Chris and Colleen Otcasek were like any regular couple excited about the new home they had recently purchased. One thing that set their new beautiful home apart, was an interesting secret in the back garden.
A New Home
A lovely married couple, Chris and Colleen Otcasek, searched in Los Angeles, California for their new home. They settled on a house located on Philiprimm Street which is located in the San Fernando Valley Neighborhood, Woodland Hills. The beautiful home was built in 1960 and designed by the well-known architect Charles DuBois.
The style of the home is referred to as desert modernism which derived from the Palm Springs School of Architecture. As the couple moved into their house, there was still a mystery yet to be revealed. In the back of the house lies a garden with a mysterious metal hatch leading into the ground, and what lay beneath was a mysterious secret waiting to be discovered.
A Mysterious Secret
As the Otcaseks settled into their house they had yet to explore what was beneath the metal hatch. The rest of their home was perfectly normal and everything a couple would want in a home. The home has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a fireplace, and even a pool which is perfect for the California weather.
However, there was still that one thing they had yet to explore. Beneath the metal hatch in the garden was a spooky shaft with a ladder leading down into the darkness. And what was inside? Something that no one else had seen for over fifty years, a definite relic of the past.
This beautiful home was a dream come true for the Otcaseks but there was one thing on the $600,000 property that really set the home apart. Like we mentioned, in the back of the home there was a beautiful garden with the metal hatch. The realtors of course listed the property and said the space below the hatch could be used as either a wine cellar or a man cave.
During the sell, the Otcaseks were unable to look inside, so they had no idea what to expect before they fully purchased the home. But once they did they made a discovery that would fascinate the entire world.
In order to descend to the room below the hatch, the Otcaseks had to go down an old rusty latter fifteen feet into the darkness. At the end of the tunnel is a room. The room is relatively spacious for what one might expect for something so deep in the earth.
The room is twelve foot by twelve-foot bomb shelter, a remnant of the United States’ Cold War past. The vintage fallout shelter, and others like it were built across the country in order to protect people from possible nuclear war. The room remained undisturbed and still outfitted with various relics that were common back in the early 1960s.
The Cold War
The Cold War took place in the 1960s in a post-World War II political and military landscape. The terminology “cold” was used because there was no actual combat but rather a constant state of tension primarily between the Soviet Union and The United States.
While the dates of the actual Cold War are debated most agree with the consensus that it was sometime between the years of 1947 and 1991 which was the year the Soviet Union collapsed. Although, the height of tensions were definitely during the 1960s. This lead to many American families living in a constant state of worry and thus constructing fallout rooms in case the United States was attacked by a nuclear bomb.
The room was astonishingly preserved and it was almost like taking a step back in time. The room was outfitted with shelves stocked with goods that were popular at the time. Back in the 1960s people built their families these shelters in order to protect themselves from a possible nuclear bomb.
The shelves in the room had everything that one might need to survive until it was safe to reemerge. Some such items included cookies, coffee, liquor, and even protein granules which was a meal substitute. Other retro supplies included Kleenex, saran wrap, and foil wrap. It’s particularly interesting to check out all of the old packaging.
A fallout shelter is a space, usually a room underneath the ground, that was specifically designed to protect from radioactive fallout from a nuclear bomb. The height of the creation of such constructions was during the Cold War. After a nuclear bomb is dropped it creates debris or fallout, which is radioactive in nature and very harmful for any living thing.
A fallout shelter was created in order to help people seek shelter from the fallout and stay, again, usually underground, until it is safe to reemerge into the world. Typically, it takes a while for the radioactive material to decay to what is considered a safe level.
Construction of the Shelter
The Otcasek’s shelter was constructed with plywood walls and has held up amazingly in all these years. The shelter was also amazingly outfitted in all of that specific time’s must-have items. It was definitely stocked with all of the things one might need for a comfortable room.
This included items like bunkbeds which were made from re purposed doors and hung from chains. There were also built-in shelves, which were stocked with all of the items needed to persevere through the fallout. There was also a bedpan, although if you were stuck down there long enough you might need something a bit larger than a bedpan.
