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."

Crosscut archive image.

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.

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."

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.

Then there was the debate over the "ethics of the shelter doorway," in other words, who gets in and who doesn't. Some adopted what Time dubbed a "gun thy neighbor policy," not unfamiliar today to various militia, millenarian and survivalist groups. Instead of shelters being public, they would be private, build singly and in secret, and defended with arms, even machine guns. A classic Twilight Zone TV episode caught the fears of how a mob mentality might kick in if too many people sought to squeeze into too little shelter. The bomb wasn't our only worry, but human nature. Would we tip over the "lifeboats" trying to crowd in, and what did that bode for civil society after the bomb? For civilization itself?

Seattle's Cold War legacy includes some interesting relics. While much of the confrontation with the Soviets was about military might, it was also a broad cultural war that impacted roads, schools, banks, and other civilian institutions. The once ubiquitous fallout shelter signs marking basements and parking garages is one type of leftover (you still see them occasionally). But there are more, shall we say, concrete examples. They include the Brutalist Nuclear Reactor Building at the University of Washington, which once encased a working reactor used to teach the next generation of nuclear engineers, right in the middle of campus. It's now on the National Historic Register. Another is the endangered Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Seattle branch downtown, built in the early 1950s. As nuclear weapons became a reality, Kenneth Rose notes, protecting the U.S. money supply for atomic weapons became vitally important. The Fed building features a massive bank vault that was supposed to be nuke-proof.

I recently heard about another atomic era relic that is right under our feet (or, more accurately, wheels). Did you know there is a big, public bomb shelter under I-5? It's no secret: it was ballyhooed when it opened in the early 1960s. It was an experiment in constructing public "community" bomb shelters, advocated by the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization and funded by the federal government as part of the construction of I-5. The shelter was approved by then-Governor Al Rosellini. In 1963, if the Russians fired missiles our way, this bunker off Ravenna Boulevard in the Green Lake neighborhood would have been the place to be. Too bad I lived south of the Ship Canal.

You'd hardly notice it if you happened by. It's on Weedin Place NE at 68th NE, and the entrance is a metal, graffiti-tagged doorway that indicates it's a facility for records storage, which it was until a few years ago. Above it runs I-5, and even with an 18-inch thick concrete ceiling covered by fill dirt, you can hear the rumbling of overhead traffic from inside. The shelter itself is a 3,000 square foot round room with a large highway support pillar in the center that looks a bit like a modernist mushroom (cloud?). The walls are painted a light, ugly, and familiar shade of government green.

The shelter is mostly empty now, but evidence of its Cold War use remains. There are his-and-hers decontamination showers. You can see where the food distribution area was (canned, nothing fresh). In the utility room, there's a big diesel generator and a water tank apparently connected to an underground well. There's also a stash of brown metal folding chairs with Civil Defense decals on them: who needs comfortable seating at the end of the world? On the wall are technical instructions about how the equipment works, carefully typed and diagrammed. It looks like planners provided for the fact that those who might make it inside the shelter would be amateurs who'd have to figure things out for themselves. In the phone closet, there's still a receipt from the company that installed it in 1961. On the floor, there's an old black rotary dial phone and a 1969 desk calendar reminding its owner of a bowling date.

The shelter came to the attention of Craig Holstine, a historian and cultural resource specialist who works for the Washington Department of Transportation, which owns the I-5 shelter. It is officially categorized as a bridge, by the way, because it helps hold up the freeway. But it's not like any bridge you ever saw.

Holstine gave a presentation on it at the Northwest Anthropology conference in Ellensburg last month. He's researched its background and found that it was likely a one-of-a-kind project, approved by the state Highway Department in 1959, constructed in 1961-62, and opened for business in 1963. It was designed by the Seattle firm of Andersen Bjornstad Kane and cost $67,300 to build. It's built to hold about 200 "shelterees," but who is not specified. The idea was that it would be opened on a first-come, first-serve basis, which means a lucky (?) 200 folks out of a Seattle population of 557,087 (1960 census). Now there's a "Survivor" competition.

Food, cots, and supplies have since been removed, but even the nearly empty shelter would have been crowded with 200 1960s people, let alone the chunky citizens of obesity-challenged America today. It's a grim space to imagine hiding and waiting. It would have gotten old fast: there are no windows of course, only three toilets and one urinal. It is lit with hanging florescent lights. It was likely spic and span and sterile half a century ago, but today it's a big empty circular concrete storage unit divided up with several rooms. After the two-week stay for which it was designed, shelterees would have wanted out.

It's round for a reason, by the way. According to Tom Vanderbilt's book, Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (University of Chicago Press, 2002/10), atomic bomb testing in Nevada demonstrated that rounded or domed structures survived nuclear blasts better than others (corrugated metal worked well, too). Windows were bad however, because flying glass turned into unholy flesh-shredding shrapnel. The acoustics of the shelter are interesting: it has the parabola effect with sound given the shape of the main room. But there's rat poop in the entry way, peeling paint. It' a time capsule, but one that's most interesting for the container, not for what's left inside.

By the time the shelter was finished the bomb shelter boomlet was already subsiding. It peaked in '61, but the public quickly decided that there was little reason to fund public shelters on a massive scale, and that private ones were too expensive and often built by fly-by-night operators and swimming pool contractors. Others figured out quickly that the best shelter was one you never needed.

