This shelter is the bomb!

A relic of the Cold War past lies under I-5, a public haven where Seattleites could wait for the end of the world. With space for only 200 people, the shelter would have had us dying to get in, or at least competing to win at atomic "Survivor."

Seattle P-I photographer John Vallentyne made this photo of children at Hazel Valley Elementary in the Highline School District during a 1958 air raid drill.

Seattle P-I photographer John Vallentyne made this photo of children at Hazel Valley Elementary in the Highline School District during a 1958 air raid drill. Seattle Post-Intelligencer collection, MOHAI/Courtesy of MOHAI

Maybe you had to be there to understand, but as a Cold War kid, I took some pride in the fact that Seattle would likely be one of the first places wiped off the map in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.

We were instilled with fear in those days. In 1959, nearly 70 percent of American adults believed that nuclear war was imminent. The Berlin and the Cuban Missile crises in the early 1960s scared the bejabbers out of me. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev pounded the table with his shoe and promised to "bury" us, in radioactive rubble we assumed. He appeared on the cover of Time with a mushroom cloud behind his head. Lifemagazine, which introduced many of us to the outside world, featured stories on how to survive fallout from an atomic attack.

Every Wednesday at noon, a Rainier Valley air raid siren wailed mournfully (you could set your clock by it) and periodically we kids were schooled in "duck and cover" techniques. Occasionally we were herded into the John Muir Elementary's basement for bomb drills. We were told that if the commies dropped the bomb on us while we were walking home from school, we were to lie face down in the gutter to keep the atomic flash from melting our eyeballs. See Jane run! See Dick run! See Sally's eyes melt! Go, Spot, Go!

Still, at least Seattle could take a kind of fatalistic, swaggering pride in being on the front lines of this new kind of war. We were important, a prime target. Cuban missiles weren't a problem, but we were in reach of Soviet ones. And Puget Sound was vital to the national defense. Seattle was the gateway to the Space Age, we had Boeing, we had the Bremerton Naval Shipyards, McChord Air Base, Fort Lewis. We had Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson. If World War III was going to break out, it would be here. Sarah Palin might worry about the Russkies being on her doorstep, but what's to nuke in Alaska? Caribou?

Some of us wanted extra protection. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy helped boost the bomb shelter craze, which turned into a kind of atomic Y2K panic as people scrambled to figure out whether a nuclear war was survivable, and if so, whose job was it to make sure at least some of us did survive, even if as radioactive mutants. Everyone needed a game plan for the Apocalypse. The great mid-century amenity to a modern middle-class home became an underground rec room for waiting out Armageddon. Amid those recipes and gardening tips in Sunset magazine, the bible of Western living, were photo spreads of fallout shelters. Tip for the patio lifestyle: the only thing you want barbecued is a steak, not your whole family.

At one point in the early '60s, my parents considered moving to another part of Mount Baker and I remember we toured a fancy house on Cascadia. It was more than my folks could afford, but I begged them to buy it because it came with a fully stocked bomb shelter. I almost considered it child abuse that we didn't have one. My mom said our basement would have to do. But the only thing my dad ever stocked up on was beer. How many cans of Rainier would you need for a holocaust? A lot.

In his history of fallout shelters in American, One Nation Underground (New York University Press, 2001), historian Kenneth Rose does a good job of laying out the debates for and against bomb shelters, which of course became very problematic. If everyone should have one, who'd pay for it? Would only the rich have bomb shelters? Where would the poor go, or would we be better off without them? Were there other strategies that could improve nuclear survivability? Some suggested limits on urban densities to make us less easy to kill Hiroshima-style. The suburbs were the place to escape a first strike, yet building shelters also seemed, well, tacky, a downer message in upbeat subdivisions.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Apr 13, 7:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Boy, does this story bring back memories. Born here in 1952, all those memories came back. We never had a bomb shelter, my folks never saw the reason, probably like most folks, they just figured there was no reason in the long run. They always had hoped that if it did happen it would be on a weekend so we could all be together. It might have been our Catholic upbringing also. At St. Anthony in Renton, if we had a bomb drill, we all processed over to the church and prayed for the survivors of whatever happened. Perhaps the sisters had a better grasp on life than the leaders of the world.

Posted Tue, Apr 13, 7:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute, great work on this topic and site.

Those of us who are working to save the Historic Seattle Federal Reserve Bank Building on 2nd Ave, have become sensitive to this important and unique period of American History.It was not just built in the post-war era, or labeled as mid-century design, but, as a rare and very significant example of the first atomic age architectural examples. Seattle has an ever diminishing list of properties, structures and buildings from this period.
The Bank Branch stands out as the first public building and almost only example of this paranoid phase of our economic historical evolution. Most importantly, it brings to the surface the age old topic of what and who should survive an atomic blast, and why?

The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board wrongly turned down the nomination (by the Federal Reserve Bank) of this building with little to no discussion of the role this building played in the history of Seattle. They unanimously came to a quick conclusion that it did not meet ANY of the criteria they are obligated to address when considering a site for nomination. How wrong-headed can one group get, unless they were dumbed-down by the team FRB, that was in a hurry to sell the building to a developer with the condition that he could demolish the building to make way for a high-rise project.

Thankfully, Judge Lasnik in the Federal Court shot down their plan and voided the pruchase and sale agreement which sent the FRB back to the drawing board to do the right thing, as opposed to skirting the rules.

Seattle should commission a survey of atomic age sites throughout the city ASAP. They meet the age criteria at the very least. And Knute, your mentioned bomb shelter would definitely be on such a list!

Wake up Seattle and think!

That includes the Landmarks Preservation Board and Staff, private Historic Preservation consultants, and governmental agencies that own such important structures.

