HENRICO COUNTY, Va. — Perhaps we’re hearing more conversation now about the threat of nuclear attack than we have in a generation or so, thanks to less stable nations with those weapons (or trying to develop them) and a new president here not afraid of discussing that option.
But we can flashback to the ’50s and ’60s, when the threat was very real.
Children and adults were taught to “duck and cover” and citizens as well as municipalities were building bomb shelters.
Which brings us to one of most historic houses in the Richmond area, which happens to have a massive A-bomb shelter below.
You may know the Dabbs House Museum and Henrico County’s Visitor’s Center has had many lives, starting when it was built in 1820.
“We don’t know much about the original owners,” said Dabbs House historical interpreter Clarissa Sanders. “But in 1859, Josiah and Mary Catherine Dabbs moved into the house.”
Josiah Dabb built gothic style houses in Halifax, Va., she said, and apparently retired here with his wife and slaves.
“In 1862 this actually serves his Robert E Lee’s first headquarters when he takes over the Army of Northern Virginia,” Sanders said. Lee famously planned his defense of Richmond here, and the boots of some of the South’s most important military leaders trod on the Dabbs House steps.
Henrico County purchased the property in 1883 and added onto to the simple farm-style home to house the poor as Dabbs House became the Almshouse.
Henrico’s police department used the building from 1941 to 2005. Early on, it kind of served as a lockup, with arrestees reportedly handcuffed to the bannister once gripped by General Lee.
The somewhat secret addition – a sprawling, 8,600 square-foot nuclear fallout shelter and command center -was built two stories below for $284,000 back in 1965.
That’s some serious money, a big chunk of it coming from a U.S. Civil Defense fund launched by President John F. Kennedy to build fallout shelters across the country so the nation wouldn’t collapse in a nuclear attack.
Sanders said it is believed Henrico County was the first Virginia municipality to build one under the Civil Defense program.
And did they ever. Walls and ceilings are 14 inches thick of reinforced concrete. It’s a veritable catacomb of sleeping quarters, meeting spaces, “decontamination” rooms that were actually a series of showers and a kitchen that could feed a small army of county officials and essential support personnel.
It wasn’t built to withstand an atomic blast, but to keep those inside safe from fallout for several weeks.
Check out the kitchen, with its original push button stove, the cool vintage Fasco oven hood that still works with a deep rumble.
It’s all so mid-century modern, room after room with lots of paneling, accordion partitions and original features galore.
Open the big pressure door and it’s a lot like walking back into the ’60s. The lighting fixtures, sink drains, spigots, emergency gear, chairs, drinking fountains – even the Kotex dispenser in the ladies decontamination room – seem to be as they were when installed.
Watch the video and see the old air handling systems, water storage and filtration, diesel generators ready to power the facility made to house a hundred plus for weeks, and more in a pinch. (The fallout shelter capacity sign says 650. That would be a bit of a crowd.)
Although the police and other agencies have used the shelter, and some still do, it remains very much an original from an era when this nation truly worried about nuclear war.
It appears to be still ready.