How Downtown’s Grand Park Almost Became a Massive Nuclear Bunker

This proposed bunker from the Cold War era would have protected 90,000 people

This simple but accurate map reveals more than downtown streets and civic buildings as they appeared way back in January of 1951. This cartographic dream is a product of the Cold War, and it shows a proposed bomb shelter capable of sheltering 90,000 people and 5,600 cars that would have been built in the heart of downtown. Most Angelenos today have little idea of the near hysteria that gripped Los Angeles in the decades after World War II, but this map demonstrates the seriousness of the fears that abounded all across America.


Image courtesy Los Angeles Public Library


This particular downtown A-bomb shelter was destined for use as a parking lot during “normal times,” and was actually three bunkers linked by a series of interconnecting tunnels underneath what his now the quite attractive Grand Park. City Planning approved the project in accord with the Master Plan of Civic Center Development under mayor Fletcher Bowron’s direction, undeterred by the whopping price tag of $10 million. With the new “Hollywood Parkway” making downtown more accessible, the project seemed like an appropriate response to the threat of atomic warfare.

Unbeknownst to many Angelenos, 16 anti-aircraft missile launch sites were built within city limits. They operated well into the 1970’s before they were decommissioned and replaced with more modern systems (but you can still hike to one in Encino). On top of that, no less than 225 civil defense sirens were peppered throughout the city in case of attack. At least three quarters of the sirens are still intact.

Frankly, some of the paranoia was warranted, since there were over 900 atomic bomb tests in nearby Nevada, just 300 miles from our city. The powerful explosions were equal in impact to 350,000 tons of TNT and were so close that the blasts would light up the pre-dawn Los Angeles sky. Locals would get wind of a supposedly secret test and get up early to watch the sky light up.

"A" bomb blast brightens L.A. at 5:20 a.m. as seen from the 9th Street cutoff of the Harbor freeway. Photograph dated March 12, 1955
“A” bomb blast brightens L.A. at 5:20 a.m. as seen from the 9th Street cutoff of the Harbor freeway. Photograph dated March 12, 1955

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, John Feathers collection

TV station KTLA actually broadcast one such test in 1952 which started at 5:30 am and had a huge amount of viewers.

A memorable publicity stunt by the Los Angeles Mirror newspaper on December 6, 1951 involved a fake bombing of the city with planes dropping two million leaflets that screamed “THIS MIGHT HAVE BEEN A BOMB!”

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This may have sold a lot of newspapers, but it fed into the fears of jittery Angelenos, many of whom had already begun to construct their own private backyard bunkers to survive the initial blast and the fallout that would linger for what they feared might be years. Secrecy was important so that unprepared neighbors wouldn’t come calling after Armageddon, wanting to share in the precious survival stores.

Buildings were designed to admit sunlight without offering any exposure to radiation. Not far from the project on this map was the City National Bank Building at 420 S. Grand. Built in 1961 as an official Civil Defense Fallout shelter, it was capable of keeping 4,000 people safe from radiation poisoning from bombs of much greater destructive powers than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Another still-standing structure that was built in 1961 as a fallout shelter is the AT&T Switching Center at 420 S. Grand, with the microwave tower atop that kept beaming TV and telephone signals until 1993.

While the Cold War cooled off around 1991, the history of those fearful days is still interesting. The fine website Cold War: L.A. offers up fascinating details and adds fuel to the fires of our interest in the Atomic Age.

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.