Friday, July 12, 2013

The Abo School

Figure 1: The Abo School Today[CLUI]
(Used Under Creative Commons License)

Can you make out what that sign says?

For those who don't want to squint, it says "Abo Elementary School and Fallout Shelter."   It's a school built entirely underground - that building just holds the stairs.

Abo was built in 1962 in the town of Artesia, New Mexico.   Ground was broken for the school on June 12 1961 and the first students arrived in August of 1962 - just in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis two months later.   Artesia lay within a hundred miles of an Atlas missile complex, a B-52 base, and the White Sands Proving Grounds, all of which would likely be hammered in a war with the Soviets, and before the school was built there had been no public fallout shelters in town.   By building the school underground, it would protect not just the 540 children studying there, but also up to 1,860 other people who might use it as a shelter.   The decision to go underground was no doubt helped by the Office of Civil Defense's offer to pay for the additional cost of subterranean construction - $134,067 out of the $469,847 price tag.   The OCD apparently hoped Abo would inspire other communities to build similar structures.[Ne][Lo][NNP]

Figure 2: Abo School Classroom[NNP]
(Used with Permission)

The school was built by cut-and-cover methods - essentially an enormous basement, but with 15 inches of reinforced concrete above it instead of a building, and a playground built atop the roof.   Three windowless blockhouses held stairs leading to the school itself, with 1,800 pound blast doors to seal off the outside once the shelter reached its designated 2,400 occupants.   Other features included a two week food supply, a pair of deep wells for water, a 150 kW electric generator, air filters, decontamination showers, a chapel, and a dual-purpose room that could be converted into a morgue.

Figure 3: Plan of Abo School[OCD]
(US Government)

The architect, Frank Standhart, a civil defense advocate and designer of two previous windowless but aboveground schools for Artesia, claimed it could withstand a 20-megaton blast 10 miles away, then remain buttoned-up until fallout died to safe levels.   Besides offering shelter in an atomic cataclysm, the underground construction and lack of windows also reduced maintenance and air conditioning costs.[Ne][OCD][Lo]   Standhart was also later involved in abortive plans to build an underground high school near Roswell, New Mexico, as well as an underground shopping mall, the "Del Norte Sheltered Shopping Center", also near Roswell.   A membership, available for $250, would get you one of the proposed 8,000 spaces in the facility.   But the developers, Max Littell and L. W. McGuffin, evidently never reached the 2,500 subscriptions they wanted to have before starting construction.[Is]

Figure 4: Hallway in Abo School[NNP]
(Used with Permission)

The school was moderately famous at the time - Dan Rather did a report on Abo for the CBS Evening News in 1962, and the school's dedication was attended by Assistant Secretary of Defense Steuart Pittman, bearing a congratulatory message from President Kennedy.   Over 60,000 people toured the school in the two or three years after it was built.[NNP]   According to press reports of the time, reaction to the school was mostly positive within the community.   The teachers reportedly liked the lack of windows; one, Mrs. Gertrude McCaw, said the students "are simply less rambunctious.   You spend more time teaching and less time disciplining."   Another, Lester Vaughan, said, "I asked to be transferred from another Artesia school to Abo.   I wanted the unique experience and opportunity to work in the nation's first underground school."[Ne][SJ]   The children were also mostly favorable - apparently the air conditioning was a big hit - although concerned about the implications of learning in a fallout shelter:

