WEST LAKE HILLS — With effort, Craig Denham heaves open the heavy metal door.

He heads down the steep, thick concrete steps that are set in solid limestone. He takes a sharp left into the darkness, then another, before revealing an astounding time capsule preserved from the height of the Atomic Age.

In the backyard of the creative director's mid-century modern home in West Lake Hills is a 1961 fallout shelter in near-mint condition.

Two retractable cots hang from one wall in a cramped room that is illuminated by a single light bulb. Nearby is a crank for the air shaft; across the way are spigots for water stored in tanks.

In one corner is a low, odd-looking toilet sheltered behind a plastic shower curtain.

"Probably leads right into the aquifer," Denham, 44, joked before pointing out a disabled periscope near the stairwell. "Perfect for the zombie apocalypse if it comes."

Lined on shelves of the shelter — built by a retired Air Force colonel who was also something of an inventor — are supplies and equipment for surviving a week or two underground. That was the length of time civil defense officials estimated — at least for public consumption — necessary for radioactive fallout from a nuclear bomb to clear away.

Among the most chilling artifacts: a Texas highway map posted on the wall. The shelter owner had carefully drawn cross hairs over San Antonio — where U.S. military forces were concentrated — along with what appear to be trajectories for fallout drift. (Oddly, the lines fan out to the southeast, defying the prevailing Texas winds.)

"He was privy to information the public wasn't," Denham says of Col. E.V. Robnett Jr., who died in 1984. "And even he built one in his backyard. There must have been real concern with people's safety."

Younger readers might find it hard to imagine the nearly constant anxiety that agitated Americans, especially in urban areas, during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Schoolchildren were instructed to "duck and cover" under their desks in case of a blinding nuclear blast. Adults plotted escape routes from cities or, alternately, outfitted shelters in order to survive the worst of the fallout.

The concern reached almost hysterical proportions during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day confrontation in October 1962 between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R over weapons placements in Cuba. "Only 90 miles off the coast of Florida" went the oft-repeated phrase. Texans in Houston, San Antonio and Fort Worth felt particularly vulnerable because of nearby military or oil industry facilities. (Some children took twisted pride in the target rank of their home cities.)

Yet much of the civil defense advice shared with the public, in retrospect, appears overly optimistic to Denham.

"After you look at it all, and realize what we know today, you have to ask: 'Would you really survive?'" he says. "I think it takes more than five days for radiation to cool off, for instance. It wasn't going to be as safe as they said it would be."

To someone familiar in his work with the rhetoric of film and advertising, Denham suspects that shelter movement was in part a public relations ploy.

"In my mind, they knew that," he says. "It was a way to cool people off: 'Here, do this and you will be safe.'"

As evidence, Denham points to "Target Austin," a surviving public service film short made by late TV pioneers Gordon Wilkison and Cactus Pryor. Its well-produced fiction argues that a family fallout shelter stocked with the help of handy checklists was a simple and safe solution to a blast that could, in reality, level a city and leave the ruins caked in radiation for months if not years.

For Denham, the fully outfitted shelter behind the house that he and his former wife purchased from friends in 2008 was an outrageously lucky find.

"We had agreed to buy it, negotiated the price, then they added: 'Oh yes, there's a basement in the back, a shelter," he says. "Now, I'm really big into mid-century modern. Buying this particular house was partly about finding a place for my furniture collection. So I was very intrigued."

The couple who sold Denham the house — designed in 1959 by a prominent architectural firm — had purchased it two years earlier from the family that originally owned it. (Col. Robnett's wife died in 2005.)

At that time, the old metal door to the fallout shelter was still sealed, and presumably had been for more than 50 years.

"So they took the hinges off," Denham says. "There was no electricity down there at the time, so they peeked in with flashlights and didn't remove anything."

When Denham took over the property in 2008, the habitual tinkerer figured out how to work the lights, took everything out, cleaned it up and put everything back where he found it. To finish the look, however, he replaced some soup cans.

"It was cool to me," he says. "Then I realized it had historical value."

During a Preservation Austin tour of mid-century Austin homes, Denham opened up the musty underground room to guests. On Halloween, his two daughters have played "zombie apocalypse" there.

"I've never shut the door behind me," Denham says quite seriously.

Among the vintage gear neatly laid out in the shelter: A Geiger counter to test ambient radiation levels, a short-wave radio to monitor war news and a pen-like dosimeter to test radiation on one's person. Stacked nearby are crisp civil defense manuals, gas masks, heavy tools and first aid supplies.

The air crank next to the cots comes with an automatic alarm so shelterers didn't sleep through the periodic oxygen refreshment process.

Whimsical products — such as paper plates decorated with images of the cartoon character Dennis the Menace and a can of Florient Spice Hair Deodorant — contrast with the pitiless cans of MPF Multi-Purpose Food and a tin of 434 Survival Crackers.

