Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Fallout shelters evolved into places for fun


A Jay Swayze-designed Las Vegas bomb shelter featured a backyard with fake greenery, a barbecue camouflaged in a fake boulder, swimming pool and patio area. Murals were painted on the interior of the home's protective concrete shell. Lighting could be adjusted to create day or night.


Americans who remember diving under classroom desks during nuclear attack drills also are aware of the government's effort during the Cold War to reassure people that nuclear disaster was survivable if only they had an underground refuge.

Susan Roy's new book, Bomboozled: How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and Its People Into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear Attack, shows that fallout shelters went from temporary, roughhewn bunkers to subterranean versions of Shangri-La in just a few years.

Ranging from corrugated metal tubes to lumber-clad root cellars to cast concrete capsules, early shelters were dark, tiny, airless, and hot. The government had a hard time selling the public on them.

In 1959, the Civil Defense Agency decided to position the shelter not only as a bunker, but also as a multipurpose extra room.

Members of the American Institute of Decorators took the task to heart. Dorothy Paul of Los Angeles created a Fun Room, with a leafy town square painted on one wall, game tables, and an area for editing home movies. New York City's Tom Lee did an elegant Utility Sewing Room with black-and-white-striped banquettes that could serve as beds.

In Chicago, Marc T. Nielsen's Family Room of Tomorrow included modular, multipurpose furniture, cave paintings, and maps of Earth on walls and closet doors, as well as a shuffleboard court laid into the linoleum floor.

John Hertz, of car rental fame, had architect Paul Laszlo design and build an elaborate below-ground compound in his Los Angeles backyard.

Texas builder Jay Swayze took the fallout shelter to a new level. He devised a "ship in a bottle" concept: A full-size "normal" home could be built within the protective confines of a concrete shell, with the shell's interior decoratively painted to represent the outside world.

Mr. Swayze built one for himself and his family, and liked it so much he lived in it for four years.

He was passionate about underground living, convinced it was better even under normal, peacetime circumstances.

In his book Underground Gardens and Homes, one illustration shows a family frolicking around a subterranean swimming pool amid bicycling tots and faux trees, while a maelstrom of radioactivity and tornadoes rages above ground.

Ultimately, fallout shelters fell victim to the 1960s mind set: If only the wealthy could afford them, and protection meant pitting neighbor against neighbor, there was no appetite for that. Cold War preparedness reverted to the essential: large structures designed to house big groups for bare-bones living.

The Twilight Zone's creator, Rod Serling, who could have afforded to build one, didn't.

"If we survive," he asked, "what do we survive for? What kind of a world? If it's rubble, and there's poisoned water and inedible food and (we) have to live like wild beasts, I'm not sure I want to survive."

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