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401 Oberlin Demolished — With it, a Ghost of the Cold War

After a long demolition process that lasted about a week, the last remaining section of 401 Oberlin Road was finally torn down. The once beautiful midcentury modern building was razed in order to make way for a multifamily rental structure.

A lesser known bit of trivia about this building is the purpose it served during the Cold War. The basement contained a secret civil defense bunker for the U.S. Government to be used in the event of a nuclear attack.

Basement of 401 Oberlin

An Open Secret

Several years ago, the News & Observer included a bit of history about 401 Oberlin’s past in the context of an article about the Big Hole communications center in Chatham County. Sadly, that article is no longer available online. In it, N&O staff writer Jay Price states that:

The basement [of 401 Oberlin] would have housed top federal officials in the area and was equipped so they could do their best to maintain control and order after a nuclear attack. Sophisticated communications gear, a massive generator, an oversized decontamination shower area and a hefty supply of food and water were there.

Going Underground in the Atomic Age

During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union kept many Americans on edge. Underground shelters were touted as a way to survive the fallout from a nuclear blast. There are many of these shelters throughout Downtown Raleigh:

The government had an answer. Take over several state and federal office buildings and turning them into fallout shelters. And 30 years ago you didn’t have to look far to find them.

Fallout shelter signs hung on almost every old building along the Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street Mall. Even the basement of the state Capitol Building was stocked with food and medical supplies.

Unlike the shelters on Fayetteville Street, the complex in Cameron Village was intended for the Federal Government to restore law and order after an attack, rather than just a place for citizens to survive.

From the booklet: ‘What You Should Know About the National Plan for Civil Defense and Defense Mobilization,’ published 1958

At the time of construction in 1957, America was demonstrating its might with nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space, Sputnik-1. America was in an arms race, and there was a real fear that there could be nuclear war, as demonstrated by this testimony to congress:

On March 11, 1955, […] Civil Defense Administrator Val Peterson told a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee that all citizens should build some sort of underground shelter “right now,” stocked with sufficient food and water to last 5 or 6 days. His recommendation was based on knowledge of what a hydrogen bomb might do when intercontinental guided missiles are perfected. When that happens, he said, “we had all better dig and pray. In fact, we had better be praying right now.”

–Civil Defense, 1955

Two years after this testimony, one of the new buildings within Cameron Village housed a top secret facility with communications equipment and provisions to survive a nuclear disaster. There were many other similar installations across the country built at the same time.

Narrow corridor

A Tunnel Under Oberlin Road?

There are rumors of a tunnel that connected the command center to another substructure across the street below the former Balentine’s Cafeteria. However, there didn’t appear to be any evidence of this when that building was torn down recently to make way for another rental development project.

Unfortunately, we may never know what the command center looked like during the height of its use during the Cold War. In addition to the scant chance of any photographs from inside the secret facility, the blueprints for this structure and all others by its architect Leif Valand were lost by his executors.

Winding Down Operations

A reader recently shared their experience of working at 401 Oberlin Road, and when it ceased to operate as a communications center for the Federal Government:

“I worked on the 2nd floor along the Clark Avenue wing of the building for about 3 years (85-88) […] the basement doors under the Clark Avenue wing had federal government signs with no trespassing posted. We never saw anyone come or go. Then one day, all the doors were open and the basement looked like someone packed in a rush to vacate the place. Various communication wiring dangling in places, a few chairs over to one side, a desk or two with drawers all open. Rumor had always been the CIA had something going on down there. […]”

In the latter part of its life, part of the hidden bunker of 401 Oberlin Road served a much more mundane purpose: storage and offices for the NC Division of Waste Management.

What do you think took place here during the height of its operations? Do you have any information on this one time undisclosed location?

Further Reading

Related Articles:

All that’s left of the Village Subway: painted walls

Postscript: The Other Hidden Area Below Cameron Village

In the 1970s and 1980s, this complex wasn’t the only hidden part of Cameron Village. There was also an underground network of shops, nightclubs, and music venues. That place, the Village Subway, still holds a dear place in many hearts. Discussion of that era in Raleigh’s history still continues on weekly basis, over 4 years after the article was published.

401 Oberlin Road, now destroyed

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