When Pool Builders Built Bomb Shelters

Those who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s likely remember practicing the “duck and cover” drill at school, a farcical exercise in which students were instructed to hide under their desks in case of a nuclear attack. That mass paranoia was stoked in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first-ever satellite Sputnik, generating fear of being attacked from outer space. Tensions came to a head in Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961 and would continue through the Vietnam War, the era of détente and glasnost until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the first two decades of the Cold War, fear of falling Soviet warheads led to a bomb-shelter construction craze in the U.S. Right at the same time that suburbs were expanding around major metropolitan centers courtesy of the G.I. Bill, many homeowners believed they needed private fallout shelters where they and their families could ride out the aftermath of a nuclear conflict. Some shelters were made of wood, others out of steel and many out of either concrete blocks or reinforced gunite. Some were extremely sophisticated with independent power, water and ventilation, while others were sometimes described as little more than oversized coffins.

The pool industry became involved as opportunistic builders recognized that building an inground pool shell wasn’t all that different from constructing a subterranean bomb shelter. By 1961, when this photo ran in the Long Beach Press Telegram, Catalina Pools, a builder serving the greater Los Angeles region, had already built more than 500 bomb shelters. And as the photo reveals, the company wasn’t shy about using glamor and luxury as part of its sales pitch.

Company owner Lee Bourdon would later say that although his company did benefit from the bomb shelter construction fad, demand quickly vanished in the early ’60s. “We lost a lot of money,” he said. “We’ll never do anything like that again.”

Today, the pool industry’s involvement in meeting the demand for shelter construction is little more than a distant memory, a mere footnote in the history of the industry. Yet, for a time, the desire for protection from a nuclear holocaust existed hand-in-hand with the growing demand for backyard recreation.

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