Building a Fallout Shelter

Six black binders lined up on a shelf, each labeled with a white piece of paper

Binders containing inventories of Personal Articles (clothes and toiletries packed for the shelter) by department for staff and cottage for students, and lists of Occupants in the Perkins Fallout Shelter.

January 8, 2019

In September 1961, the Perkins School for the Blind Trustees authorized the “construction of adequate fallout shelters for students and staff” who resided at the school. Construction had started by the following November. The Director’s Files from Edward J. Waterhouse include 8 folders labeled “Civil Defense.” Within these folders are newspaper clippings, memos, notes, and articles about the development of the fallout shelter located under Perkins’ campus. Many of the documents represent Waterhouse’s own disbelief and horror with having to consider the possibility of needing such a facility. All together, the records are evidence of the complexity of the project and of Waterhouse’s management.

The projected final budget for the project as of September 18, 1962 was $689,660, well over the initial $250,000 figure. Perkins’ Bursar, J. Stephenson Hemphill, reminded group members on November 21, 1961 that “It is important to continue thinking of the project in its two major parts: Construction...and Supplies and Equipment.” Waterhouse first met with Mr. White and Mr. Roberts of Richard White Sons (the construction company) on September 11, 1961. He noted that the construction company had never done a project like this before and “this was a pioneering type of construction for which there were few precedents.” Construction meeting notes include discussions of the quality of the well water, an installation of a soup kettle, and tunnel lighting as well as specifications for construction. Local representatives from Civil Defense Departments attended these construction meetings and provided guidance and feedback. Meanwhile, Waterhouse continued to read articles and recommendations about what a shelter should include and store. For example, he writes that “I read through all these articles and agree with you that the one of BASIC DIETARY SUPPLIES AND EQUIPMENT FOR SHELTERS is the best one we have found yet.” He requested reprints of “The Physician and Civil Defense” (Dr. Solomon Garb, New York State Journal of Medicine) to be distributed to staff in “a campaign to encourage non-resident members of our staff to take steps to protect their own homes, to supplement a program underway at the School itself.”

Waterhouse summarizes many of their efforts and decisions in a November 20, 1961 letter to Lloyd A. Abrosen, Superintendent of the Maryland School for the Deaf. He wrote that “We do not feel we are experts in this field just because we seem to have been one of the first schools to start work….” He goes on that the Trustees authorized construction of the shelter to house approximately 700 people (although the official capacity was 1,200) including “pupils and staff together with the families of resident staff members.” He notes that “...it was also specified that we provide an individual bunk for everyone of these people. We did not feel that the idea of sleeping in shift was practical when children were involved.” He reviewed some of the specific details of the construction including this description: “...we are going below ground and there will be two or three feet of dirt on top at one end and ten or more feet of dirt on top near the buildings.”

Of course, planning for the Fallout Shelter included more than just the structure itself. Meal planning included seven hot meals. The Planning Committee said that the meals should be rotated and that the “order could be rearranged if psychologically beneficial, except for the tuna dish planned for Fridays.” Food was “selected for taste, nourishment and eating convenience (spoon only, no knives or forks), one cooking process.” Meals were generally a "divided plate" with a meat (like canned Vienna sausages or tuna fish) and canned fruits or vegetables. The syrup was to be drained and served separately. It was to be “palatable cold” in case no heat was available. It suggests that hard candies be available that it “depends on packaging obtainable.” These candies would be “for both morale and energy.”

The project was introduced to the Perkins community during a “Chapel Talk” on September 22, 1961. He noted that this was “an age of wonderful opportunity” at the same time as an “age of unprecedented peril.” He comments on a “new kind of threat,” his notes read: “unprecedented blast, radioactivity, explosion site...radioactive fallout.” The project was discussed at Staff Meetings as new policies and protocols were developed.

Waterhouse was honest about the limitations of the Shelter. There are numerous times throughout the records that clarify and emphasize that Perkins’ shelter was a fallout shelter, not a bomb shelter. It was not built or intended to protect people in the case of a nearby bombing, but rather to offer shelter from the fall-out from a more distant hit.

Thankfully, the Perkins Fallout Shelter was only ever used for drills, and never an actual emergency.