Fallout shelter

A Surprise Under the Basement

Highland Park

14.6 miles

June 10, 2022

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the author’s blog, Saint Paul by Bike.

The Cold War, according to most historians, started in 1945 following the end of World War II. Tensions between the US and Soviet Union grew from, among other things, the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 and the 1950 start of the Korean war.

Fears of nuclear war escalated in the early ’50s after successful tests of the exponentially more powerful hydrogen bomb by both the United States and the Soviet Union. The government created evacuation plans for the residents of major US cities, who in the event of a Soviet attack, would evacuate. Civil defense leaders based this plan on the belief that ground observers and military radar would detect Soviet planes in time for people to evacuate.

It’s hard to understand the palpable fear among US citizens after the Soviets’ successful 1957 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch. Officials scrapped the evacuation plans after realizing Soviet ICBMs would reach targets in the US far too quickly to move millions of people out of cities. Civil defense efforts turned toward dedicated group fallout (bomb) shelters—in schools and private buildings—bolstered by a $200 million appropriation from the Kennedy administration for construction of public facilities.

President Kennedy introduced the plan in a speech delivered before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961:

“Such a program will provide Federal funds for identifying fallout shelter capacity in existing, structures, and it will include, where appropriate, incorporation of shelter in Federal buildings, new requirements for shelter in buildings constructed with Federal assistance, and matching grants and other incentives for constructing shelter in State and local and private buildings.”

Men stocked the public civil defense shelter within St. Casimir’s School at 925 East Jessamine Avenue, Saint Paul, in 1963. Courtesy MNHS

Efforts went beyond public fallout shelters, as President Kennedy also promoted construction of home shelters. Despite the controversy about the ethics and effectiveness of private home shelters, the number in the US jumped from an estimated 1,516 in 1960 to about 200,000 in 1965. While more than a 100-fold increase in private fallout shelters, it represented only a paltry 0.4 percent of homes in the United States.

The Family Fallout Shelter brochure, produced by the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization in 1959, gave instructions on building and stocking home shelters.

There is no easy way to determine how many home fallout shelters were built in Minnesota and how many remain. However, at least one endures, in nearly pristine condition tucked in a quiet residential part of St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood.

Nothing unusual about the Colonial at 725 Ridge St. — that you can see. But 18 or so feet underground is an intact Cold War-era fallout shelter.

No matter how closely you look, it’s impossible to tell the modest, well-kept bungalow at 725 Ridge St. has a fallout shelter underneath it. Chris and Cindy Weber had no inkling about the bomb shelter when they stepped into the house with their realtor in 1996. As they toured the basement, Chris said the realtor spotted a door that looked out of place. “He goes over there and he opens it up and he starts swearing. ‘Holy s—!’ He’d never seen anything like it before.” Chris said, chuckling at the memory. Obviously, the fallout shelter didn’t discourage them from purchasing the house.

When Chris and Cindy moved in, the shelter was empty other than an old gas mask—no civil defense food rations or water containers, no first aid kits or other supplies. Chris told me they haven’t removed or changed any of the features of the shelter in the 26 years they’ve lived here, though they added a couple of shelves for storage.

The shelter revived Cindy’s recollection of the “Duck and Cover” drills in which she participated in the early 1960s, according to Chris. “In school, they had nuclear drills; hide under your desk, and she started talking about that.”

A “Duck and Cover” drill in an elementary school. Date and location unknown. Courtesy Reinventing Civil Defense, a project at the Stevens Institute of Technology

Chris invited me into the house and took me through the kitchen to the basement stairs.

The stairway leading to the basement is just off the kitchen.

Once in the basement, he pointed out the odd door that led to the discovery of the fallout shelter so many years before.

The unusual doorway in the basement is the entrance to the stairs to the fallout shelter.
The stairway from the basement to the shelter level. The phone/intercom on the right wall enabled people outside the shelter to call people inside (probably to beg to be let in). The items at the bottom of the stairs are storm windows.
A short hallway leads from the bottom of the stairs to the actual shelter entrance. At one time, a heavy metal door—lockable from inside the shelter—provided a virtually airtight seal, in theory protecting shelter occupants from atomic fallout. The two marks on the right side of the door opening are where the substantial door hinges were mounted.
A close look at the phone/intercom inside the shelter that allowed people within the shelter and those outside, in the basement, to communicate with each other.

