Cold War Fallout Shelters: Propaganda by Architecture

Cold War Fallout Shelters: Propaganda by Architecture

Catrin Morris
Jul 26, 2011

Americans invested millions of dollars in nuclear fallout shelters during the Cold War's coldest decades; some 200,000 were built by 1965, according to a fascinating new book by architecture and design writer Susan Roy. To quell the fears of its citizens and to "normalize" a nuclear attack, the government encouraged Americans to build such bunkers.

Some were elaborate. Some downright hilarious, according to Roy's book, Bomboozled: How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and Its People into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear Attack. Even interior designers and architects jumped on the hysteria bandwagon, drafting surreal and sometimes downright hilarious blueprints for stylish and "livable" underground bunkers. Roy's book is full of illustrations of imagined "shelter life", which depict families living out subterranean Leave it to Beaver fantasies.

Roy says that the fallout shelter of the 1950s and 60s was "propaganda by architecture created in a surprising variety of forms and materials. There were cubes, domes, lozenges, cylinders, and pods. They were made of steel, poured concrete, concrete block, wood, and fiberglass." Bathrooms, lighting, and fresh air are conveniently absent from the designs, of course, because, well...there weren't any underground! No need to get bogged down in depressing details!

At the urging of the Feds, members of the American Institute of Decorators drafted fantastical colored renderings of underground spaces that look less like bunkers and more like luxurious pied a terres. In one Los Angeles decorator's "Fun Room," a mural of a leafy town square is painted along a wall. Chicago designer Marc T. Nielsen imagined a "Family Room of Tomorrow" with modular furniture, maps of Earth on the walls and a shuffleboard court built into the linoleum floor. In 1955, well-known designer Paul Laszlo installed a shelter for rental car magnate John D. Hertz in L.A.

Texas builder Jay Swayze, however, takes the cake for the most unbelievable bunker design. He built an underground "home in a bottle" (albeit a concrete bottle) for a wealthy client in Las Vegas, complete with putting green, swimming pool, upholstered rooms, sunken bathtubs and top-of-the-line kitchen and formal dining room.

In researching the book, Roy says she was "surprised that people believed the government when it told them that they could survive a nuclear attack by building a family fallout shelter. If the U.S. were attacked, they would simply move into their fully equipped shelter for two weeks, wait for the radioactive fallout to subside, and then emerge and resume normal life."

Roy is also the founding managing editor of Allure and has held senior editorial positions at This Old House and Good Housekeeping. For more information, see Maximum Tech, Greenwich Time and The Atlantic.

1. Maximum Tech.
2. Texas builder Jay Swayze built this "home in a bottle" for Girard Henderson, a wealthy client, complete with putting green, swimming pool, and faux sky. From Bamboozled via Greenwich Time.
3. Girard Henderson's underground kitchen. From Bamboozled via Greenwich Time.
4. New York City designer Tom Lee's sketch for a "Utility Sewing Room" with black-and-white-striped banquettes that could double as beds. From Bamboozled via Greenwich Time.
5. Illustration of a family working together to build their bunker. From Bamboozled via The Atlantic.

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