What was once a piece of scrap metal at the LeMay Family Collection’s restoration shop in Spanaway is now a rare snapshot of Cold War history from more than 50 years ago.
Decades after the “duck and cover” era, the newest addition at Marymount — which typically focuses on classic cars — is a restored civil defense fallout shelter circa the early 1960s.
“This is the most unusual thing I’ve ever worked on,” said Tom Towers, the master restorer at the Marymount shop.
After months of research to authenticate the restoration, about 30 volunteers have finished priming, painting and stocking the old bomb shelter ahead of LeMay’s annual car show and auction next weekend. It is the featured “car” at the event.
“It’s not a car, but historically it’s really cool,” said Stacy Rushton, Marymount’s spokeswoman.
Eric LeMay, grandson of collection founder Harold LeMay, said featuring a bomb shelter alongside cars from that era is a perfect fit with Marymount’s long military history; the 87-acre property was formerly a Catholic-run military school. The LeMays started displaying cars there years before the 2012 opening of the museum next to the Tacoma Dome that also bears their name.
“What Marymount tries to do is put cars in context,” Eric LeMay said.
The shelter will also be on display for a Blast to the Past cocktail party Saturday from 5:30-10 p.m. at Marymount. The catered fundraiser with dueling pianos will benefit USO Northwest and the LeMay foundation.
The 12-by-8 shelter, which was meant to be buried underground, has a vertical tube with a ladder for entry, four cots, a toilet and shelves for supplies.
Two doors on the front of the capsule indicate it was likely a showroom model that traveling salesmen showed to potential buyers, Rushton said. Real shelters wouldn’t have those doors.
The restored shelter is a reminder of past nuclear hysteria in the United States.
The Office of Civil Defense, a predecessor to the modern Federal Emergency Management Agency, was formed in the early Cold War era to educate and prepare Americans for emergencies, primarily the threat of nuclear warfare.
Part of those efforts included equipping residents with shelters to protect them from radiation following a nuclear attack. President John F. Kennedy launched an aggressive effort to install the shelters throughout the United States.
Bill Reynolds, a volunteer who helped restore Marymount’s model, said it’s unknown how many of these shelters exist. Homeowners could have them buried in their yards without knowing it, he said.
When Reynolds was growing up, his father worked on secretive nuclear technology in Albuquerque, N.M. He said fallout shelters were fairly common, and his childhood neighbor had one.
“In the early ’60s when I was growing up, the atomic bomb and the nuclear fallout was a big thing,” he said.
Eric LeMay said the once-rusted shelter at Marymount was purchased by his grandfather before anyone can remember; it’s exact origin is unknown. It was nearly scrapped in 2001.
Now, it sits with fresh coats of aqua and white paint carrying the logo “Radiation Technology Civil Defense Fallout Shelter,” surrounded by Cold War-era memorabilia, old emergency preparedness films and cars from the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Sticking with history, staff and volunteers did extensive research on how the bomb shelter should look. Reynolds and members of the LeMay family traveled to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque to talk to the curator and collect several items to bring back for the display.
Their research also uncovered the company — Radiation Technology in Nashua, N.H. — that likely manufactured the model.
Rushton said the entire display, which includes a rare 1974 Gaz Chaika limousine that was used to transport Soviet dignitaries, captures the era’s flavor.
“We’re known for the history around (the cars),” she said.
The car show also will feature more than 1,000 cars, both from LeMay and outside collections, and free shuttles will transport guests between two sites in Spanaway.
Rushton said the fallout shelter is an unusual addition that plays into apocalyptic themes gaining in popularity today.
“It’s part of pop culture right now,” she said.
Kari Plog: 253-597-8682