“We used to go down there and everyone wanted to see it, it was a fun thing to do, not a scary thing,” he recalls.
For Walter Gillespie of Silver Lake, the last straw was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The world appeared headed for nuclear extinction and Gillespie vowed that his family would not face the apocalypse unprotected.
So after finishing up at the ABC Studios where he worked as an electrician, Gillespie came home each afternoon and dug. At 10 feet, he struck shale and traded his shovel for a pickax. Soon he had an 8-by-8-by-12-foot-deep hole in his back yard, rigging up a tramway with carts to ferry the dirt down his hill.
Next, Gillespie poured 18 cubic yards of concrete, constructing walls more than a foot thick and placing at least four feet of earth between the surface of the ground and the roof of the shelter, as the civil defense pamphlets recommended.
He bought a 60-pound steel door to secure his bunker and stocked it with everything from booze to canned food to a World War II pistol to his daddy’s old kerosene-burning railroad lantern. The shelter also had three bunk beds lashed to the wall by seat belts salvaged from old cars, blankets, a crude toilet and a ham radio to communicate with the outside world.
It took Gillespie almost two years to finish his bomb shelter. “Built by Walter, Mary and Shalimar Gillespie, 1963,” the plaque reads. “May God protect any who has to use it.”
“I built every bit of it myself, and I’m very proud of that,” says Gillespie, relaxing in his living room 32 years later. “We didn’t know if there would be war, but everything pointed in that direction, so building the shelter was something to do,” Gillespie muses.
At first he replaced the canned food and bottled water every few years. Later, he would go down there at night after the family was asleep and tinker with a home-made radio he built from tubes. Later he turned it into an atomic wine cellar, storing all his best vintages in the cool subterranean air.
“Eventually I drank it all,” Gillespie laughs.
These days, Gillespie finds himself in great demand at potlucks, giving tours to neighbors who weren’t even born when the Cold War raged.
But despite their many uses, bomb shelter-equipped homes aren’t always a hot ticket item on today’s real estate market. Agent Derrick Sheldon at Fred Sands’ Los Feliz office recalls showing a young couple a small house on Sanborn Street in Los Angeles that had an underground bomb shelter in the front yard.
“It was definitely not a selling point for them,” Sheldon recalls with a chuckle. “They didn’t even want to go see the inside of the house. So we drove off.”