I should note here that during the Berlin crisis, as the Soviets were building the infamous Berlin Wall, President Kennedy came to Seattle (November, 1961) and gave a powerful Cold War speech at the University of Washington before a crowd of 11,000 people. In it, he warned against the dangers of being either too hawkish or too doveish when it came to Russia, laying out the challenges of negotiations in the nuclear age and warning of a "holocaust of mushroom clouds" if diplomacy failed. Anti-nuclear activists protested his visit outside Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Needless to say, Seattle got a first-hand dose of the dilemmas of the nuclear era right at the peak of the bomb shelter fad. (The eloquent speech is vintage Kennedy and well worth listening to; you'll find it here.)

Relatively few bomb shelters were actually built, though a true count is impossible since many people kept theirs secret. By '62, the craze was kaput. In fact, people seemed to return from paranoia to more practical matters. Author Rose quotes syndicated columnist Robert Ruark on the fading shelter fad in 1962: "Whiskey once again replaced the iron rations on the fallout shelter shelves. Junior parked his busted bicycle in the first-aid room, which rapidly became overstuffed with sister's decapitated doll babies." For the record, I found no sign of whiskey or mutilated dolls in the I-5 shelter.

The Seattle bomb shelter fell into obscurity. The Department of Emergency Services had an office there for a while. It was also a Department of Licensing facility in the '70s. In fact, when I drove up to it, I had a dim recollection that I'd been there before, and then I remembered. This was where I took my driver's license test in 1970. At that time, it was just another cave-like DOL office. Still later, it was converted into a record storage facility and filled with file boxes.

The graffiti-marked entry is unremarkable, looking more like the locked access door to an underground utilities closet than the gateway to the future. The neighborhood is growing denser with townhouses and high rises, but a lot hasn't changed in 50 years. The old John Marshall School is still across the street; a block or so away on Oswego Place NE is Fire Station #16, a cozy Mission-style landmark built in 1927. Across the freeway is an older church. When it was plunked down here, the shelter was in the middle of a typical Seattle neighborhood.

The interstate system itself is a kind of Cold War relic, partially inspired by the desire to be able to move troops and missiles easily. One MIT professor encouraged new highways as a means to evacuate cities quickly in the event of nuclear attack. If you didn't make it out of town on I-5, I suppose freeway shelters could have been the nuclear war equivalent of highway rest stops. That was part of the vision that resulted in the I-5 shelter, protection for travelers. "Our highways might have been lined with signs," Holstine says: "Fallout Shelter Next Exit."

Today, some overgrown shrubs near the entrance have been cut away: apparently homeless folks were camping behind them near the entrance. There's evidence that rodents have been in and out: thick concrete can stop an atomic blast, but not nature's true survivors. What looks like a nearby drainage outlet is actually the shelter's escape hatch. Holstine raised the question: Escape from what? Annoying fellow shelterees? Escape to what? A hellish wasteland?

The shelter, though is stolidly continuing to hold up I-5. Does it have any other potential use? As I looked around the place, I asked Andy Blomberg about that. Blomberg is a facilities guy for the state Department of Transportation and says one problem with the space is that it might not meet current workplace codes. There's no nearby parking for heavy utility vehicles, the "escape" tunnel might not qualify as a proper fire exit (plus it's sealed with metal bars). The tons of concrete block out any cell phone signals. People who worked there in the past said it was hard to heat. And then there's the Americans with Disabilities Act. The shelter wasn't designed with handicapped access in mind. While there are no stairs, the tiny bathrooms would be problematic.

So, if the shelter is obsolete as modern government office space and not needed as storage, what's left? From a historic perspective the shelter is unique and basically intact. The circular space with its giant pillar and parabolic qualities is a fascinating space. It would make a very cool nightclub or rental space for weddings and events (how about a retro birthday party with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator singing "Happy birthday...Mister President?").

In fact, old bomb shelters have been used as party spaces. For a wonderful peek inside the world's leftover bomb shelters (and a couple of new ones), check Richard Ross' photo book Waiting for the End of the World (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004). In it Ross describes a Russian shelter in St. Petersburg, The Trendy Griboyedov Club: "I found it wildly optimistic," Ross says, "People use these clubs — converted underground shelters — to drink, dance and mate. This is a celebration of life rather than anticipation of death and destruction." Ross has called bomb shelters "the architecture of failure," but when he finds them being reclaimed by clubbers, he feels uplifted.

Another possibility would be a mini-museum or display devoted to interpreting our Cold War history. The bomb shelter is clearly a historic property. It ought to be on architecture tours and filled with exhibits, maybe even restored to the appearance of Cold War readiness. It is uniquely suited to continue its mission of preservation by helping us see how previous generations dealt with our newfound capacity to destroy the world.

The issues that gave bomb shelters birth are still with us: even President Obama is dealing with nuclear, chemical and biological threats and the future of our nuclear arsenal. The I-5 shelter is rooted in the past, but has something to teach us about the perils of policy alternatives. It's easy to make fun of bomb shelters as a kind of whacky '50s and '60s hysteria, but the debate that surrounded them and the weapons that inspired them continue. Who "wins" in a nuclear exchange? What happens if North Korea launches its missiles (they likely can reach American soil, even the West Coast). What do we do if Iran gets nukes? What are the best ways to keep civilization, and the planet, alive and healthy? Does the insanity of the past instruct us about the challenges of the future? Is global warming a kind of slow-moving A-bomb, or a new hysteria recycled for our times?

The aging shelter can also be seen as a reason for being hopeful. We went to the nuclear brink, but managed to make bomb shelters and their Dr. Strangelove politics almost irrelevant. Thanks to presidents from Truman and Eisenhower to JFK and Reagan, we found a way to make them obsolete. The trick is keeping it that way. That's a lesson the I-5 bomb shelter still has a chance to teach us.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.