The first thing I noticed after descending from the basement into the shelter was the solid, foot-thick cement walls. The low concrete ceiling — between six-and-a-half and seven feet tall — and two glaring industrial lights (“for hazardous locations”) created a feeling of confinement, despite the relatively roomy 25-foot by 25-foot size. It was cool in the shelter — low-60s I’m guessing — and it felt and smelled faintly damp, much like a typical basement. A distinct echo played upon our voices, footsteps and every other sound we made. The starkness of the room and harsh lighting contributed to an overall unsettled feeling.

Much of the shelter is visible in this picture. A corner of the entrance is visible to the left of the partial wall. The metal on the far right covers an escape hatch to the surface. Chris speculates the partial wall in the center offered some semblance of privacy. The device on the left connected to the hose is the manually operated fresh air filtration system.
Another angle in the shelter. The partial wall is to the left. The large square piece of steel in the middle can be removed to access an escape tunnel that exits in the front yard.
The shelter escape hatch, which looks like a large manhole cover, is hidden under the ground cover and bushes. The Webers planted the greenery as part of an effort to stop rainwater from seeping into the shelter.
Chris demonstrates the still functioning fresh air filter system. Turning the crank creates a suction that brings filtered air into the shelter.
Neither Chris nor Cindy have opened the wall safe in the shelter simply because they don’t have the combination. While doubtful there is anything inside, Chris’s curiosity lingers.

Chris and Cindy haven’t attempted to open the shelter wall safe. “We never pursued trying to open it and we have no combo for it,” Chris believes it’s empty but remains curious.

The government line in the event of a nuclear attack was that citizens would need to stay in a fallout shelter for two weeks after an attack to allow radiation to dissipate to a safe level. Therefore, public and home shelters alike had to be stocked with food, water, a first aid kit, sanitation supplies and other necessities.

Chris has intensely reflected upon Cold War fallout shelters from many perspectives. First, there’s the geopolitical circumstances that led to the nuclear threat and fallout shelters. “I was thinking what went through their minds, because this doesn’t make sense to me. This does not make sense to me that you would do something like this because even if you survive, even if you live down here and a nuclear blast comes through, you’re not gonna live.”

The two metal plates, with a U-bolt on each, mounted on both sides of the stairway may have been part of a pulley system for moving heavy and bulky items in and out of the shelter.

He’s also considered the logistics that were required to fully prepare the 1960s shelter. He speculates the two metal plates mounted to the stairway walls (above) were part of a pulley system used to move large, heavy or bulky items into the shelter. “You could get heavy equipment down there. And then once it’s down there, of course it’s easy to move around.”

The apparent lack of a toilet puzzled Chris (and me). It turns out empty water barrels were designed to double as toilets (below). At a certain point, it would have been necessary or at least prudent to remove the bag and its contents from the shelter.

A 17.5-gallon water drum with the plastic “commode” liner and seat. Note the instructions were printed on the drum. Courtesy Civil Defense Museum

Tax records indicate that 725 Ridge Street was built in 1938, several years before the Cold War began. Construction of the shelter came about 20 years later. Dr. Wilfred W. Wetzel, a 3M scientist, owned the home and had the shelter built. Wetzel was one of the scientists responsible for breakthroughs with magnetic audio recording tape, revolutionizing the music and broadcasting industries by making it practical to record broadcasts and live performances for later playback. According to Chris, “He made a lot of money off the royalties. And he took the money and he did things like this.”

The two flights of stairs to the fallout shelter. In the foreground, the steps from the shelter to the basement. The steps between the basement and the main floor are in the background.

Constructing the shelter must have been quite a project. The builder had to dig a sizeable hole 15 to 20 feet deep in the front yard and build the shelter below the basement level. Chris still ponders the techniques and materials used in building the shelter, which shows negligible signs of wear or decay. “Let’s say it’s been in here for 50-plus years nobody’s ever touched the roof or the walls. How the heck are they still intact? I’m thinking to myself, ‘I bet this is lead lined,’ and God only knows what other materials are up here to make sure this thing never cracked from water or tree roots or anything.”

