CSUN’s sheltered history

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Nordhoff Hall has a past not too many people know about, not even longtime CSUN students, faculty and staff members.

The only noticeable feature in the 41-year-old building that would present a clue to its past is a piece of memorabilia left on the a basement wall: a red sign reading “SHELTER,” in all white capital letters, with an arrow pointing to the right.

The sign is a reminder of the Cold War era, when United States citizens concerned about the threat of a nuclear attack built bomb shelters and conducted emergency drills.

“They were really thinking of something coming through and wiping everything out,” said Tom Brown, director of Physical Plant Management, the department that keeps historical records of all buildings on campus.

The blueprints for Nordhoff Hall, which was originally called the Speech and Drama Building, were drawn on Feb. 7, 1959. Construction was completed in September 1963, according to Charlie Wood, drafting technician at PPM.

Given the international political climate in the late 1950s, a basement in Nordhoff Hall was designated as an area of civil defense, which several people called a bomb shelter.

However, it was not intended for use as a bomb shelter when it was being built, Brown said.

“There was a designation … statewide that said, ‘Here are your emergency areas,'” Brown said. “But they weren’t designed for that purpose.”

The basement, and the building itself, has interesting features. Nordhoff Hall is an Office of the State Architect building, Brown said. As a state building, Nordhoff Hall is one of the several “cookie cutter” buildings that was duplicated at many CSUs, with the same abnormally thick concrete walls and durability, Brown said.

“When the state architect designed those, (it was) designed with tremendous structural integrity,” Brown said, adding that other CSUs may contain old shelters.

There is the possibility that people could survive certain types of disasters in the basement, Brown said.

“Of course, it depends on what type of bomb we’re talking about, but that basement (has) a lot of crisscrossing, very heavy concrete walls, and very small pockets,” Brown said. “There would probably be a good likelihood that if someone were down there at the time, even if things collapsed overhead, that they could stay alive and avoid (injury) for a long time.”

Nordhoff Hall wasn’t the only building designated as an area of civil defense.

Science Building 2, which was built in October 1969, was also given that designation, Brown said.

The basement of Science Building 2 now has classrooms and lockers, while the basement in Nordhoff Hall is now primarily used as a place where theater students can dress.

Even though there are no signs of the antiquated bomb shelters visible today, Brown still can remember seeing “big green military drums” that stored crackers and other food supplies in the shelters when he was at CSUN during the 1980s and 1990s. Brown said there were also litters, which are primitive stretchers used to carry injured and dead bodies.

These relics of the past are no longer there.

“I’m only basing this on what I know in regards to seeing those military green-stamped civil defense canisters in the basement, but I would strongly suspect that it was all because of the Cold War and remnants of that era,” Brown said.

Custodian Daniel MacDonald saw the word “SHELTER” written on the wall when he first came to CSUN six years ago. Out of curiosity, he asked about the sign.

“It brought back memories (of the Cold War era), when we use to have sirens once a month,” MacDonald said.

Although Nordhoff Hall was built strongly, it is unlikely to be used as a bomb shelter in the future, Brown said.

“I doubt that it could serve a purpose … other than storage,” he said.

But the shelter, still does have the potential to house people. PPM offered to house displaced families in the shelter, during the 2003 California wildfires, Brown said, but the facility was not needed.

Theater Professor Peter Grego laughed out loud when he heard about the old bomb shelter in Nordhoff Hall.

“I have been here for 21 years, and I didn’t know there was a bomb shelter in this building,” Grego said. “Honestly, the building has so much concrete that I think the whole building is a bomb shelter.”