Russ Baldwin, 4th grade: "You get your brain cooled off down here.   It runs better when it's cool...   You think a lot about the danger while you're here.   Sometimes I have the feeling that fallout is coming now - that it is out there now - and then I go out and it isn't." 
Andy Ashton, 5th grade: "I like it because we go to the only underground school in the world." 
Martha Terpening, 6th grade: "What I'm afraid of is that my mother is a teacher and she would be safe, but my daddy works at the post office and he wouldn't have any place to go." 
Rusty Heckel, age 9: "Being underground gives you a funny feeling - but you know you're safe."[Ne]
One is free to wonder if press reports might not be an unbiased source of information on the children's views, of course.   And some outsiders condemned the project.   The National Council on Schoolhouse Construction averred that "shelter provisions are not compatible with educational requirements",[Ne] although it's not clear from the source if they're referring to Abo specifically or to other proposals that were floating about at the time.   A Moscow newspaper, Trud (in English, Labor), was even less pleased, describing at as a product of "nuclear madness" and urging the Artesians to "remember that they are not only spoiling the physical health of the pupils but are also damaging their mental health by indoctrinating them with the idea of inevitability of war."   Dr. Frank Lutz of the OCD invited the Russian author to tour Abo before making up his mind, but as far as I know the offer was never taken up.[NNP]

Figure 5: Abo Students Watching a Movie[NNP]
(Used with Permission)

A study was done in 1972 on the psychological effect of going to school underground.   Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get hold of the study, but according to the abstract "there is no evidence that the fact that it is underground and could serve as a fallout shelter and is so marked, designated and named has had any detrimental affect on pupils attending that school. Apparently other schools could be so constructed and if operated under similar conditions would also serve as effective elementary schools."   A recent internet survey of former Abo students mostly produced memories of tornado drills and the awkwardness of an underground building during a power outage - as well as a few mentions of realizing that one classroom would have served dual duty as a morgue.[NNP]

Abo isn't the only underground school in the country - there are others in Virginia, California, New Mexico, Washington, D. C., and probably others I don't know about.   It is, however, the only one I know of intended for use as a fallout shelter; the others were sited underground for more mundane reasons like energy conservation.[Ha]

The school remained in use until 1995, when it was replaced with a new, above-ground replacement next to it.   It is now used as storage space, and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.[Ha]   You can check it out on Google Street View here.

Works Cited:
Note: there's some disagreement in the sources about some of the precise numbers (capacity, thickness of the roof).   When two sources disagreed, I used the government figure.

[CLUI]: Center for Land Use Interpretation.   Accessed July 7 2013.
[Ha]: Hall, Loretta.   Underground Buildings: More Than Meets the Eye.   Quill Driver Books, 2004.
[Is]: Isaacs, Terry.   "Silos and Shelters in the Pecos Valley: The Atlas ICBM in Chaves County, New Mexico, 1960-1965."   New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. 68, No. 4 (October 1993).
[Ne]: Nevin, David.   "Nuclear-Age School."   The Saturday Evening Post, January 26, 1963, pp. 64-65.
[Lo]: Longinow, A.   Civil Defense Shelter Options for Fallout and Blast Protection (Dual-Purpose).   IIT Research Institute, 1967.   OCD-PS-64-50.
[OCD]: Office of Civil Defense.   Incorporation of Shelter into Schools.   Department of Defense, 1962.   PSD-PC-89-1.
[SJ]: "460 Atomic-Age Kids in Underground School."   Sarasota Journal, August 30 1962.
[NNP]: Null, Wesley; Null, John Ross; and Parker, Danny.   "Gophers and the Cold War: America's First Underground School and Its Plan to Save a Community."   Received via personal communication from Wesley Null.   Pictures used with permission.

As per the requirements for use of [CLUI], the text of this article is licensed under an Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Creative Commons License.   This applies to the text only, as some pictures are used with permission and may be copyrighted by others, and it does not apply to any other material on this site unless otherwise specified.


