The main branch of the New Orleans Public Library is a Mid Century wonder. This may not be obvious on the first floor or wandering the stacks, but I promise it is! That being said, the Mid Century vibe is strongest in the non-public areas, and HOLY COW is it strong. Like walking out onto the set of Mad Men strong.
I started my visit to the library in Administration, which is just off the third floor lobby through an interior sliding-glass door. Save the gum-chomping, iPhone slinging receptionist, I felt like I’d landed smack in the middle of the Sterling Cooper office without the sexy shenanigans and booze. Or maybe not; this is New Orleans after all.
I met with the Marketing Director, John Marc, who told me that the library had become a pretty popular spot with film scouts (they’re filming just about everything in New Orleans these days), since the building hadn’t really been touched since it opened in 1960. And that’s a good thing! For my purposes anyway.
The main branch of the New Orleans Public Library is located at 219 Loyola Avenue, a skip away from the similarly Mid Century awesome city hall. Since both buildings were built during the Atomic Age and were fancy and modern, they included fallout shelters–along with separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks, but that’s another story. I don’t know a whole lot about City Hall’s fallout shelter, as The City apparently thinks I’m a loon and won’t respond to my inquiries, however, good news! I do know a bit about the library’s shelter.
The story goes that the library was completed to plenty of ooohs and ahhhs, but somewhere along the way, the project ran out of money, and whoops! there was no money to buy shelves. For the books. I mean, a library’s main job is to house books, generally on shelves. So…
Enter a federal grant for community fallout shelters. Boom.
The main branch has a several storied basement under the main building. This is pretty strange and some would say a bad plan in general, since you know, New Orleans is below sea level and all. But yolo! Two of the basements follows were setup as fallout shelters (basically really large, open rooms), and the grant money? Well it paid for shelves of course!
The basement fallout shelter (shelters? It’s on two floors, and I don’t know whether they were considered independent shelters or not) now houses the city archives. And good thing too! When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, the city’s archives were safe and sound in the basement fallout shelter. The water came within one foot of flooding the basement, but no damage was done to the city archives.
John Marc grabbed his all access keys (!), and we set out on our basement adventure. And OMG! It was so cool.
We weaved through an honestly confusing set of corridors in Administration to an elevator that took us to the first level of the basement. We got off the elevator in a really large, really dimly lit, packed full of everything under the sun room, with the everything apparently being the city archives.
The city archives are a pretty special thing in most cities. But in New Orleans, they’re a little something more than that. First, New Orleans is really, really old, and the city archives prove it with things like carriage licenses from the 1700s. Also, Mardi Gras has and always been a cornerstone of life in New Orleans so there are some pretty fantastic things like Zulu spears and coconuts stored in the archive as well. My city’s archive is cooler than yours!
Because of all of the awesome…crap, the fallout shelter itself isn’t really recognizable, save a few signs and such, including my favorite fallout shelter sign of all time:
Note the arrows pointing at each other. They practically scream, “Look you idiot–you’re standing smack in the middle of it.” Love it!
This fallout shelter sign also has the remnants of a really large capacity, at least in the thousands. And yeah, I can totally believe that. The room is E-N-O-R-M-O-U-S. Also, it’s pretty damned cool that no one has removed this sign in 50+ years.
Here are a few images of the fallout shelter, to give you a sense of the scale. But believe me–the pictures don’t do it justice.
Super duper cavernous and awesome!
So were there special reinforcements or anything to make the basement fallout shelter-ready? Nah. Apparently fallout shelters were often designated for large, open areas where lots of people could fit and get out of the open. Shopping centers, schools and municipal auditoriums often fit the bill. And remember–fallout shelters aren’t designed to take on a nuclear blast–those are blast shelters–but are simply designed to protect people from radioactive particles falling to the ground following an atomic blast. So, this place would do the trick.
I should mention the light fixtures which are original to the building. Apparently John Marc had a film scout lose his shit over them because they were perfect for the period. And they worked, to boot! So look for the fallout shelter light fixtures in a 60s film one day!
Though not fallout shelter related, the building also features this super cool pneumatic tube and dumb waiter system. Ever since Webster, I’ve been fascinated with them, and have secretly resented my parents for having a laundry chute installed rather than a dumb waiter. Such a bad childhood. Anyway, the one at the library is sweet! And combined with the pneumatic tubes and the awesome conveyor belt system that runs throughout the building, the whole place has a very steampunk/postapocalyptic feel too it. In other words, I want to live there.
Fun Fact: Although the fallout shelter never saw any actual fallout “action” it did serve as an emergency command center during several hurricanes, most recently, Hurricane Katrina.
Another, not at all related fact: The New Orleans Public Library’s web address is: http://www.nutrias.org. Yes. Really. The city’s reading and research is relegated to a domain named for a river rodent.
Happy Atom Smashing!