How a Missile Silo Became the Most Difficult Interior Decorating Job Ever- page 2 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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How a Missile Silo Became the Most Difficult Interior Decorating Job Ever

A relic from the Cold War, this instrument of death gets a new life … and a new look

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(Continued from page 1)

But compared with other sites that had been flooded and pillaged beyond recognition, the control center in this one—attached to the silo by a 40-foot tunnel—was in relatively good shape. Even the launch console was still intact, red button and all. Against his better judgment, Michael went through with the sale, paying $160,000 for the structure and its eight acres; he sold an apartment building he owned in Sydney to pay for it.

So began a massive restoration project that continues today. Over three-week visits each spring and fall, Michael has gradually turned the silo control center into a living space that comes close to, or at least pays homage to, its historical state. In September, a regional architectural heritage organization gave him a historical preservation award for his “long-term stewardship” and “sensitivity to the structure’s original purpose and period.”  

About five years ago, Richard Somerset contacted Michael and came to see his old workplace for the first time since the 1960s. "It was exciting and yet extremely depressing,” says Somerset. “We all have memories, and then to see the deterioration of the site to the point that—how could this happen?"

“Dick was deeply upset when he first visited the site and saw the condition it was in,” Michael recalls. “He was probably lucky not to see it before I started work.”

Michael has done much of the renovation himself—no small feat. “The scale and the strength and the proportions of everything here are so enormous and so big that you can’t deal with them with domestic tools or domestic strength,” he says. “Everything has to be ten times bigger. … Things go awry so easily.”

For instance, in 2011, after scouring salvage yards for years, he finally found a replacement for the hydraulic rams that opened and closed the 90-ton silo doors. Last fall he assembled friends to watch as he closed the doors for the first time in decades. Partway down, one of the rams started spewing hydraulic fluid.

Michael has been more successful in the control center. You enter the space by descending a 40-foot staircase to the entrapment vestibule and a pair of 2,000-pound steel blast doors. The two-level control center is a 45-foot-diameter cylinder; in the center is a huge fan-vaulted concrete support column. The floors do not connect to the walls; instead, a system of four pneumatic arms was designed to absorb the shock of a direct nuclear hit. An overhead escape hatch in the top level is filled with four tons of sand, also to absorb shock. In the event a nuclear blast blocked the main entrance, the top few inches of sand would turn to glass from the extreme heat; the crew members would open the hatch to let out the rest of the sand, use a hammer to break through the glass and crawl out.

The decor is full of cheeky references to the silo’s past purpose, with a color scheme that is mostly utilitarian gray, orange and blue. A set of clocks on one wall displays the times in world cities. In the kitchen is a stack of aluminum mess kits left over from a military-themed party Michael once threw. Flight suits hang on a wall in the bedroom, the former missile control room, where he has also painted a round table with a yellow and black radiation symbol. The original launch console is still there, though, to Michael’s great disappointment, on his first return visit after the purchase he discovered the red button had since been stolen. (As it turns out, it wasn’t the launch commit button anyway—according to Somerset, the real one was kept under a flapper cover to avoid accidental activation. The red button was to sound the klaxon that would alert the crew to prepare for a launch.)

Since there are no windows, Michael has mounted a closed-circuit television to the wall so he can see what’s happening outdoors. The temperature in the control center is a constant 55 degrees; it takes a good two weeks of running the heat pump full time to bring it up to 68. But the most marked difference of living below ground instead of above is the utter silence. “I remember one night I got up out of bed thinking, there’s something humming, and I had to find it,” he says. He looked high and low for the source of the noise. “I eventually gave up and went back to bed. I finally realized it was just the buzz in my head. It’s that quiet.”

Since the 9/11 attacks, a flurry of interest in the remote, bombproof sites has left Michael feeling both vindicated and slightly unsettled. He says he has been approached by groups wanting to buy his place as a haven in which to wait out the “end times.”

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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