The largest problem after a nuclear bomb is the gamma radiation. However, being in a shelter isn’t able to entirely factor out radiation getting inside. There are other measures that have been identified to reduce the amount of radiation that gets in the shelter.
Some things that you can do to reduce this radiation include the following: clean the roofs and gutters, remove the top inch of soil near the house, rinse off nearby roads of debris and dust (this was actually used to prevent spread of radioactivity in Chernobyl), seal windows with bricks or any gaps can be blocked with containers of water which is able to shield from some gamma rays, pack dirt, if inside a building, against the walls, and lastly remove trees that have fallout on all the branches and leaves.
The shelter was also stocked with a huge selection of different varieties of entertainment including board games and copies of a science-fiction magazine called Analog.
There was also a blank writing pad, which surely would come in handy if you were about to be stuck in nuclear fallout shelter for a long period of time. Chris Otcasek spoke to a local radio news station 89.3 KPCC back in 2013 and musing about the blank note pad he said, “What would you write on this? A suicide note? Anyone who built a shelter in their backyard would have to be pretty optimistic.”
Planning to Stay a While
Inside of the shelter was also a thirty year calendar. That is an extremely long time to plan to be underneath the ground in a shelter. In March of 2013, a radio program on 89.3 KPCC featured host John Rabe with the Otcaseks. He visited the property and the Otcaseks were able to tour the almost perfectly intact fallout shelter.
John was, as anyone would be, amazed to see all of the retro items still in the shelter that had remained largely undisturbed. Not long after the show went on air, a woman contacted the station and what she had to tell was quite the amazing story.
Origin of the Shelter
After the radio broadcast, a woman contacted the station with her amazing story. Debra Kaufman came forward to tell what she knew about the shelter. As they discussed the home on the radio program, she realized they were talking about her childhood home. She revealed that it was actually her father who built the shelter.
Her father, a man named, Alvin B. Kaufman, had been the one who built the shelter back in 1961. Debra Kaufman also noted that her father was a self-trained nuclear engineer. Because Alvin Kaufman was so aware of what kind of destruction a nuclear bomb could bring on mankind, he constructed the shelter for his family.
A Historic Time
The self-trained nuclear engineer Alvin B. Kaufman was so fearful of facing something like the Japanese had in World War II, when the bomb dropped, killing and harming thousands of innocent civilians, he felts it necessary to build his own shelter.
He built it right at the beginning of the Cold War which took place in the 1960s between the Soviet Union and the United States. A large majority of American citizens were terrified that a nuclear attack could take place at any time. At this point many people across the United States constructed fallout shelters in their backyards in order to protect their families.
World War II A-Bombs
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States retaliated on the Japanese by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber dropped the world’s first ever atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The following explosion immediately wiped out almost the entire city, with experts putting it at 90 percent.
80,000 people were killed immediately and tens of thousands died after because of radiation. Three days later another bomber dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki. An estimated 40,000 people were killed. Japan’s Emperor Hirohito unconditionally surrendered in the aftermath. And said over a radio address a week later that it “a new and most cruel bomb.”
Creation of the Atomic Bomb
Before the war even started, American scientists, many of whom were refugees from European fascist countries, began to research nuclear weapons. Many were afraid because of the supposed nuclear weapon research being conducted by Nazis. They United States government began their own research under a program called “The Manhattan Project.” It was led by scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
The scientists began to work in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and were able to create the first atomic bomb. Early on the morning of July 16, 1945, the Manhattan Project held its first successful test of an atomic device–a plutonium bomb–at the Trinity test site at Alamogordo, New Mexico.
J. Robert Oppenheimer
J. Robert Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist from New York. He is commonly referred to as the father of the atomic bomb. In 1945, Oppenheimer successfully created the first nuclear explosion that he called “Trinity.”
After the successful test bomb and then again years later in a television interview, Oppenheimer famously said, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
Oppenheimer Met Truman
While Oppenheimer was regretful that the bomb had not been available to use against the Nazis, he also ultimately expressed regret against the bombing of Nagasaki. He and many of his fellow Los Alamos scientists felt that the second bomb dropped on Japan was unnecessary.
