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Shelter From the Storm, or a Place to Store Your Wine

June 18, 2002|JIM HOLT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Ann Payson and her husband, Rob Ulin, bought a half-century-old red brick house in Santa Monica, they made some shrewd remodeling decisions. From an abandoned pile of backyard junk, they salvaged several old-style bricks, handy for mending holes in the brickwork. They bravely cut away a plywood facade to find a fireplace replete with stones the size of basketballs and footballs.

One renovation challenge still stumps them, however. What do you do with a gaping hole in the backyard that is covered only with a tabletop-sized slab of metal and has a 15-foot metal chute funneling into a cave the size of a swimming pool? What, in other words, do you do with a vintage bomb shelter?

Hundreds of shelters were built in Los Angeles and the surrounding counties in the late '50s and early '60s, when Cold War fears prompted contractors to work fallout shelters into their designs. The shelters, usually underground and made of concrete, were designed to protect Americans from deadly radioactive material produced by a nuclear explosion. And homeowners like the Paysons who buy houses that come with the seldom-touted feature are learning that they actually have to deal with the stark and dark structures once they have them.

Do you rip them up? Fill them in? Or, given the renewed threat over fears of nuclear attack and "dirty bomb" irradiation, use them?

"The previous owner had a patent on this fallout shelter," Payson says. "I have mixed feelings about it."

The previous owner was John Bower, a retired missile designer for the U.S. military who died last year inside the shelter during an accidental propane explosion. (Bower, who according to his son loved "to tinker," was making some adjustments inside the underground bunker when somehow an explosion occurred. A propane generator inside the shelter was fed by an above-ground tank.)

The blast, largely percussive and not incendiary, shattered windows across the street and blew the shelter lid three houses away. Although the blast broke every exposed window in the adjacent house, the shelter remained intact.

"It's like a little submarine down there," Payson says. "We want to build a garage over it, but we have to wait to hear what the city says about it." In the meantime, she's putting up a fence to prevent trespassing kids from lifting up the shelter's cover and going in.

In Eagle Rock, Stephanie Brady turned her vine-covered El Canto Drive shelter into a bar.

"We had our millennium party down there. We thought it would be funny with all the talk that the world is going to end. At least we'd be safe if it did happen," says Brady, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., and rents out the property.

On New Year's Eve, her husband Michael posted a bar list on the bomb-shelter wall that included drinks like Glow in the Daiquiri, Gin and Toxic and Urani-rum and Coke.

"When we bought it in 1999, it was a huge selling feature for my husband," she adds. "Going in there for the first time was like a scene right out of an old movie. There were cobwebs everywhere."

The Bradys want to return to Los Angeles, move back into the house and reopen their "Bombed Shelter."

When Gary and Louise Lorden bought their spacious hilltop home in Pasadena and peeled cobwebs inside their own shelter, spirits also came to mind. Not the Gin and Toxic or the ethereal kind--the wine variety.

The Lordens discovered that the previous owners had already transformed the shelter into a wine cellar, and they chose to carry on the tradition.

"It's not much of a wine cellar," Louise Lorden admits. "It's half wine cellar, half storage," dug into the side of a hill to provide easy access to a bottle of Merlot, or easy escape from impending annihilation.

The split-level house was built in 1962 "in the days of scary news," Gary Lorden notes.

Gary Lorden is a mathematics professor at Caltech and is on the university's wine committee. "We always joke that when doomsday comes, we can just run in there and drink wine."

Coastal homeowners face their own dynamics in dealing with fallout shelters.

When Ventura couple Bruce and Susan Sinclair peered into the shelter's darkness, their first thoughts were about the amount of work it would take just to make it suitable for storage.

"We did some remodeling. We trimmed the little smoke stacks coming out of the ground, and we put a deck over the top of it," says Bruce Sinclair about the shelter air vents. "It looks so eerie in there. If we were ever going to use it, we'd have to do something to lighten it up."

The Sinclairs, who had only one child when they bought the home in 1997, now have three children.

In that time, they've effectively buried their shelter, transforming a symbol of fear and paranoia into the archetypal snapshot of Southern California living. A patio deck, Jacuzzi and an ocean view quickly eclipse any notion stirred by the shelter below them.

"Of course, then the bombs will fall and we'll look really stupid," Bruce Sinclair adds.

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