Do the right thing!

Posted Tue, Apr 13, 8:25 a.m. Inappropriate

I was a student at John Marshall Jr. Hi when this bomb shelter was being constructed. We used to watch it being built from the school grounds across the street. Interesting how stuff like this we grew up with just slips from consciousness. There was a guy on my paper route who built a shelter under his front yard. We all thought that was a bit extreme. It's probably still there!

-dmg

Posted Tue, Apr 13, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Portland has a similiar shelter inside Kelly Butte that was intended as the atomic-emergency "command center" site for Portland city government. In the 70's and until 1994 it housed a 911 call center and now just sits abandoned with its heavy iron doors in the hillside. http://kellybutteunderground.blogspot.com/

Posted Tue, Apr 13, 11:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Terrific piece. The topic is very interesting especially for those of us who were in elementary school in the 50's and learning about our atomic vulnerability with every passing drill. We once even spent time figuring out how long we'd have to take shelter (in our suburban schools) when Times Square got hit.

I love the bomb shelter built for the City Council at 157 Roy. City Light recently started to adapt it to modern functions evicting its neighborhood users, but the place is surrounded by a chain link fence and looking sadly abandoned these days. A serious bomb-age journalist-historian might find out what's happening over there. The cupcake exterior (don't tell me this is Priteca's work -- it is reminiscent of Temple de Hirsch)is kind of cute while the interior is clearly more gentle than the I-5 bunker. The building should be a city landmark and definitely a part of Crosscut's growing inventory of important buildings of the 1960's we must preserve.

MJH

Posted Tue, Apr 13, 1:12 p.m. Inappropriate

During the course of researching my master’s thesis, "Take Cover, Spokane: Backyard Bunkers, Basement Hideaways, and Public Fallout Shelters of the Cold War," I learned that Spokane asked the federal government to construct a prototype community fallout shelter underneath I-90, but their lobbying efforts were unsuccessful. Freeway shelters may have been built in other parts of the nation, but the freeway shelter in Seattle seems to be unique in Washington.

How many other Cold War-era shelters are in Seattle and King County? Based on my study of Spokane, I can guess that King County had a command center for civil defense authorities, public shelters established in the basements of buildings, and private shelters in the basements and backyards of residential homes, but a survey would be necessary to find out the full extent of shelters in the area. I am working as an intern with the King County Historic Preservation Program surveying barns and county-owned buildings, and I would love the opportunity to look into shelters here. I floated the idea of a shelter survey to my colleagues and we are planning for it.

It has almost been fifty years since Kennedy’s Berlin Crisis Speech in 1961 motivated the public to take an interest in shelters, so now is an appropriate time to investigate their remains.

Lee O’Connor
Seattle, WA

Posted Tue, Apr 13, 1:47 p.m. Inappropriate

In May 1972 I went and took my driver's license exam when the Ravenna I-5 bomb shelter was the local driver's license testing facility. In the 1960's a neighbor had a bomb shelter built under their patio. I knew where the trap door was "In case of Emergency!" Ssshhh, don't tell anyone!!

ThirdGenerationBornAndRaised

Posted Tue, Apr 13, 4:05 p.m. Inappropriate

I never knew anyone with a bomb shelter, but on the Peninsula we had our own piece of cold war architecture: The Nike missile base in Olalla. It used to be pretty easy to get in there and explore. Now I think it's being used as some kind of church retreat.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Apr 13, 8:16 p.m. Inappropriate

What I remember best about that era was the Christmas my mother decided the whole world would be going up in radioactive smoke the following year so she went out and spent way more than usual on gifts for extended family. It took a while to stabilize finances again.

Posted Tue, Apr 13, 10:08 p.m. Inappropriate

I would love to get inside the Weedin Place structure. Living just a few blocks away, I've passed by it many a time and found out about its history a while back, but never thought of converting it into a museum!

As for the sense of pride that Seattle would certainly be a first strike, it's crazy — I remember feeling that too, and I'm "just" 35. I remember when The Day After came out — I was in 3rd grade — and the entire class was abuzz the next day. Somewhere I have a map I drew of the state of Washington, with blast radii out from Seattle and the Kitsap Peninsula. I distinctly remember thinking this was somewhat cool. Of course, that indicates my 8-year-old mind really didn't comprehend what was going on. But I think it also reflects less certainty by that time — The Day After notwithstanding — that the world was going to end in fire.

Meanwhile, let's open up the Weedin Place shelter!

Posted Wed, Apr 14, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh, and speaking of private shelters and the "ethics of the shelter doorway," Robert A. Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold is worth a look. It's not his best work, but does contain the lines:

"In a lifeboat, how do you tell the boat officer?"
"Is that a riddle?"
"No. The boat officer is the one with the gun."

A Tommy gun soon makes its appearance.

Posted Wed, Apr 14, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

A word of appreciation to Craig Holstine's smart awareness of where we hide our most revealing history. Don't you love the way cold war sensibility is interwoven into the transportation infrastructure we continue to use. Its a brillant reminder that President Eisenhower used civil defense and the need to move ballistic missiles around in semi trucks as a rational for building the interstate highway system-hense the first freeway section built in Washington was between Fort Lewis and Elliott Bay and the not-galloping gerty 2 bridge was built between the fort and the Bremerton shipyards.

Maybe if homeland security could take over the viaduct/tunnel project...nevermind.

Artifacts

Posted Thu, May 13, 1:35 p.m. Inappropriate

What if someone were to have one of the authentic Fallout Shelter signs from an old basement? What would be the best way to find out what it's worth? I'm sure there must be someone who collects this type of thing. Just curious?

LOCKE

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