Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The proliferation of tract housing, the popularization of fallout shelters, and the construction of missile bases were all a result of shifts in the American and Canadian outlook during the cold war. The rise of suburbs and the construction of large military facilities during and after World War II changed greatly the architectural fabric of the Great Plains. The mass-produced housing of Levittown, New York, was the model for the construction of subsequent suburbs, including those in the Great Plains. William Levitt, the builder, used methods that had been developed by the military during World War II for the rapid construction of installations. Levitt popularized off-site prefabrication and task specialization in the construction of postwar housing that was intended to supply the needs of returning servicemen.

Ranch-style houses are typical of the 1950s developments outside the larger cities of the Great Plains. Most of these homes are one story, with a low pitched roof and a wide eave overhang. They also lack the formalized spaces of earlier eras. This absence of dining rooms, hallways, and elaborated entryways made these houses less expensive to build. Picture and ribbon windows are often present. An attached or built-in garage is also typical, a physical manifestation of the importance of cars in suburban living.

With the deterioration of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s came the threat of nuclear war and the need for fallout shelters. In a 1959 publication the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization provided plans and installation instructions for four different types of fallout shelters: a basement shelter constructed with concrete blocks, an aboveground double-wall shelter constructed with concrete blocks, a prefabricated metal shelter, and an underground concrete shelter. Advertisements for houses constructed in the 1950s and 1960s suggested that shelters could be included in new home construction at a nominal cost.

Public and private shelters usually relied on barrier shielding. This shielding, usually thicknesses of concrete or earth, was intended to provide protection by absorbing part of the radiation generated by a nuclear explosion. Due to their additional mass, multistory buildings were believed to provide the most protection. Based on this idea, shelters were established in the lower levels of schools and office buildings.

Active bases and missile sites of the Strategic Air Command are still present throughout the Great Plains. Many of the buildings are unassuming in appearance, with one- or two-story structures belying the presence of a multilevel complex below the surface. The initiation of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program represented both a physical and a psychological shift in land use in the Great Plains. F. E. Warren Air Force Base outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, was selected as the first icbm complex in 1957. ICBM complexes were also constructed at the Mead Ordnance Depot and at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Early complexes, housing Atlas squadrons, included a launch operations building, three launch and service buildings, a power plant and pump house, storage magazines, and a tower, all enclosed within a security fence. The buildings are monolithic and industrial in appearance. The launch operations and launch and service buildings were constructed of concrete. The silos are of semihardened concrete, capable of withstanding overpressures of twenty-five pounds per square inch. Auxiliary buildings, such as those found at the entry to the facility, were generally wood frame clad with corrugated metal. While the first facilities emphasized centralized placement, later facilities utilized plans that separated launch control centers and missile silos over large areas.

Other ICBM programs included Shark, Thor, Jupiter, Titan, Minuteman, and Peacekeeper. The Minuteman B missile was installed from 1958 to 1962 in 200 silos scattered across 8,000 square miles. Minuteman B was replaced by the Minuteman III in 1973. Minuteman III and Peacekeeper are active programs. Some abandoned Atlas and Titan facilities have been remodeled into homes in several states, including Kansas.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Missile Silos / WAR: Cold War.

Dori M. Penny Larson-Tibesar Associates

Martin, Thomas L., Jr., and Donald C. Latham. Strategy for Survival. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1963.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization. The Family Fallout Shelter. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1959.

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