Whatever Happened to Fallout Shelters Built in the 1950's?

During the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of people built fallout shelters in a misguided attempt to survive nuclear holocaust. Some subdivisions even boasted houses that came with fallout shelters. Yet you never see fallout shelters when you look at real estate, and I don’t know anyone who has bought a house that came with a fallout shelter, even a converted one. I think a fallout shelter would be a nifty getaway or maybe a good spot to park unwelcome guests. Anybody know what became of them?

A lot of them filled up with water, during floods, & were never salvaged later on.

Others got covered over with leaves & dirt, & have been forgotten.

A few may be used for storage, or for hiding places for teens (used for guess what?).

By now, most of them have been filled in, converted into a finished basement, turned into a wine cellar, or otherwise been “destroyed.”

When I was growing up the house behind us had an underground fallout shelter. Over the years groundwater gradually seeped in and destroyed it. Eventually the neighbors just filled it up with dirt.

Keeping an underground shelter livable requires ongoing maintenance. I imagine a lot of shelters met the same fate. After the initial scare, people stopped caring for them and they became unlivable and were removed/destroyed.

The most famous is probably the one built by Robert Heinlein at his Colorado Springs house. This is the model for the shelter that figures prominently in Farnham’s Freehold. I saw some photos of it online a while back, but I believe that the current owner of the property has sealed it off and buried it - probably to discourage fans from visiting as much as anything else.

I would love to buy a house someday with an old fallout shelter and renovate it into a separate basement-lounge. I would totally do it all up in 1970s-era quasi-modernist Kubrick-esque decor, too, like Alex’s room from A Clockwork Orange.

A related question, if anyone knows:

If this is the case, that they require care to remain livable, how would that work if you were actually bombed, and had to live inside of one? How long did people expect to stay in the shelters they built, and how would they maintain them while living inside of them?

I think you were only supposed to stay in a fallout shelter for a few weeks until the most dangerous radioactive particles had decayed/settled out of the atmosphere. You weren’t suppose to live there for years at a time, so ongoing maintenance during use wasn’t really an issue.

I understand there was a sudden crash in the fallout-shelter business, right after the boom, due in part to the cost of the things - it was called “shellout falter”. :smiley:

That makes sense.

I think too many 50’s sci-fi movies have me thinking people would stay there (or at least, plan to stay there) for a longer amount of time. Whenever you see someone with a fallout shelter portrayed in a movie, odds are they’ll have years worth of canned goods down there, too.

Of course, movies aren’t real so I probably should’ve thought that out a little better, but I have no experience with fallout shelters, being born in 1980.

My high school had Fallout Shelter facilities. At that time (early 1970s) it hadn’t deteriorated, and was reasonably clean and dry. They had barrels of water, cases of dry provisions, and a generator. For all I know it’s still there.

I understand that in most cases the provisions (never meant for long lifetimes) have deteriorated, even if still in their unbroken packaging. I can’t imagine the water going bad, or the generator if well-packed. But this was a different case than most – it was in a dry, well-kept space.
From what I’ve seen and read, lots of shelters were underground, and that’s a tough environment. As Paul Brickhill said in his book The Great Escape, a tunnel needs constant care or it starts to fall apart. Even if it started out perfectly sealed, metal corrodes, concrete "weeps, and anything less complete will start to let the earth in. If the environment gets damp, anything not sealed in waterproof containers will rapidly decay and go bad. as noted above, a lot of them probably flooded. I’ll bet a lot of others were seen by their owners or new owners as potential hazards, and were filled in.

It was an idea of limited utility to start off with – it pretty much assumed that you’d receive relatively minor damage, as you would if you were subject to small bombs from 1940s bombers, or were far from a nuclear blast. Living where I grew up, within sight of the Empire State Building, near the Naval Munitions Depot, and not all that far from McGuire AFB and other military targets, I’d probably have been toast.

The Wikipedia article might be helpful here.


I spent my high school years at Fort Bliss, TX during the late 80s. It was not at all unusual to see signs around post notifying passers-by that the building in question was equipped with a fallout shelter.

Come to think of it, even my high school had just such a sign, despite it being a parochial school.

I recall one of the house flipping shows found what I thought was a fall out shelter. They were breaking up the old ceramic tile and pulled up the sub-floor. They found a big hole that led into an area under the slab. The flipper guy was upset because he didn’t want the cost of filling it in. I always figured he just covered it back over after the cameras left.

Oh, pshaw. Don’t you know that some fallout shelters were designed to support a family of three for up to 35 years? :wink:

No, no. It’s an activity that teens need to practice in secret.


I went to a Christmas party last year at a pretty nice house and they still had a fallout shelter. It was covered by a deck and you could lift off a portion of the deck and then go down into the shelter. It was still in pretty good shape, not damp or mildewy.

What I’m curious about is panic rooms. Until that Jodi Foster movie I’d never heard of a panic room. Maybe I’ll start another thread.

Friends of ours have an intact shelter in their front yard. overlooking San Diego Bay. Their house is built on a slope with the shelter dug into the front yard. It’s all concrete, the main room must be 15’ x 15’ and access is via a 4’ x 4’ laddered vertical shaft. Entrance to the shaft is covered by a steel door. I have no idea how thick the concrete is, but the engineering is significant. The shaft leading down to the main room is maybe 15’ deep. Aside from the steel door, you’d never know it was there.

A previous owner of our house had converted a corner of the basement into a fallout shelter. We used it as a walk-in closet until we finished the basement. The contractor said tearing out the walls was way harder than it looked like it would be.

That’s what happened to the basement shelters – they got torn out entirely or converted into closet space. Many of the backyard shelters have been filled in.