Two weeks after the bombs were dropped he traveled to Washington D.C. Oppenheimer hand-delivered a letter to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. He expressed his “revulsion” at the bomb and also stated that he hoped nuclear weapons would be banned. In a subsequent meeting with President Harry S Truman, Oppenheimer said that he felt like he had “blood on my hands.” Apparently, this upset Truman who later commented, “I don’t want to see that [expletive] in this office ever again.”
Fear of Bombs
The horror of the nuclear bomb was exactly what Alvin Kaufman had been fearful of, hence his construction of the bomb shelter. His daughter Debra Kaufman, also said that her father had actually wanted to build a huge shelter in collaboration with the entire community.
However, his neighbors and other residents in the neighborhood didn’t see things his way. Apparently, their fear was not quite as big Mr. Kaufman’s was. Alvin, of course, went through with his plans and created his own shelter, which was big enough to house his immediate family. Amazingly, for all of the remaining years, the shelter remained completely undisturbed.
Alvin Kaufman designed his shelter to house his family of four, or any other family of four, for at least two weeks. Two weeks is said to believe it will take at least two weeks for nuclear radiation to lessen after an explosion. However, others say that effects from the fallout could last much longer.
In the Kaufman/Otcasek’s shelter, there was even an air filter with a hand operated crank to provide fresh oxygen. There are also a number of other ways to prevent fallout from reaching inside the shelter. In the case of a nuclear bomb, having some kind of shelter is always better than having no shelter at all.
What Will Happen to the Shelter Now?
When the Otcasek’s bought the home their realtor said that the underground space could be used as a man cave or a wine cellar. While the space would certainly be suited for both, and while it would certainly seem like a tempting endeavor to undertake Chris Otcasek has no such plans to transform the shelter into anything new or modern.
Chris appeared on air with the local news CBS Los Angeles in 2013 and spoke of his personal thoughts about transforming Mr. Kaufman’s hard built family shelter. Chris said, “I’ll leave it for the next people. It should last forever.”
Beneath This Florida Town’s Street Lies A Colossal Cold War Secret
Located in Central Florida, Mount Dora hugs the freshwater of Lake Dora and sits nearby the coast. Despite its beauty, the small town was a scary place to be during the Cold War. Faced with the threat of the town being leveled in a nuclear fall-out, it was common for residents to plan out how they would protect themselves and survive such a catastrophic event.
Many residents of Florida began designing fallout shelters in their backyards. President John F. Kennedy also spent a great deal of time in Florida and had his own bunker 10 minutes offshore on Peanut Island just before his death.
Cold War Tensions Escalate
In 1962 the Cold War was in full swing. The world was a very dangerous place, as missiles were regularly put on display. The nuclear attacks from World War II were still in near-memory, and you’d have had every reason to fear the inevitable confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, particularly with a whole pack of Soviet missiles located just 110 miles off-Florida-shore in Cuba.
With fears like these and the realities of nuclear conflict, wealthy families in Mount Dora began planning an elaborate fallout shelter to escape to.
Wealthy Residents Hatch A Plan
Americans took the threat seriously, and wealthy residents of Mount Dora started discussing how they could protect their families in a time of nuclear threat. Dr. James Hall, who was the Lake County Health Director at the time, banned together with his fellow Mount Dora Yacht Club Members and other prominent, wealthy residents, including citrus magnate William Baker and businessman Theodore Mittendorf, to discuss building a large fallout shelter.
He proposed that if 25 families could each contribute $2,000, local builder J.G. Ray could build a massive fallout shelter to house them all for up to six months. It was then, in the early ’60s, that construction began under an orange grove in Mount Dora.
What Lies Beneath Mount Dora’s Streets
As construction began on what would become the Mount Dora Catacombs, those in the know lied to other residents, telling them the construction was just a new tennis court being built. After the Cold War came to a close, the truth was revealed.
From the outside, the exterior door looks mostly nondescript, even innocent and boring. You’d likely imagine any number of possibilities for what would be found behind those green doors. But once you open the door, you quickly see that something is very different about the space within, six feet below the streets and orange grove.