Chris gets a kick out of showing visitors, especially younger people who have little knowledge of the Cold War, the shelter. “I’d say, ‘You wanna see the bomb shelter?’ The kids would go, ‘What’s that?’ We’d come down here and talk about it and, and what it meant. And they’re in shock when they see it, because they’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Another corner of the fallout shelter. Left to right are shelves Chris and Cindy added, the wall safe, skis and the fresh air intake system.

Chris doubts they’ll mention the fallout shelter in the listing when they sell the house. “We talked to the agent—was it last year or the year before about it?—and he said, ‘What’s gonna sell the house is that porch and the stuff up above. This is not gonna help sell a house.” Although Chris is correct about that, there’s little doubt the fallout shelter makes 725 Ridge Street a more intriguing place to live.

Elsewhere In Highland Park

The rest of the ride obviously didn’t offer anything as dramatic as Chris and Cindy’s fallout shelter but there were still many sights worth noting. For example, about a block away, a large expanse of grass and the driveway was all that remained where a massive home stood for more than 80 years.

The absence of the lovely 9,200-square-foot colonial mansion that stood here, at 1590 Edgcumbe since 1937 came as a surprise.
The home that stood at 1590 Edgcumbe Road from 1937 to 2022. Courtesy Edina Realty
The driveway and two brick pillars remained from the former home.

Past residents include a member of the Weyerhaeuser family (Edwin Weyerhaeuser Davis) the former head of Cray Research who was nominated for the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration and the disgraced former owner of a travel agency.It will be very interesting to see what goes up on this 3.5-acre wooded property, among the biggest in Highland Park.

Highland Park south of Ford Parkway features a bountiful number of homes built in the mid-20th century. Several homes on Hampshire Court have interesting architectural details that are found on homes from the early 1950s.

The patterned cement screen block privacy wall in front of 1752 Hampshire Court is a 1950s design element I’ve spotted occasionally on other homes and apartment buildings around town.
The decorative angular pieces with circles in them are fine examples of the use of geometric shapes in mid-century designs.

Riding east on Hampshire to Davern Street I came upon a Little Free Library in the most unconventional location. It apparently belongs to the home at 1020 Davern but it’s quite a hike from the house to the library. Not only that, the library is 15 feet from Davern and partially obscured by a bush.

The Little Free Library belongs to 1020 Davern Street, part of which is visible in the background on the right.

The view of the Highland Park Water Tower on Snelling Avenue is significantly better after the removal of the reservoir to the south.

St. Paul Regional Water Services stopped using Highland Reservoir Number 1 in 2014 and demolished and cleared the rubble in 2021. The open land may be converted into athletic fields. Looking north, the sidewalk is parallel to Snelling Avenue.
An aerial view of the Highland Park water towers and reservoirs prior to the removal of reservoir #1 to the south (bottom). Courtesy St. Paul Regional Water Service

Finally, a couple other random scenes around Highland Park.

No trouble reading the address at 1729 Colvin Avenue. These are quite likely the largest residential address numbers in St. Paul.
One of the most fun Little Free Libraries in St. Paul, at 856 St. Paul Ave., features native son Charles Schultz’s beloved Peanuts characters.
Windows on three sides of the Little Free Library is a unique and practical design. It’s out front of 1769 Hampshire Ave.
#House or #HashtagHouse; 2193 Eleanor Avenue.

In thinking back on this ride, I cannot help but consider the historical significance of the fallout shelter. I am old enough to vaguely remember some of the saber-rattling between the US and Soviet Union. I’ve seen fallout shelter signs, provisions, gas masks, water and waste buckets and many other Cold War relics. I’ll never forget the time in third grade, sitting on the school bus in the Milwaukee area, watching in awe as half a dozen Nike surface-to-air missiles and their launch platforms were raised from underground bunkers and shortly thereafter, lowered back into them. But none of that made the impression that 45 minutes in Chris and Cindy Weber’s fallout shelter did.

Except where noted, all photos are by the author.

Wolfie Browender

About Wolfie Browender

Pronouns: He/Him/His

Wolfie Browender has lived in Saint Paul with his wife, Sue, since 1986. His two adult daughters also live in the Capital City, one Downtown and the other on the East Side. Wolfie bikes for fun and exercise. Follow his travels along the more than 800 miles of streets in his quest to ride every block of every street in Saint Paul on his blog Saint Paul By Bike at SaintPaulByBike.com.