Decaffinated Sanka, Coffeemate, Lipton Instant Tea and Instant Maxwell House Coffee sit side by side with Sterno, matches, candles and batteries.

Some of the products, such as Metrecal diet food, Bondware wax paper dishes and Lifebuoy Coral bar soap, are blasts from the retail past for anyone over a certain age.

To keep the family's mind off the nuclear waste above them, the owners also stashed a set of large, red dominoes.

There's nothing campy or fun, however, about the guns that Col. Robnett also had kept down there, or the bullets that the current owner removed.

Denham: "The neighbors told me he said: 'Don't bother knocking, because we won't be opening the door.'"

According to well-organized receipts that came with the house, Robnett purchased much of the survival material at Bergstrom Air Force Base, now Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Denham thinks that Robnett might have patterned the shelter after a demonstration model that was built and outfitted in Zilker Park. (It's still there.) Historians believe that public project was used in the fictional "Target Austin" film.

Although he meticulously maintains the shelter, Denham hasn't yet completed the paperwork that might designate it historic and therefore help to preserve it for the future.

"I'm really into the Atomic Age," he says. "I hate to think what will happen to it when I sell the house."

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(22) comments

Darren Baker

The tin of crackers is dated as having been packed sometime between July - December 1962. Just sayin'.

Tom Billings

"along with what appear to be trajectories for fallout drift. (Oddly, the lines fan out to the southeast, defying the prevailing Texas winds.)"

Surface winds, yes. However, a thermonuclear weapon of Megaton+ power would toss much/most of its radioactive material into the stratosphere, in which case West to East patterns, such as he Jet Stream, would be the prevailing means of travel for that dust.


What's all this silly talk about whether this man is a liberal or a conservative? This is just an interesting story. I happen to consider myself a conservative. Maybe even a libertarian. I would not leave guns or ammunition in the shelter simply because I want such things close to my reach but under lock and key. The mention of children playing in the shelter also means that arms should not be left there.


The new owner may see this shelter as an exercise in propaganda, but since he seems ignorant of the science behind these types of shelters I don't think he has all the information needed to have a relevant opinion

What this article describes is a "Blast Shelter", an underground bunker designed around the idea of being in the blast radius of an atom bomb. This is a different concept from the "fallout shelters" which were meant to keep people alive by protecting them from the irradiated bits of ash that fall out of that big mushroom looking thingy.

The thing you need to remember about radioactive fallout is that it radiates a lot of energy over a short period time. That's what makes it dangerous. But it's like a battery, once it's discharged it's done. Assuming no new A bombs, after 2 weeks radioactive fallout has died down to the point that sea level now has the level in the mountains normally. The mountains would have background radiation experienced today flying in an air plane. This isn't a good thing, cancer rates would go up, but it is livable.

Protection from fallout is fairly straight forward, you put a thick enough barrier between you and the fallout & your pretty much done. Surviving the initial strike if you're in the blast zone is much harder, your dealing with gamma radiation, overpressure which you can think of as tornadic or hurricane winds on steroids (this is why the entry has the bend) & really really incredible heat.

This shelter would have given him a chance of surviving the initial strike as long as a bomb didn't land on him. The odds increase slightly in his favor since air bases were targeted by air bursts to preserve the runways for use by the occupiers after the invasion. The odds decrease from the soviet tech being substandard in terms of accurate targeting, which led them to increase the bombs per target in the hopes that one would do the job they wanted it to.

Assuming they survive the initial strike, it all comes down to how fast the radiation falls off vs how quickly they go through their supplies. Radiation poisoning is cumulative, so you want to limit exposure as much as possible. Thankfully a well designed blast shelter is also an ideal fallout shelter.

But it's still a gamble the background radiation drops enough so when the food runs out they could survive travelling out of the immediate damage zone to get to an area that is relatively safe.


Thank you for some very interesting additional information. I'm 82, grew up in San Antonio and went to school at U. of T. I, thus, lived in the areas mentioned and at the time discussed. Yes, we were afraid. There was good reason to be so. Sadly, there is still good reason to fear. We experienced a tower shooter at U. of T., but nothing like the present almost weekly frequency of sick people targeting public schools, malls, and work places.


"But it's like a battery, once it's discharged it's done. Assuming no new A bombs, after 2 weeks radioactive fallout has died down to the point that sea level now has the level in the mountains normally."

That is not correct. When a Nuke detonates it releases neutrons that transmute any nearby material. A significant amount of material with be converted to isotopes with half-lives measured in months or years. Most large nukes also have dirty casings that exacerbates radioactive fallout. The height of the detonation also plays a huge roll as the closer to the ground the larger the amount contaminated material is created.

