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When Anne Duff starts talking about her home in Wildwood Park, it doesn’t take her long to drop a bombshell.
“We have a bomb shelter,” she says.
The rambling home on Mulberry Road in one of the city’s newly named National Register of Historic Places neighborhoods doesn’t really look like it’s on the front lines of the Cold War.
Instead, it exudes the sort of refined elegance one might associate with garden club ladies and “Leave It to Beaver” families of its middle-of-the-last-century era.
But, being led to a spiral staircase hidden behind a floor-to-ceiling stone wall that houses the family-room fireplace does remind one of a 1960s James Bond movie – when spies spied on other spies from underground bunkers.
Yes, Duff says, the walls of the shelter are concrete and 2 feet thick. There’s a fireplace to provide heat, and a second room where a generator once stood with enough room for a couple of refrigerator/freezers. There were wash-up and toilet facilities, she says, but no shower.
“I don’t know why when they went to all this trouble they didn’t put one in. I guess they thought they’d take sponge baths,” she says with a smile.
Three walls are lined with built-in wooden cabinets to store, well, whatever survivalist types stored in the days when schoolchildren were trained to duck and cover under their desks to survive an enemy attack.
“What we were told was that they had it completely stocked with canned goods and so forth,” Duff says.
Perusing the home’s history, it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine its entrepreneurial owner at the time, Lyall D. Morrill, worried about a nuclear apocalypse. But then again, a lot of ordinary patriotic Americans were.
Morrill, who died in 1974, was the second owner of the home and added the family room and shelter to the 1941-built main house in 1959, according to records provided by ARCH, a nonprofit historic architecture preservation group.
Morrill was a partner in Morrill Motors in Fort Wayne and best known as founder of Lyall Electric in Albion, a company that built ready-made wiring harnesses for commercial refrigeration units. The company grew to become Noble County’s largest employer before Morrill’s partner, Chester Dekko, bought the family interest in 1987. Lyall became Group Dekko International.
But a correspondence between Morrill’s high-school-age son, Lyall D. Morrill Jr., and well-known anti-nuclear scientist Linus Pauling in 1962 may indicate the elder Morrill’s mindset. Morrill Jr. tells Pauling that while he admires him as a scientist, he disagrees with his disarmament views and argues that fallout shelters will indeed help people survive in the event of nuclear war.
Duff says she’s heard of only one other home with a fallout shelter in Fort Wayne. Michael Galbraith, ARCH’s executive director, says he doesn’t know of others, though he doesn’t doubt they may exist.
Nowadays, the shelter has been painted yellow to brighten up the space – “It was so dark and gloomy,” Duff says.
With one wall lined with cabinets and shelves for toys and games, comfy couches and a big-screen TV, the space has become what Duff calls “a mini man cave” for son Dillon, 11.
In the past, the shelter also was pressed into service as sleeping quarters when the couple hosted exchange students, Duff says.
Duff is a French teacher who has decorated the walls of her recently redone kitchen with hand-drawn murals of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. She teaches in the Metropolitan School District of Wabash County.
The shelter’s colorful past all but overshadows the charm of the rest of the home and the addition, which features a church-like vaulted ceiling and mahogany woodwork and houses a transitional space big enough for a functioning pool table and then some.
The space, once used as a den, has become a second, more formal dining room for the Duffs, who have lived in the house for about 19 years.
The living room’s main feature is a fireplace in the center of the house, with a marble surround. Duff, who calls her decorating style “eclectic,” says she favors an earthy and contemporary color palette of chocolate browns, russet and moss green and globally inspired accessories.
“I used to be totally into antiques before we moved. Our first home was built in 1910, but when we came here, a lot of my older things didn’t go,” she says.
A former sunroom has been turned into an office for her husband, Lenny. The upstairs features a large master suite over the addition and three bedrooms, one each for Dillon and daughters Danielle, 15, and Camille, 13.
Duff says what originally attracted her to the house was its solid, spacious gentility.
“Actually, we fell in love with the neighborhood,” she says. “I remember my mom said, when we were going house-hunting, ‘Oh, you’ll never be able to afford to live there.’
“Then this house came on the market, and we could afford it. We fell in love with the house, heart and soul. The day we closed, I still remember thinking that I couldn’t believe we could have this house.”
As for the shelter, it most recently came in handy during the 2012 derecho, when straight-line winds of more than 90 mph tore through Fort Wayne.
“That’s where we were during it,” Duff says. “We even had neighbors come over. … It’s kind of like our tornado room.”