New uses for Cold War shelters Bomb refuges converted to peaceful purposes

March 21, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

To reach the end of the world, you have to pick your way through the cluttered basement in the tenant house on Edward Murray's farm off Falls Road.

There in the corner, through the cobwebs, is an arched concrete tunnel about 4 feet high, 2 feet wide and black as pitch. Crouch low and follow it back about 10 feet, and it opens into a cold, circular room perhaps 12 feet across.

"This is a blast shelter," Mr. Murray says. Dank, gray and unnervingly gloomy, it's the spot where he, his wife and children had planned to survive World War III. He thinks it may yet save someone from Armageddon.

"Aggressors have always used the most effective weapons he has available," says Mr. Murray, who was Maryland's Civil Defense director from 1984 to 1989. And notwithstanding the Cold War's thaw, "I find it hard to believe we are going to stop wars tomorrow."

The Murrays' shelter is just one of many residential bomb shelters built in Baltimore County during the nuclear confrontations of the Cold War. Most, if not all, have long since been emptied of their survival rations.

Some, like the Murrays', are empty. Others serve as storage spaces, workrooms, playrooms or spare bathrooms. All are reminders of the conflicting fears and hopes that haunted Marylanders during the 1950s and 1960s.

Mr. Murray, 71, knows from wartime experience that, when death threatens, even a concrete hole in the ground could look attractive.

A World War II artillery officer under Gen. George S. Patton, he recalls: "We were up in a little hamlet in Brittany, and the guy I was relieving pointed to a pile of manure with a hole under it, and said, 'That's the dugout. Go in there if there's any incoming [artillery].'

"I looked at my sergeant, and he looked at me, and we made a mutual agreement that this was not where we were going to go," he says.

But that night, when German shells began falling, "I found myself on top of the sergeant . . . in the hole."

The Murrays built their shelter in 1961, soon after the Soviets tested a big nuclear bomb, and one year before Mr. Murray became Baltimore County's civil defense chief. They had two children at home. "I always felt the Soviet Union was going to implode, as it did," he says. "But I wasn't going to take any chances."

Their shelter is a steel-reinforced concrete egg, designed for maximum strength against a nuclear blast. It sits beneath a garden, with only the air intake and exhaust pipes exposed. Air circulation is maintained with a hand-cranked ventilator.

For several years, Mr. Murray kept the place stocked and ready for a two-week stay. There was room for 12 people, if they were on friendly terms. If the tenant house collapsed, they could escape by opening an ingenious circular hatch and digging through several feet of sand to emerge in the garden like some kind of post-nuclear turnip.

Today, the egg is empty. The tunnel door is missing; the ventilator is stored elsewhere and the rusty air pipes have been colonized by birds. But "with three hours' warning, we could be operational," Mr. Murray says.

Across the county, on Tred Avon Road in Middle River, Frank Wagner steps through a pair of green bulkhead doors set into a mound in his side yard, and down a steep concrete stairway. At the bottom is a cinder block-lined room, 6 feet wide, 10 feet long and 6 feet high. The whole place is encased in several feet of reinforced concrete.

An Army colonel who owned the house from the 1940s until 1962 built the shelter. The Wagners are not sure when he built it. It was there when the previous owners bought the place in 1962.

Musty and cramped, it's more tomb than shelter. The Wagners (( have never thought of it as a refuge. They like it because their riverside house has no basement.

"What we do is use it for all ourboating stuff, paint stuff and automotive stuff," Mr. Wagner says. During the gasoline shortages of the 1970s and early 1980s, his family stored fuel there.

"With all the equipment the foreigners have, and if they dropped [a bomb] on our country, this wouldn't do us any good," says Mr. Wagner, 57, who is retired from the Air National Guard. "Some of their bombs make holes way bigger than this."

But like the Murrays, Mr. Wagner figures even this grim hole would beckon in a pinch. "Believe me, if your life depended on it, this would be a piece of pie to me," he says. "I could do it, and you would, too."

A few miles away, in the 1960s town house development of Fox Ridge Manor in Essex, builder Theodore Julio equipped every unit he built with a bomb shelter. "It was something that prospective buyers were concerned about," says his grandson, Theodore Julio, 36.

The 8-by-12-foot concrete shelters were tucked underneath the front porches and were entered from the basement. On the wall of each porch is a single glass block, the shelter's sole source of daylight.

Michael J. McKelvin, 26, public information officer for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, grew up in one of the homes on Foxcroft Lane, and still lives there with his wife, Sandy, 25.

"All it was was a concrete slab," he says. His parents quickly abandoned the shelter idea and converted the space into a bathroom and workroom. It's now paneled and civilized, but "it's always cold and damp."

But no matter how the Cold War thaws, and no matter how the rooms have been dressed up, they somehow remain forever "bomb shelters," says Mrs. McKelvin. "If you live here, everybody says, 'Well, down in my bomb shelter,' even if it's finished."

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