Rancho Santa Fe residents excavate bomb shelter in their front yard

Freddie Sylvester took many trips down to the shelter as they cleaned it out.
(Freddie Sylvester)

New Rancho Santa Fe residents Fredericka and Richard Sylvester recently uncovered a buried relic from another era: a bomb shelter in the front yard of their home.

The Sylvesters purchased the property as a multi-generational home for their family, arriving from Hillcrest last August ready to embark on a long renovation project. The home on San Elijo was built in 1959 and before the Sylvesters purchased it, no one had lived there for about 12 years.

Among the longtime neighbors, rumors swirled of a bomb shelter on the property. There was even talk of cocktail parties being hosted down below.

In the beginning of their explorations, the Sylvesters first spotted a pipe against the driveway, used for ventilation into the shelter, which confirmed something was down there underneath the large Torrey pine tree. They got a ground penetrating radar to come in and mapped out four feet deep, then hired a trencher to come out with a backhoe. They cleared out the area and there it was.

“It’s crazy,” marveled Fredericka, who goes by “Freddie.”

According to a past San Diego Union Tribune article, “shelter mania gripped the San Diego region in the summer of 1961, when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union threatened to become World War III”. The city and county authorized more than 200 building permits for home shelters from midsummer to late fall.

The entrance to the bomb shelter.
(Karen Billing)

“There was all kinds of speculation about what we’d find in it,” said Freddie.

“I figured pork and beans in a can,” Richard said.

They wondered if they’d find some vintage bottles of wine and hoped they wouldn’t find anything fit for a true crime documentary.

With the shelter excavated, they discovered the top door had disintegrated, as had the wooden stairs that lead down below the earth. Freddie was the only one brave enough to take the first exploratory trip down, using a 14-foot ladder and armed with a big lantern.

Below, she found the shelter had filled up with water: “I couldn’t believe all the dead snails that were floating around,” she said.

After a couple of weeks of hoisting up buckets of mud, water and waterlogged wood, they rented a sump pump to suck out the rest of the water. Dried and clean, there was nothing left behind in the bunker besides the remains of shelving and the bones of an old Eames chair.

Inside the main room of the bunker.
(Freddie Sylvester)

Down 14 feet from the ground level, you make a sharp right turn and then a sharp left before getting into the main room. The main room space is about 14 by 14 feet with a ceiling of six and a half feet. It appears to have been sturdily built with electricity and two faucets for running water.

Once down below, Freddie discovered some drawings and graffiti on the ceiling with the names Robby, Rick and Marty—evidence that some local kids might have snuck in to play.

The graffiti matches the names carved into the cement of neighbor Laurel Lemarie’s garage with the date of 1967: Yager C. Ricky C. and Bob C, the Cantwell boys. The son of the surviving brother Rick, said his dad recalls going into the shelter.

Past resident Keith Stuart was about five years old when his parents built the San Elijo home. He said he didn’t go into the shelter alone at that age and a heavy metal door worked to keep children like himself out.

“On one wall was a crank that when cranked it would bring fresh air into the room. The air came from two air vents on pipes that were about four feet above ground level,” Stuart said. “I recall there were supplies like can goods and I sort of remember the room at one point was damp, maybe due to seepage of winter rains or the door being left open.”

The excavated shelter.
(Karen Billing)

His parents sold the house and the family moved in the early ‘70s. Clearing up the neighborhood lore, Stuart also said he never heard of any cocktail parties down there.

Back in the present day, the Sylvesters have built a new wooden top for the bunker to keep out any curious grandchildren. The kids were allowed a supervised trip down with grandma and Freddie said they were delighted. As renovations of the home continue, they are still coming up with ways they might use the shelter space. One idea pitched by the architect is to make it into a wine cellar.

The Sylvesters hope their discovery might unearth some memories or other hidden and forgotten bunkers: “My suspicion is this is not the only underground shelter in Rancho Santa Fe, “ Richard said.