Building a Bombproof Institute

The detonation of the first atomic bombs in 1945 inaugurated an era of intense fear of aerial attack across the United States. Expectations of Soviet nuclear bombardment drove a wide range of architectural and planning decisions. Dispersal and suburbanization was one response, fallout shelters for every home another. The threat of nuclear attack drove the creation of an electronic infrastructure for early warning and defense, combining some of the first computers (SAGE), long distance telecommunications (including tropospheric scatter radios), and a swath of radars across the northern hemisphere. Evacuation programs for key government workers to early continuity of government sites like Raven Rock and Mount Weather were another effort to preserve the US government, if not the population, against the nuclear threat. There were even, albeit briefly, plans to put a nuclear bomb-proof bunker 3,000 feet beneath the White House. The proposed Deep Underground Command Center would be proof against multi-megaton weapons, although any hit on the White House would leave anyone in such a bunker pretty much unable to have any influence on events.

Though a lot of locations in the Washington, DC, area were hardened to some extent or another, only one building was actually designed from the ground up to withstand a nuclear blast. It’s not one you’d think.


The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) traces its origins back to the establishment of the Army Medical Museum in 1862. Created to collect morbid anatomy specimens for the education of military doctors, the museum became a storehouse of pathology knowledge. Two of the museum’s pathologists were responsible for Abraham Lincoln’s autopsy. In 1888, it moved into a large Romanesque Revival building, which would be its home for more than sixty years. During the First World War, the museum provided staff to perform post mortem autopsies and created instructional photographs, films, and wax models for training both officers and troops. During the Second World War, it added support for scientific research and diagnostic assistance.


By the time the war was over, army medical programs had seriously outgrown their space in the 1888 museum. The museum had almost gotten an impressive building in the then-popular stripped classical style in 1941, but the war intervened. Now parts of the museum moved out into a former temporary Coast Guard barracks, Chase Hall, and started looking for a larger permanent home.

After a series of bureaucratic and legislative contortions far too complicated and dull to recount here, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center became the new home for what had now become the inter-service Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The Walter Reed hospital complex was an architectural gem, with more than a hundred rose-brick Georgian Revival buildings. As originally planned, the AFIP’s new home – Building 54 – would try to harmonize with the site in a very substantial six-floor, multi-wing building. The design was prepared by the Washington-area firm of Faulkner, Kingsbury, and Stenhouse, whose style has been described as “streamlined and Modern,” but using “traditional materials such as brick and grand, symmetrical landscaping and site planning to fit into the Beaux Arts context of Washington, D.C.” (See this report, page 118.)


At this point, the nuclear threat intervened. A 1951 presidential directive required that the new building be built to bomb-resistant standards. The results were somewhere on the thin line between genius and monstrosity. The blastproofing requirements meant the new building was massive, a vast rectangular slab with broad, thick walls of pre-cast concrete. There were no exterior windows in the main block, and every opening to the outside or the two small projecting wings (which did have windows) was closed by heavy, blast-resistant doors. The wooden forms in which the concrete was cast gave the walls a ridged, textured look. Standing aloof from the rest of the elegant Walter Reed campus, Building 54 was, to borrow (and maybe misuse) Vincent Scully’s term, a “sacred mountain” inspired by the Soviet threat.


Though its architecture was driven by functional concerns, Building 54 was also – at least in retrospect – an exemplar of the Brutalist architectural style that was just coming into vogue. Between the groundbreaking in July 1951 and the dedication in 1955 Le Corubsier completed the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp and the administrative center at Chandrigarh, both examples of the style. Brutalism would become a common style for US federal office buildings, and would be the basis for Walter Reed’s new main hospital in the 1970s, but there would never be something like Building 54 again.


In at least a mild irony for a medical center built to resist an atomic blast, since 1948 the AFIP had been the US custodian for all the samples and case histories acquired by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Committee in Japan. The Atomic Bomb Research Unit became a center for collecting medical information on radiation exposure. If the Washington, DC area fell victim to a third nuclear bomb, at least the evidence of the first two would survive.

Building 54 still stands at Walter Reed, a perverse but impressive monument to the challenges of building for a world in which atomic attack seemed possible and yet still survivable.

Sources: The design and construction of Building 54 are well covered in The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology: Its First Century by Robert S. Henry (GPO, 1962; available at More information, and the images above, came from more recent histories of the AFIP and of the Walter Reed medical center published by the US Army’s medical historians at the Borden Institute.

Images: (top) Legacy of Excellence: The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, 1862-2011, p. 37 (upper middle) Legacy of Excellence, p. 112 (lower middle) Legacy of Excellence, p. 119 (bottom) Walter Reed Army Medical Center Centennial: A Pictorial History, 1909-2009, p. 107


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