  1. My own experience with Abo Elementary:

    1. Very interesting! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    2. Fayd, I read your blog. The grievances you describe revolving around Abo elementary and the multifaceted affect it could have had on Artesia's youth, depicts a universal experience not unique to that town, those schools, or us as attendees. You accurately detailed what epitomizes rivalries. Rivalries make far more sense to those who embrace them, and the victims of the mythical credibility given to their demeaning and divisive purpose. The concrete you mentioned filling in the school with was fortunately (as you indicated) in short supply. No amount of concrete can bury the hopeless condition that simultaneously craves both the abolishing of, and villainization of anything unique or having great distinction. The only way rivalries vanish, is when the entire planet attends one school, plays for one team, and joins one army.... but then, what would be the purpose? Wouldn't universally vanquished rivalries breed conflict, resurrecting opposing teams, school districts, and invigorate the need for rebuilding armies? The finest way to overcome the feeling of inadequacy from being in the wrong field of grass, on the wrong side of the fence, or in the wrong army, is to find strength of mind, body, and tender might, in your own footprints. From then on it will never matter where you did, or did not go to elementary school. Abo elementary did not victimize anyone, and it does not suck. The scenario you described is a classic example of how a good thing, must be portrayed as evil if it somehow makes any child feel neglected or left behind. I went to Zia, and disagree with your assessment of how two middle schools formed. It had everything to do with geography, distance for commute, proposed urban expansion, and civic responsibility, and only devolved when a few people began squawking about how the system was failing to meet their expectations. Sadly these same people concocted the 'fragile youth psyche' in a shameless attempt to defer blame. Build two schools, on separate sides of the tracks, and as soon as societal classes congeal, derelicts, substance abusers, apathetic parents, etc, when these lines of demarcation begin to form, their offspring tend to be more unruly, and over the course of decades, the school district that becomes entangled in the 'dysfunctional' side of the tracks begins to suffer. Teachers defect, rivalries form, and when the school and its attendees become the culprit, you have class warfare. It is inevitable. Do not attack the school. Attack the elements of society that breed collapse. It is no surprise that our nation's greatest success stories emerge victorious from the 'wrong' side of the tracks, what is even more inspirational is when they return to their neighborhoods, and begin to rebuild. Running for office. Creating NEW model schools, with nary a whimper about how much better another school is or was. Instead they choose to overcome. Abo elementary is and was as great as you choose to recall, as were any attendees, of any other school in that town... period.

    3. Anonymous: "What?"
      Abo... Ya had to be there. :)

    4. Kip, your philosophical approach to this is commendable, but I hope you realize that I was just trying to raise the ire of former Abo students with the title of my post. I guess I didn't include this detail, but the aspect of being jerks (from my viewpoint) didn't apply to ALL the students who went there. It just affected the smart ones. And you're right, rivalry is a good thing, but when students just can't let go more than five years after they left, it kind of wears out its welcome.

  2. I was born and raised in Artesia and attended Abo from 1987-1992. I never realized that our school was out of the ordinary until I was much, much older. I don't recall ever being taught the significance or purpose behind the construction of Abo, and if I was it clearly didn't make a big impact on me. Our junior high is also 90% underground, so the concept of attending an underground school just seemed normal.

    I loved my years at Abo and I wish that they would restore the interior and open it to the public. It's a neat little piece of Artesia history.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I hope they restore it as well - I would very much like to visit it someday.

    2. I went to Abo through 4th and 5th grade, in 1974-1975. I distinctly recall its purpose, and catastrophe coping mechanisms. There were pamphlets that eluded to these aspects. I had one for years but do not recall what became of it. I recall the sobering effect it had sinking in, which was a positive experience with respect to understanding at an early age that the world we live in has to be understood, and accepted as a potentially unpredictable part of the universe we live in.

    3. Thank you for your comments - it's always good to hear from people who were there.

  3. I went to abo 1962 and I'm the girl in the classroom facing the camera

    1. That's awesome! It's always great to hear from people who were there.

  4. I attended Abo in 1st/2nd grade...1982-83. Go Gophers! The secondary purpose for the school wasn't pervasive at all with us. I found out about the fallout shelter option after I'd moved. We just thought it was cool to be underground. I remember the cafeteria had Murphy tables--you folded them up into the walls when not in use. We'd have a huge open floor area for recess during bad weather days. I don't even recall missing windows or natural light during the day. Maybe as an adult you'd be more cognizant of the lack of daylight, but it didn't bother us as kids.

    1. Thank you for commenting - it's always good to hear from someone who was actually there!