Where did those fallout shelter signs come from?

Origins of two signs at The Altenheim remain unclear

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By Thomas Vogel

Staff Reporter

There are two signs screwed onto the exteriors walls of The Altenheim retirement home, 7824 Madison St., reading "fallout shelter" with the familiar black circle and three downward pointing yellow triangles. 

Tim Flanagan, The Altenheim's head of maintenance, said Forest Parkers sometimes ask him to see the shelters, a relic of the Cold War, when many Americans thought a nuclear war with the Soviet Union was imminent. There's just one problem — Flanagan has no idea where the shelters, if they exist, are located. 

"I'm like 'fallout shelters? What fallout shelters?'" Flanagan told the Review July 25. "Different people ask me where they are at. There's not a basement in either building."

The federal government initiated a program in 1961 called the National Fallout Shelter Survey. Its purpose was to find and designate sites for shelters across the country. A July 1967 Chicago Tribune article says Cook County had roughly 2,500 shelters. 

And there is another twist: an April 1963 clip from the Forest Park Review lists 11 Forest Park sites identified by the U.S. Army engineers as fallout shelter locations, including The Altenheim, referred to in the clip as the "German old peoples home," at the same Madison Street address.   

"The buildings are considered strong enough to provide some protection," the clip reads. 

Ferrara Candy Co., 7301 Harrison St., the Forest Park Post Office, 417 Desplaines Ave., and Forest Paint Co. 7240 W. Franklin, now condos, are among the sites listed. 

But, importantly, the clip only reference's The Altenheim's selection as a site; it does not report the shelter's specific location on the property or if it was actually installed.

Flanagan has reviewed some of The Altenheim's architectural drawings stored in the attic and found no indication of a basement. And in his own six-year experience as head of maintenance, he hasn't stumbled upon on one either. 

"I wouldn't even know where to look for a hidden door to a basement."

Flanagan did suggest one alternate theory: the two signs are left over set pieces from a Hollywood film shot, in part, on site in the late 1980s. "The Package," a political thriller set during the Cold War, stars Gene Hackman as a U.S. Army Master Sergeant. 

Fallout shelter signs, then, would be a logical addition as the filmmakers converted The Altenheim into a American military base in Berlin, "complete with vintage Audis and U.S. Jeeps parked outside," according to a December 1988 Forest Park Review clip. 

Indeed, during one scene in the film, the brick walkway connecting the two residential buildings can be seen; the fallout sign is there, too. 

But, Andrew Davis, the film's director, couldn't recall the signs as part of the movie set when reached by phone July 26. 

"They were there," Davis said, referring to the signs. "In those days, everybody had them. They were on public schools, any place." 

Davis wasn't absolutely certain his crew didn't install the signs but added "I doubt it." 

In an email to the Review, Maher Ahmad, one of the film's set designers, wrote "Sorry, I don't know the answer; it was a long time ago!"

The film's other set designer, William B. Fosser, died in 2006 according to IMDB, a movie industry website. 

Flanagan did say it's possible the shelter signs refer to something other than an underground structure, such as an interior hallway. But, one of the signs, on a second-floor walkway connecting two of the residential buildings, lists the shelter's capacity at over 300. There isn't space, Flanagan said, for that many people in an interior room or hallway. 

Flanagan said there is a 3-foot-by-3-foot subterranean crawl space that rings one of the buildings but it is cramped and has steam pipes and electrical wiring — hardly a safe space to shelter in the aftermath of a nuclear strike. 

For now, it remains unclear where the shelters, if they were installed, were located. 

Reader Comments

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Dianne Howard from Vernon, VT  

Posted: August 4th, 2017 3:19 PM

I worked at the Altenheim for 12 years....there is NO basement under any of the buildings.....I was always told (by the BOD President & Director), that the signs were there because of a movie.....perhaps the FP Historical Society would know, or Marlene Quandt? I sure do miss it and my hometown.....greetings !!!

Mike Mayman  

Posted: August 3rd, 2017 4:13 PM

I was a patrolman with Forest Park from 1981-1992. I specifically remember those signs being in place before the Gene Hackman movie. I wandered around the entire installation specifically looking for a shelter and never found one. We were looking for a suspected mob run gambling casino reported operating in the area. Turned out it was at a wearhouse on Van Buren named Trio Pines, later moved to the Fisher Pen building at Circle & Harrison.

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