Today we have a problem worse than the cold war of the 1950s and 1960's. Back then there were very few nuke plants in operation. Today we have over 300 nuke plants (globally) with megatons of spent fuel rods and no long term storage options. Should a crisis occur, that disrupts cooling we will unleashed more radiation then if the World had multiple Nuke wars at the same time. A typical Bomb has fissional material measured in kilograms. Every spent fuel pool now has hundreds or even many thousands of tons of highly radioactive material.


The colonel who built the shelter knew what he was doing. He undoubtedly knew that the then-Bergstrom Air Force Base (now Austin's international airport) was the Russkie's likely target because it was a SAC base with B-52s loaded with nukes and on standby to fly over the pole to Moscow. The shelter was only a few miles (as the crow flies) from the base. So, depending on the megatonage of the strike, the shelter would either have been vaporized or, if it survived, be under the debris fallout carried from the base on the prevailing winds.


Radiation isn't the terrible monster that most people seem to think it is. With a fallout shelter like that, there would have been a good chance of surviving - and the remaining radiation might cause cancer in 20+ years, but nothing that would kill you within a month. It takes a LOT of radiation in a SHORT time to kill.


I was in a bomb shelter once, while inspecting houses after Katrina. It was right off the beach. 16" thick walls, dark, moldy - creepy.
It's sad that an AF colonel would know so little about radiation. The rest of the country knew much less! The gov encouraged people to build these things, to show the Commies how committed we were!
In the 80's, when I told my ~14yo sons how I never thought I'd ever have a future, they rolled on the floor laughing! By the 90's and 00's - the were no longer laughing!


"or the bullets that the current owner removed" must be a liberal idiot. He doesn't deserve that bunker.


Said the conservative idiot. I'm sorry you are so afraid of life that you feel you need a gun.


I'm sorry you are so afraid of a tool that you must whisk it away out of your house because of your irrational fear.


I have guns for self-defense. I also have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and a smoke alarm in the hallway. I've never needed any of them, and with any luck, I never will.

A gun and a fire extinguisher are similar items - in that when you need one, nothing else will do, and it'll be too late to obtain one.


jd889 The "right to bear arms" was put in just below freedom of religion/speech so that the people could protect their rights against a tyrannical government of even a tyrannical minority. cf "What made the ... Holocaust possible? Gun control" http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/nov/7/halbrook-the-key-to-this-german-pogrom-is-confisca/

Obama's constant abuses of power could well lead to violence against the people.


yup another bleeding heart liberal who is 'scared' of guns.. lol

These were the first ones to call me on the morning of 9/11 and ask if they could "borrow" a gun just in case things get worse. Typical hypocrite liberals.

Oh well they wont get into my bunker, and I can assure you mine is a whole lot better supplied and a lot more elaborate than that.


I'm a wild-eyed, native Texan liberal -- never in my almost 60 years have I ever thought I needed a gun. This was especially true after 9/11. I saw it for what it was -- a covert mission against us, unlikely to ever be replicated. Folks like yourself, who seem to wet their pants every time someone unlike you sneezes, are to be pitied.


Oooh, you are soooo brave, rj. Sooo impressive.

I feel the same way. I see people riding down the street with seat belts on and I think them cowardly. 'Cause they are unlikely to get into an accident. Then I feel smugly superior, just like you.


Self-defense is not limited to protecting yourself from terrorists. But
"Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said ... the U.S. and the rest of the democratic world is at a security crossroads in the wake of last month's deadly al-Shabab attackat a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya – and suggested an answer could be in arming civilians. In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Noble said there are really only two choices for protecting open societies from attacks like the one on Westgate mall where so-called 'soft targets' are hit: either create secure perimeters around the locations or allow civilians to carry their own guns to protect themselves."

I don't think Noble belongs to the NRA


so heebee, you know this many personally and know he is, in fact, a liberal? were you there to see the condition of the ammo? do you know the reason he removed them? perhaps he removed them because he opens it up for the neighbors, his daughters go there to play and he wants to avoid any problems. he may have even removed them to keep thieves from breaking in a stealing them. so unless you know for certain the reason he removed the bullets, then calling him a liberal is flat out incorrect.

Brian Goulet

or, you know, he has two young children and wants to make sure that there are no accidents when they play down there. did you even bother to read the article? typical conservative, more concerned about what somebody else is doing with 50 year old ammo than the fact that they found this shelter in the first place. and by the way, yes, i am a liberal, and yes, i have shot and owned guns, and no, i'm not afraid of them..

Julie Vruggink

Most if not all of the ammo would not be much good and potentially dangerous if used. I would have removed them as well because of this.

George Kelley

People shoot old military surplus ammo all the time. As long as there is no corrosion it is fine. Looking at the condition of the other items in that bunker, it will be fine.

The others are right, that guy is a bedwetting liberal.

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