Princeton's Nuclear Fallout Shelters

During the Cold War, many Princetonians feared a nuclear bomb being dropped by the Soviets on NYC or Philadelphia. Princeton contemplated whether they should construct nuclear fallout shelters to protect their students and Princeton community members in the event of nuclear fallout. 

To address these questions, In September 1961 Princeton president Robert Goheen created the Committee on Fallout, composed of Princeton faculty, to investigate the benefits, disadvantages, and moral implications of constructing fallout shelters. This committee produced a preliminary report in January of 1962. The report identified buildings across campus that had the potential to serve as nuclear fallout shelters, developed plans for renovating these buildings to be appropriate shelters, estimated cost and time this project would take, and estimated the number of individuals these shelters could hold.

Princeton professors were divided on the question of whether or not the University should construct fallout shelters. In the February 11, 1962 issue of the Princeton Town Topics, about 120 Princeton faculty and 68 Rutgers faculty published a letter endorsing President Kennedy's fallout program. Signatories included Princeton President Goheen and Physics Professors John Wheeler and Eugene Wigner. Proponents saw a need to adequately prepare for the event of a nuclear bomb being detonated over NYC or Philadelphia. A second letter signed by 100 faculty members who opposed the fallout program appeared in The Washington Post in late December 1961. Opponents saw fallout shelters as a waste of time, money, and resources. They argued, in addition, that fallout shelters are problematic because they increase the probability of nuclear war: they endorse methods of surviving the aftermath rather than preventing their detonation in the first place. 

Questions also arose as to whether fallout shelters constructed by Princeton should be for Princeton students and faculty only, or if they should be available for Princeton community members, as well. In February 1962, the Committee on Fallout recommended that “any shelter space to be available to anyone at all on a first come-first served basis.” This led to the expansion of shelters to more locations within the surrounding Princeton community. Thirty more locations around the town of Princeton were refurbished and stocked to serve as nuclear fallout shelters for the community.

The fallout shelters were stocked with food, water and sanitation, medical and radiological kits. They were clearly marked as nuclear fallout shelters on the outside of the buildings. In 1962, Congress allocated $169 million for development of nuclear shelters. This money helped fund Princeton’s fallout shelters. On each dormitory door, in the same way that fire emergency exit plans are pasted on doors, there were procedures for nuclear attacks which read “https:/”

Just ten years after the construction of these nuclear fallout shelters, they had been essentially forgotten. In 1973, undergraduate Ronald Mann ‘76 noticed the nuclear fallout procedure signs on his dormitory door and contacted the Division of Fire Safety (DFS) to locate the nearest shelter. DFS was unaware of both the shelter’s location and the signs posted on the doors. 

Locations on Princeton’s campus that were ultimately renovated and equipped to serve as nuclear fallout shelters in 1963 included Madison Hall, Holder Hall, Hamilton Hall, Laughlin Hall, Dillon Gymnasium, McCarter Theatre, Firestone Library, McCosh Hall, Frick Chemistry Laboratory, Green Hall, Dickinson Hall, Wilcox Hall, 1915 Dormitory, 1938 Dormitory, Guyot Hall, Palmer Laboratory, Dodge-Osborn Hall, the Engineering Quadrangle, the Graduate College, and the Forrestal Research Center. Princeton Theological Seminary buildings included Speer Library, Campus Center, Tennent Hall, North Hall and Symington House.

Buildings in the Princeton community included Princeton High School, Nassau Street Elementary School, St. Pauls School, Miss Mason's School, Hun School, Columbus Boychoir School, First Presbyterian Church, Second Presbyterian Church, Aquinas Foundation, Our Lady of Princeton, Post Office, Township Hall, Textile Research Institute. Princeton University Press, Van Nostrand Company, 20 Nassau Street, Peacock Inn, the YMYWCA, and University Cottage Club. 

These buildings have since been renovated and converted. Fallout materials have been removed, and they no longer serve as fallout shelters.