An Inoperable Design

There’s a good article up on Gothamist: If a nuclear attack hits NYC, these fallout shelters won’t protect you by Jordan Gass-Poore’. It concerns the “network” of “fallout shelters” across the city, except that what we’re actually talking about is a bunch of ordinary basement and cellar spaces with signs like the one above.

Read the article for a full description, but this was a federal program in the 1960s intended to create shelters where people could wait out the deadly fallout following a nuclear war. The reality in New York was that the rooms used all had other purposes, did not have proper air filtration or heavy enough walls, and were pretty quickly stripped of their supplies. I’ll illustrate with an example: yesterday I pointed out approximately where I grew up in Flushing. That building was built in 1959, shortly before the fallout shelter program began. It’s an amazingly ordinary outer-boroughs apartment house, seven stories high with wood-joist floors supported on brick bearing walls. (There are a few interior steel columns and girders as well.) Here’s a typical apartment floor plan:

Floor plan of an apartment house.

The front of the building, facing the street, is at the bottom, and the main entrance is a one-story pavilion in the lightcourt on that side. The ground floor is actually a basement, down about five steps from the street, but the floor above it is numbered as the second floor. The rear of the basement is a garage that extends all the way to the rear lot line, about 30 feet past the upper-floor rear facade you see here. The requirements of the New York Multiple Dwelling law mean that all of the basement, including the structure above it (the second-floor floor) have to be fire-rated and are therefore concrete. The wood structure starts above that level.

There were a bunch of those fallout shelter signs. The ones I remember were at the two side entrances to the building, at the laundry room, and at the garage. I’m not actually sure which room was supposed to be the shelter. There was certainly no big unused room that could have fit an appreciable percentage of the building’s residents. The laundry room was far too small; the lobby has glass doors with floor-to-ceiling windows on either side of it. Using a garage as an emergency shelter seems amazingly dumb. I assume some room had been designated, but by the time I noticed all this (circa 1974 or 75) the whole idea was dead anyway. The part that sticks most prominently in my memory is that a couple of the large drums (that came full of clean water as part of the survival supplies) had been repurposed in the laundry room as garbage cans.

If Manhattan were nuked, it’s unlikely that there would be a lot of survivors in Flushing; given Flushing’s proximity to LaGuardia airport, the odds that anyone there would survive an actual atomic war were probably close to zero. But for at least a few years, someone thought that those signs and supplies, referring to some room in the basement, had meaning.

On a side note, I have a sign. Years ago, I was performing an investigation in an office building and came across a big stack of the signs in the cellar. I made some comment about them and the building manager said I should take one.

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