The 'ritziest bomb shelter in the South' sits abandoned in Memphis

In 1945, the world was introduced to the Atomic Age with the bombings of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This spurred the end of World War II, but marked the beginning of a curious, decades-long stalemate between the United States and the former Soviet Union known as the Cold War.

The created a fear of nuclear war hit a peak level in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Locally, one Whitehaven resident, Hoyt B. Wooten, decided to be prepared for this threat in a way that surpassed “duck and cover” drills.

On his Whitehaven estate, he built an underground bomb shelter that resembled a suburban palace. The 5,600-square-foot shelter could house 52 people — 26 men and 26 women in sex-segregated dorms — comfortably for 31 days. The shelter had 11 rooms, including a morgue. 
Hoyt B. Wooten (University of Memphis special collections)
Wooten was born in Coldwater, Mississippi, and graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in electrical engineering. He moved to Memphis and established WREC radio. WREC, or Wooten's Radio-Electric Company, is still on the airwaves at 92.1 FM and 600 AM. He also founded WREC-TV, which is now known as WREG. 

Wooten’s house was at 4938 U.S. 51 South, which is now known as Elvis Presley Boulevard. According to a Memphis Press Scimitar article written by Bill E. Burk on February 26, 1963, that marked the shelter’s opening, Mrs. Wooten didn’t get on board with the idea of an underground shelter until the Berlin Crisis of 1961, which also caused the construction of a much larger edifice — the Berlin Wall.

Wooten constructed the underground shelter on his 48-acre estate, which included his home and the homes of his two daughters and their husbands. The shelter cost $155,000 to build and was dug fifteen feet underground. The 1963 Press-Scimitar article details the shelter’s amenities, if they can be called that. “It has a restaurant-style kitchen. Food is stored beneath the double-decked bunks. Two giant electric generators supply power and filter the air. Two submerged wells furnish water. A game room contains a pool table and ping pong table.” 

But the survival aspect of the fallout shelter was also on Wooten’s mind. “Wooten has equipped his shelter with a radio control room from where he can communicate with any place in the world,” Burk wrote. “This room also contains Civil Defense radio equipment and emergency transmitters that would keep WREC on the air.”

Elizabeth Frey, Marilyn Trigg, and John Maurer of the Dorcas Society of St. Peter's Catholic Church play pool at the underground bomb shelter. (University of Memphis special collections)

There is a Twilight Zone episode called “The Shelter” from 1961, in which a man, upon hearing a Civil Defense siren, brings his family into the fallout shelter he built. Chaos ensues when his friends and neighbors demand to be let into the shelter as well. For Wooten, no drama, either political or personal, came. By June of 1963, Wooten began giving tours of the shelter to groups, and did so until his death until 1969. According to his obituary in the Press Scimitar, 10,000 people eventually toured the space.

By 1979, the fallout shelter experienced the fate of many structures in Memphis — it sat empty, and no one knew what to do with it. A 1979 Press Scimitar article opened with the question: “What do you do with the ritziest bomb shelter in the South?” The article detailed the hope of the city government, specifically the Memphis Park Commission, to purchase the property.

“If we do get the property, we might very well turn the bomb shelter over to the Civil Defense people,” [Memphis Park Commission director Gordon] Sprague said, “Or, we might make it into a museum. At this point, I don’t think anybody has the faintest idea how to use it.”

Those plans never materialized. In the early 1980s, the Wooten property was turned into the 38-acre Lion’s Gate housing development in Whitehaven and the shelter was turned into a recreation center for folks who lived in Lion’s Gate.

Jeani Williams has lived in Lion’s Gate since 1996 and recalls that the Lion’s Gate residents used the shelter for reunions and birthday parties up until around 1998. Like the Press Scimitar writer back in 1963, Williams was particularly impressed with the structure’s big commercial kitchen. “You would have thought it was from Picadilly,” she said.

The space has been shuttered for the past 20 years and is mildew-ridden. This, according to Williams, is due to cracks in the pipes that, over the years, have allowed water to leak into the shelter. “I wish we could get a grant to revive and refurbish it,” said Williams.

The Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Hopefully, the story of the fallout shelter, like so many structures in Memphis that represent a time and place in history, is still being written. But one thing is for certain — Hoyt. B. Wooten’s underground shelter and his massive quest to survive the enormity of a nuclear bomb and the ensuing fallout would be pretty difficult to demolish.

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Read more articles by Tamara Williamson.

Tamara is a native Memphian and has a B.A. and M.A. from UT Knoxville. She has previously written guest posts for I Love Memphis blog.