The fallout shelter was a highly specialized building type developed in the 1950s in
response to the escalating Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet
Union. Faced with the realization that conventional structures would provide little or no
protection from an atomic blast, civil defense officials in the United States undertook a
concerted campaign to convince the American public of the necessity of building fallout
shelters in their houses and backyards. In addition to these personal shelters constructed
of brick, concrete block, or corrugated metal, efforts were undertaken to identify
sufficiently reinforced and structurally sound areas of existing buildings to designate as
larger-scale public fallout shelters. Construction of personal fallout shelters peaked
between 1958 and 1962, when a series of international crises pushed the world ever
closer to the brink of nuclear annihilation. During this period the fallout shelter became
an integral part of U.S. nuclear policy and was extensively promoted in the popular media
as a viable solution to surviving and even winning a nuclear war. Although relatively few
people actually built the structure, the fallout shelter was emblematic of the way
Americans chose to confront the atomic bomb and nuclear policy.
The first attempts to develop reinforced structures to protect inhabitants from an
atomic blast grew out of air raid shelter design from the World War II era. Although
these shelters offered a degree of security against conventional weaponry, the atomic
detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki underscored their futility in an age of atomic
weaponry. In the early 1950s, the knowledge that the USSR possessed atomic weapons,
combined with the American intervention in Korea, led many architects, engineers, and
civil defense officials to contemplate the design of atomic bomb-resistant structures.
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These early studies concentrated primarily on the obvious physical effects of an atomic
explosion, which could extend several miles from ground zero, and underscored the
expense of designing sufficiently reinforced structures. However, it was the discovery of
radioactive fallout in the mid-1950s that provided the impetus for effective shelter design.
Far more lethal than the physical destruction accompanying a blast, fallout consisted of
irradiated particles of dust and debris carried aloft by the explosion and dispersed
hundreds and even thousands of miles downwind. With the realization that vast areas of
the country could be covered under a blanket of radioactive particles, civil defense
officials acknowledged that although those nearest a blast would be vaporized,
sufficiently prepared citizens could safely wait out the decay of fallout in cozy backyard
As early as 1955 at least one company marketed a prefabricated shelter,
the imaginatively named Kiddie Kakoon, which consisted of a large metal
storage tank retrofitted with shelves and bunk beds. Although these early attempts met with limited sales, following the
USSR’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 Americans were increasingly ready to accept the idea of a
fallout shelter. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, a number of companies offered a
variety of prefabricated shelter designs. With the publication of The Family Fallout Shelter by the Office of Civil
Defense and Mobilization (OCDM) in 1959, the U.S. government articulated a
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comprehensive plan for civil defense based on the construction of small-scale singlefamily
fallout shelters. The plans presented in the brochure were frequently republished
in the popular media, outlining the essential components of a successful shelter design
while providing relatively inexpensive plans for shelter construction.
The fallout shelter plans provided by the OCDM fell into two main categories: those
that could be constructed within an existing basement and those separate from the main
house. Suitable shelter materials ranged from brick and concrete block to large sections
of corrugated metal buried under several feet of earth. Regardless of its intended location,
a shelter had to be designed to fulfill the following three criteria: it had to be constructed
of dense enough materials or buried deep enough to block out as much radiation as
possible; it had to provide some means of filtered ventilation to avoid the intake of
radioactive particles; and it had to be comfortable and well stocked enough for a family
to remain inside for several days or weeks. Architecturally, these criteria were met by
solid materials, airtight construction, a baffle entrance with a tight-sealing door, and
multiuse interior space that was comfortable enough for a family to eat, sleep, and
entertain one another.
Beyond the accommodation of these basic concerns, the actual design of fallout
shelters was relatively unremarkable. Besides the telltale hump in the otherwise flat
Bermuda grass of suburbia, most shelters did not have a distinct exterior presence. The
interior of the shelter focused on fulfilling its unique functional considerations as
efficiently as possible. Several popular magazines did present images of shelters
converted into clubhouses and playrooms or painted with imaginative scenes in an
attempt to make the idea of building a shelter more palatable to the general public.
Although the single-family fallout shelter remained the most visible part of the civil
defense initiatives of the 1950s and 1960s, some policymakers argued unsuccessfully for
the construction of massive community-based shelters. However, more successful was
the program initiated in the early 1960s that was designed to identify and designate
sufficiently protected spaces as public fallout shelters. Despite persistent attempts by civil
defense officials to convince large segments of the population to construct their own
fallout shelters, scarcely 200,000 shelters were built or purchased by 1963. Even as the
interest in shelter building peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, a public
debate began to rage over the efficacy and moral implications of shelter building. New
discoveries suggested that people would have to remain in shelters for years before
radioactivity would drop to safe levels, and many debated the morality of what they saw
as the vigilante mentality of shelter builders. The final blow to fallout shelter design came
with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which effectively pushed nuclear testing
underground and out of sight.
Although most family fallout shelters now lie neglected in suburban backyards, others
have found life as storm shelters, storage rooms, and even wine cellars. The late 1990s
saw a limited resurgence of interest in fallout shelter design as some attempted to prepare
for the possibility of civil unrest accompanying the year-2000 computer bug.

1 comment:

  1. Wacky as it sounds, I wonder if there's a commercially viable (profitable) market in developing a shelter based community. Instead of the crude, hole-in-the ground shelter, the shelter is a practical and attractive extension of the house(s). Instead of exposed corrugated metal or concrete walls, it appears as a well appointed room: wood moulding, faux fireplace, fish tanks, hydroponic gardens, multi-media options, racquet ball courts, or even a bar. They can have connectivity to adjoining units and be part of the community ammenities. How many millionaires out there would be willing to dish out spare cash to survive a nuclear attack in style?