During the 40-year stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union called the “Cold War,” the terror of an atomic attack pervaded American life. After witnessing the horrific destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atom bombs at the end of World War II, Americans feared a similar fate, precipitating the construction of bomb shelters and family fallout shelters throughout the country. These perverse havens became physical manifestations of our collective anxiety.
In New Mexico where the realities of atomic research and development culminated at the top secret U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (later Los Alamos National Laboratories, Los Alamos, NM), bomb shelters in various forms became a recognizable element of the cultural landscape. Most notably, architect Frank Standhardt designed the Abo Elementary School in Artesia, New Mexico in 1961 at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the first fully underground public school in the United States. The school also operated as an advanced fallout shelter for up to 2400 people. Decommissioned in 1995 and now used as a storage facility, this structure was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 as prodigious evidence of a way of life burdened by unease and the scramble to survive.
Frank Standhardt Architect, rendering: Abo Elementary School (1961), Artesia, New Mexico.1960s. SWA Standhardt, Meem Architecture Archives, CSWR, UNM.
Frank Standhardt Architect, photograph: Abo Elementary School (1961), Artesia, New Mexico. SWA Standhardt, Meem Architecture Archives, CSWR, UNM.
On a smaller scale, government publications and popular magazines offered detailed instructions on building and outfitting “family fallout shelters.” These backyard subterranean hideaways, designed to withstand a firestorm, represent broader public policy which indicated that with enough preparation the American family and the fabric of the nation could survive an attack.
"You and the Atomic Bomb: What to do in case of an atomic attack" New York State Civil Defense Commission pamphlet. CSWR, UNM.
Flatow, Moore, Bryan Elevations Architects, elevations: Fox Building, Albuquerque, New Mexico. SWA Flatow. Meem Architecture Archives, CSWR, UNM.
The impact of the atomic age remains an underlying characteristic of modern New Mexican culture, as a place of intrigue and refuge. Guarded government laboratories and fortified military installations intermingle with off-the-grid, counter-culture compounds. Ubiquitous yellow and black “Fall Out Shelter” signs can still be spotted on mid-century-era office buildings or forgotten underground bunkers that stand as bricks-and-mortar reminders of a Cold War manifested on the home front.
Fallout Shelter sign, 1960s. Meem Architecture Archives, CSWR, UNM.