Question!….. Is there a bar?
Afraid of nuclear war, natural disasters, economic meltdown? The Survival Condo could be the answer.
“Mechanical level”, “medical level”, “store level” the voice announces as the lift descends into the earth. I’d entered at parking lot level, the building’s apex. I am travelling through an inverted skyscraper, the floor numbers ascending – third, fourth – as we plumb the building’s depths. A hulking man in his late 50s called Larry Hall stands next to me, whistling, black shirt tucked into blue jeans.
When the doors open, I can’t suppress a laugh. In front of us, four storeys below central Kansas, is a supermarket complete with shopping baskets, cold cabinets and an espresso machine behind the counter. Hall smiles.
“It’s good, isn’t it? On the original blueprint for the renovation, it just said ‘storerooms’ on this level. The psychologist we hired for the project took one look at that and said, ‘No, no, no, this needs to feel like a miniature Whole Foods supermarket. We need a tile floor and nicely presented cases, because if people are locked in this silo and they have to come down here and rifle through cardboard boxes to get their food, you’ll have depressed people everywhere.’”
I am inside the most lavish and sophisticated private bunker in the world: the Survival Condo. It was once a cold war US government missile silo. Constructed in the early 60s, at a cost of approximately $15m to the US taxpayer, it was one of 72 structures built to protect a nuclear warhead 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Many of these silos were blown up and buried after decades of disuse. But not all of them.
One silo, in Wamego, Kansas, was raided by police in 2000, when they discovered a giant LSD production facility inside, which was generating up to a third of the country’s supply. Another silo, near Roswell, New Mexico, had been turned into an extraterrestrial communication facility which flashed binary code via laser beam into the cosmos. A third silo was funded by William Shatner (AKA Captain James T Kirk of Star Trek fame) to become a commercial research facility for studying the viability of colonising Mars. Yet another silo, in Abilene, Texas, is now a scuba-diving training facility.
Of all the projects that blossomed in the spaces vacated by the state, Hall’s is arguably the most gobsmacking. As an ex-government contractor, property developer and doomsday prepper, with a master’s degree in business, he had the perfect amalgam of attributes to build what had never been done before. In the 90s, he’d worked for a private defence contractor, designing the weapons database for an air force surveillance plane. Later, he moved into constructing hardened data centres. At first, he had planned to build one in a silo; but he quickly realised there was another, emerging market – in doomsday prepping for the super-rich.
Hall bought the $15m silo in 2008 for $300,000. By 2010, he had transformed the 60 metre-deep building into a 15-storey luxury bolthole, where up to 75 people could weather five years inside the sealed, self-sufficient bunker.
Hall knew there would be takers. He had heard about the Silicon Valley elite burying bunkers on ranches in New Zealand, wealthy Russian oligarchs buying whole Pacific islands to escape to, and bunkers being subcontracted by the wealthy (notable examples include Bill Gates and Kim Kardashian). According to a Wired magazine article from 2007, Tom Cruise was planning to pour $10m into building a bunker under his 298-acre estate in Telluride, Colorado. In Los Angeles, a porn production studio even decided to build their new headquarters in an underground bomb shelter – you know, just in case.
In the spring of 2020, public frustration over police brutality led to civil unrest in cities across the US, including Washington DC. At one point, President Trump hid in a bunker underneath the White House, as protesters clashed with police and Secret Service agents outside. In addition to the bunkers that come with the job of president, Trump has bragged about having bunkers under his estate in New York, his golf course in Palm Beach and the nearby resort, Mar-a-Lago. The latter is undergirded by a bunker built in the early 50s by breakfast cereal magnate Marjorie Merriweather Post. Back in 2007, Trump told a journalist for Esquire that he’d spent $100,000 “fixing up” the bunker at the golf course and in the event of a calamity, the Mar-a-Lago shelter is where he’d want to be.
Lavish bunkers such as these are built not so much in response to a single imminent catastrophe, but out of a more general disquiet about a variety of threats. Preppers dread nuclear war and accidents, a collapsing ecosystem, runaway technology, pandemics, natural disasters, economic meltdown and violence.
Waiting out these disasters may require a few years. It’s not that difficult to imagine living underground for a short-term lock-in. What’s more of a challenge is to create a psychologically tolerable environment for the long haul – in order, not to put too fine a point on it, that the members of this newly troglodytic community don’t murder each other.
I knew they couldn’t forget the bar!!!