Fallout shelters had their day in Cold War era

Three civil defense members stand at the base of the stairs to a shelter looking over what appears to be a blueprint or map. Civil defense was tasked with educating the people, creating evacuation routes, identifying fallout shelters, and alerting the people in the case of an air raid.


Contributing editor

When the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, the Soviet Union got worried. Three years later when the USSR tested its first nuclear device in August 1949, the U.S. got worried. What would happen in the country and in Indianapolis in the case of a nuclear war? What could the city and its residents do to survive a nuclear war?

Why, build fallout shelters, of course.

Immediately following World War II, Americans seemed generally worried about any sort of bomb drop. Albert L. Frankel, a local real estate agent, wrote a letter to Mayor Philip Bayt in December 1950 suggesting that the city should buy from the State Life Insurance Co. the property at the corner of Pennsylvania, Michigan and North streets. The block was empty and used as a parking lot (it is now the site of the Minton-Capehart Federal Building). The forward-thinking Frankel told the mayor that the lot should become a civic auditorium with multi-level underground parking for 2,000 cars and a bomb shelter.

The civic auditorium was not constructed; neither was the parking garage or the bomb shelter. By 1951, initial fears of a nuclear bomb drop were fading as memories of the war receded. That year the Indiana General Assembly, citing the Engineering News Record, voted not to fund the construction of bomb shelters. Instead of public construction projects they assigned the civil defense department the task to “encourage owners of office buildings, apartments and even small homes to provide shelter areas.”

Then, in October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit. Fear skyrocketed. The worries of a land-launched nuclear attack now expanded to the horrors of one sent from space.

After Sputnik, bomb shelters were out; “fallout shelters” were in – in a big way. In 1960, the federal government allotted funds to add a fallout shelter to the Federal Building (the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U. S. Courthouse) in Indianapolis.

A fallout shelter was planned for the City-County office building, according to the record of a Civil Defense hearing at Congress in March 1960. That record also stated that Indiana National Bank had added fallout shelters to its main building and its 20 branch banks in Indianapolis. In case of nuclear disaster, Indianapolis residents could make a withdrawal before heading to the shelter.

Or, they could just hunker down at home in their very own fallout shelter, which they may have purchased for the “very, very low price” of $695 from a company called United States Fallout Shelters. The firm’s advertisement in The Indianapolis Star on Oct. 1, 1961, reassured potential buyers that their shelters were “built to Government specifications,” and noted that “Civil Defense said: ‘The only protection against Nuclear Fallout is the Home Family Fallout Shelter.’”

A national fallout program began in 1962 with shelters licensed and stocked by the federal government and monitored by local Civil Defense units. Charles Broderick, director of Civil Defense for Indiana, reported in The Star that the department had passed out more than 18,000 home survival pamphlets to the       citizens of the city and another “45,000 pamphlets just on the construction of fallout shelters.” Broderick was quoted that five new companies had formed in 1961 to build fallout shelters. Quoted in the article, “A North side housewife who is having a shelter built said: ‘Six months ago they (neighbors and friends) thought I was batty; now they want to know about shelters.’”

In May 1962, builder Fairwood Homes, Inc. advertised in The Star a new home the firm had constructed in the Vernon Ridge addition on the north side. The Colonial style ranch house had three bedrooms – and a 176-foot fallout shelter in one corner of the basement. And, although it had one and a-half baths, they were both on the first floor, which might have been seen as a serious miscalculation to someone waiting out nuclear fallout in that shelter.

In 1968, the Office of Civil Defense offered a course in fallout shelter design to Indiana architects and engineers. The 13-week course included the study of the effects of nuclear weapons, analysis and design of buildings for fallout protection, psychological aspects of shelter, environment, and cost reduction techniques, according to an article in The Star.

Despite all these efforts, by 1969 The News reported that “after two decades of planning and $1.6 billion in spending, the Associated Press revealed that civil defense programs had done little more than build a ‘bare-bones string of fallout shelters.’” Adding to the problem, two out of five official shelters didn’t have signs and half didn’t have provisions. 

In 1970, six Arlington High School students “herded themselves into the fallout shelter” at the Red Cross        building Downtown for 24-hours of reality-style fallout u u shelter surviving. They set up beds, reviewed survival materials and made meals out of “survival crackers” and hard candy. Although they all left the next day, the participants reported to The Indianapolis News that, after the 24-hour experiment they felt “better prepared” for nuclear holocaust.

Marion County reported 403 federally licensed and stocked fallout shelters in March 1974. Not all were in basements, either; somehow it was determined that the inner core of most tall buildings were safe for these purposes. In Indianapolis some of the licensed shelters could be found at the Indiana Deaf School, Arlington High School, the Naval Armory on 30th Street, the American Fletcher Bank, the Stokely-Van Camp building on East Street, and the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge on West Washington Street, according to The News on August 13.

Although the Cold War and its threat of a nuclear disaster lingered until the end of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, fallout shelters fell out of popularity in the last quarter of the 20th Century. Still, as late as 1980, Midwest Builders offered to build “Bomb and Fallout Shelters” according to its advertisement in The Indianapolis Star in February 1980.

Some fallout shelters must remain in Indianapolis, but a search for them doesn’t offer up any suggested locations. A website, www.ready.gov, has “nuclear explosions” as one of its many disasters that one might prepare for. The suggested plan of action includes going inside a building. While you’re there, feel free to eat your survival crackers until the nuclear cloud passes. 

  Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.