The Cold War era fallout shelter at the home of Werner and Orianna Brodbeck in Aurora, Ont. The main operations area is a 35' x 60' concrete and steel room with a striking Metro Status Board at one end. (Dustin Rabin)

A charming farmhouse – with a Cold War bunker in the basement

Dave LeBlanc

Even today, the crush of big city congestion seems distant when viewed from the north edge of Aurora; back in 1962, before the highway came along, this would have been a world away.

And that’s exactly why Toronto built this secret place underneath an old farmhouse.

Well above the protective slope of the Oak Ridges Moraine, our city’s response to the Cold War was created towards the end of 1961 in the Town of Aurora. Operational by January, 1962, the Metropolitan Toronto Emergency Preparedness Centre is a concrete, cinderblock and steel beam manifestation of the fear that existed after the botched Bay of Pigs Invasion of April, 1961 and the buildup to October, 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis – think of it as a novella sandwiched between two major tomes. It exists today thanks to history-loving homeowners.

Werner and Orianna Brodbeck didn’t go looking to buy a piece of our collective past. They simply wanted an Aurora “fixer-upper” when Mrs. Brodbeck, a letter carrier, spotted a newspaper advertisement listing a City of Toronto asset sale in 1996. One “asset” was only a bike ride away, so she pedaled over and spied a beautiful, boarded-up Victorian farmhouse. Smitten, she decided to find out why the home had been left abandoned, and why there was barbed wire around the roof and strange antennas on the property.

Toronto Archives, town records and newspaper microfilm turned up many things, “and, as it went on, of course it got more interesting,” she remembers. The home had been put up for sale in 1992, but had been pulled off the market because buyers had made conditional offers; one of those buyers had proposed demolition of the farmhouse for a townhouse complex. More importantly, she was able to confirm that the 1875 Thomas Pargeter house was the very real location of a mythical place that had lingered in the minds of Aurorans since the 1960s: “the bunker.”

And, just 18 inches under the home’s side garden, it was still there.

Accessed from inside the home itself – which, luckily for these happy new homeowners had most of its Victorian charm intact – or via a small shaft in the garden that had been camouflaged by an aluminum garden shed until it blew over in a storm, the Preparedness Centre is a sight to behold.

The main operations area is a 35-foot by 60-foot concrete and steel room with a striking “Metro Status Board” at one end. Actually three Plexiglas boards, the largest features a hand-drawn map of the city complete with individual streets and railway lines, while the smaller board at left contains a wider view extending to Lake Simcoe. The board on the right is downright scary: here, personnel would list casualties, the “estimated rescuable,” or calculate the radiation “dose rate” for different zones. Behind the Plexi boards, sliding black signs with detachable letters, symbols and cryptic acronyms such as “IFF”, “U/S”, “VIZ” and “H/F” provided other information at a glance.

This underground room, it should be noted, wasn’t meant to withstand an atomic blast, but rather to provide a fallout-safe place to co-ordinate emergency response. It was, however, meant to be occupied for weeks at a time, which is why the Brodbecks found other interesting items in the home’s proper basement: 100 telephone lines, two huge storage tanks for uncontaminated drinking water, and a row of radio operator cubbies complete with “retro” chevron-shaped drawer pulls. Boxes of cutlery and other supplies were found scattered about, and there are tanks under the home’s main driveway that Mr. Brodbeck thinks were meant for human waste, since it’s his opinion the diesel generator in the garage (now gone) would have been fed directly from a parked tanker truck.

According to former Aurora planner Michael Seaman, by the late-1970s “Metro politicians began to wonder why they were still paying $25,000 [annually]to maintain the Aurora property,” but the police department lobbied to keep the facility for training purposes (such as hostage negotiation). A decade later, however, the complex was rarely used, and it was finally offered for sale just months after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Somehow, throughout these various roles – not the least of which was a vacant home ripe for pilfering – the Cold War artifacts remained. This is surprising, since, in his 2002 book Survival City (adventures among the ruins of atomic America), Tom Vanderbilt points out that once this war of “light and shadow, illusion and reality” had run its course, no one thought to preserve items or erect monuments, as had been the case with World War II. Instead, things were “abandoned in place” for being “too old to be technologically useful but too new to be culturally venerated.”

Except this little piece of Canada’s Cold War is venerated; Mr. Brodbeck, a firefighter, has spent countless hours fighting water penetration and mould, replaced rotten drywall and repainted parts of the room (in original colours). The couple recognizes their role as stewards, but stress the maintenance of their own home comes first, so keeping the Preparedness Centre heated, well-lit (the fluorescents have stopped working) and water-free is not a priority.

“But it’s holding up,” assures Mr. Brodbeck, who opened the room for Aurora’s Doors Open festival in 2009 and plans to do it again in 2014.

Perhaps some financial help from the Town of Aurora will ensure it’s around long after that.

© Copyright 2013 The Globe and Mail Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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