Mount Dora – Down The Darkened Stairs
Behind that 2,000-pound steel door, you’d quickly see that the steep steps quickly lead you down into the darkness. Not a fragment of light shines upwards to greet you, and you’d be in utter darkness if you did not carry a light. There’s a cold solidity about the stairs.
They are not welcoming, partly because the dust and grime over the decades, as it rusts and decays, no longer serving its purpose as a fall-out shelter that may need to be used at any given moment. Even this initial entrance area reminds us that this is a castoff place, from a mostly forgotten Cold-War era.
What Was The Plan?
The Mount Dora complex doesn’t look impressive from the outside. Of course, to keep it secret, it would have to appear innocuous. The maze of rooms and tunnels, so carefully hidden away underground, were also considered to represent a prime real estate investment (each family contributed $2,000) by some of the wealthiest civilians, including prominent doctors, lawyers, the mayor and others. You could see the logic. As one of the ‘elite’, you were afforded the rare opportunity to survive even the world’s worst possible disaster. You’d have everything you needed to survive, and you could also keep your family close around you. It sounds like a perfect opportunity.
If you look back at history, you can’t help but wonder what the victims of other major disasters would have given to save their lives, and protect their families.
Families In Mount Dora Catacombs
The Catacombs spanned 5,000 square feet of living space, plus additional square feet for storage. Each room accommodated four people in bunk beds, one for each family.
Not only did they store enough food and fuel to last them six months, but they also planned to store enough supplies to start rebuilding their community once they survived the attack, including a storage of weapons. The walls were a foot thick of concrete and steel, and the size matched that of a motel.
Down The Hallway
These dark and dank halls must have looked more attractive once upon a time. The place may have even taken on a clinical, even ultra-safe personification with those bleached-white walls. The decades have not been kind to these halls that likely connected the living quarters with all the other areas of the Mount Dora Catacombs.
Now, in their decayed and molding state, those chalk-white halls add to the freakish, even horror-movie, feel of the place. It might as well be an old psychiatric hospital or haunted house, rather than a survivalist’s pipe-dream and safe haven.
While it made sense for residents to take their safety into their own hands, with little shelter and protection provided by the government, it’s almost painful to think of all the lives that would be lost, of those who couldn’t afford to build such a shelter.
Those involved in the project sworn to secrecy and would not welcome other residents into the Catacombs in the event of an emergency, even if it meant their death. Even the mayor was in on the plan.
Preparing For Anything
The artifacts left behind in the huge Mount Dora complex seem to point toward a community that took nearly every possible condition and situation into consideration. So, you’ll see the remnants of an old-fashioned wheelchair in what appears to be a small clinic or hospital room.
Those bottles could be outdated medicine or disinfectant, or any number of possible remedies. What’s clear, though, is that careful planning went into the design and development of the rooms, as well as in the stocking of supplies.
Full Stocked Kitchen
The kitchen was fully stocked and was one of the common areas in the Catacombs. The families were prepared not only to feed themselves for six months but to have supplies for after the nuclear disaster.
While we don’t have an image of what the kitchen looked like before it began to deteriorate, you can imagine that they had seating, utensils, and dishes for everyone who paid. It’s hard to believe they planned all of this without anyone else catching on. At least the shelter provided a sense of comfort and safety to those who paid to build it.
The Common Space
After seeing some of the small rooms that are peppered throughout the Mount Dora Catacombs, you might be surprised to see the larger space here in what was the common room, located in the center of the Catacombs. From this angle, the ceiling also takes on almost a vaulted look and feel.
With so many other tight and confining areas in the underground tunnels, the designer may have felt that this space (and other similar ones) would help to alleviate the effects of cabin fever and claustrophobia. Any design features that were meant to help alleviate that trapped feeling would have likely been welcomed.
Electronics at Mount Dora Catacombs
With all the talk of missiles and the technology of war, the inhabitants of Mount Dora Catacombs would have had access to several technological devices. As every good apocalyptic story goes, you’d have seen devices for navigation, communication, illumination, and (of course) the requisite power supply.
Here on the shelves of this little room, it’s intriguing to see those electronic all in one place. It also shows that the families who paid for the construction of the fallout shelter have money to purchase all of these devices.
Light At The End Of The Room
In another time or place, you’d probably expect the light to be the flicker of firelight. The glowing flames would have danced against the far wall, and warmed all the inhabitants of this super-secret place. But, this is the Mount Dora Catacombs.
An open flame would have just filled the room with smoke, with no outlet or ventilation to carry it outside. It’s an enclosed space, so a flame really wouldn’t be a good idea, but the golden glow of that light might just bring back memories of another time and place, above ground.
The Books At Mount Dora Catacombs
It’s not really surprising that you would find books, or even catalogs, in the rooms at the Mount Dora Catacombs. Of course, on the one hand, it’s a healthy nod to the basic utilitarian functionality of paper products. While we may rely almost exclusively on digital artifacts in modern society, the place was erected at a time when it was not so easy to access or store files.
So, they would have needed books, or papers, particularly for instruction and training courses of study, but also for much more basic use-case scenarios. After all, in a highly stressful situation, books have powers to de-stress and offer much-needed entertainment.
Kids Affected By The Cold War
The doll’s house in the Mount Dora Catacombs is an intriguing find for a number of reasons. For one, it gives an indication of who the inhabitants really were. You’d have to guess that one of the families had a little girl who was particularly passionate about her dolls.
Why else would her parents pay premium dollar to ensure that a little doll’s house was ready and waiting in their living space, should she ever need to escape from the end of the world catastrophe? During this time, kids were also practicing drills in schools in case of a nuclear disaster.
The Discovery Of Mount Dora Catacombs
Whether in real life or seen in film, you may have heard the sirens that were supposed to warn you of an imminent nuclear attack. You may have panicked, thinking about what could possibly happen. Then, that terror subsided, at least a little bit, when the all-clear was sounded. As you also probably know, hiding under a desk or in a backyard fallout shelter would almost certainly have done nothing to protect you. It probably would have been too little too late. Still, the act of “duck-and-cover” still made you feel better, even safer.
As you walk through the underground tunnels, halls and hidden places under Mount Dora, you get the sense that they may have really created a place where they could survive. Although it’s not been tested, or even really proven, the place offers a sense of secret, even hidden safety. So, face it… You too would run for those tunnels if the siren ever went off once again.
We know what nuclear fall-out and the initial percussive blast of destruction can do to a place. We’ve seen examples from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we’ve also been struck with the many apocalyptic fictions. We know the brutal realities, in terms of human life and also in structural damage. It’s sickening to hear or read the stories, but worse yet to see the evidence in our history books and documentaries.
Those devastating photos have continued to inspire places like the Mount Dora Catacombs project, as well as other survivalist pursuits, as they prepare to dig deep underground to escape whatever fate might befall the rest of the world.
What About The Mushroom Cloud?
Beyond the threat of the missiles was the much-more-fully realized fear of the tell-tale “mushroom cloud”. Most American knew about that mushroom cloud because of the propaganda films and materials from a decade earlier. The real and imagined dangers were enough to inspire many to at least consider the idea of creating a secret (or not-so-secret) fall-out shelter.
Of course, most Americans wouldn’t have imagined anything quite so elaborate as Mount Dora Catacombs. Then, again, they couldn’t have afforded a place like that. Even so, it wouldn’t have seemed odd or insane to believe that you’d need a safe escape for the inevitable cataclysmic event.
The Alas, Babylon Connection
The Mount Dora Catacombs were inspired by the 1959 novel Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank. The apocalyptic dystopian novel is often assigned by high school teachers and college professors and depicts the effects of a nuclear war.
You may be intrigued to learn that Fort Repose, Florida, the fictional town mentioned in the book, is actually modeled after Mount Dora, Florida. After reading the novel, the real residents of Mount Dora decided to build a fallout shelter in case the plot unfolded in real life. And, there’s that reminder from the novel: “Your job is to survive because if you don’t the children won’t survive. That is your job. There is no other.” Thankfully, residents never had to use the shelter for its purpose.