The Cold War Bunker That Offered Subterranean Suburbia Below Las Vegas

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan

Published 9 years ago: September 7, 2013 at 11:00 pm

The real estate listing for 3970 Spencer St shows a foreclosed two-bedroom on a suburban street east of the Las Vegas Strip. That’s nothing remarkable in Vegas, which has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, but this house is special: It’s 8m underground. A high-end fallout shelter built in secret, it’s a small monument to the Cold War — as well as the dream of post-War suburbia in the American west.

Accessed through a shed or cave on the site of the unremarkable vacant lot above it, 3970 Spencer boasts all the comforts of suburban life in Las Vegas, circa the late 1960s: A heated pool (with a water fountain), a four-hole putting course, jacuzzis, a bar, and a dance floor. Then there are more unusual features, like the sky control system — a dimmer that can be set to “morning,” “dusk,” or “night,” which activates the “stars” embedded in the ceiling. Just above them, a thick concrete shell protects this perfect suburban simulacra from impending nuclear doom.

The home was built in the mid-1970s by one Girard B. “Jerry” Henderson, an entrepreneur whose company, Underground World Home, specialised in luxury bunkers. Henderson wasn’t always an underground homebuilder. Born in Brooklyn in 1905, he climbed rose through the corporate ladder to become director of Avon and found his own education charity. Underground living was more of a hobby, until the Cold War — and demand for bunker homes boomed.

Henderson’s business was partially targeting Americans anxious over the threat of nuclear war, but its homes were a far cry from the average backyard bunker. In a brochure distributed at the 1965 World’s Fair, Henderson and architect Jay Swayze touted the fact that his homes provided all the benefits of American suburbia. In fact, it was even better than suburbia, because it ensured complete and utter control over the environment:

Fantastic… An impossible dream… The perfect way of life for future generations? Not at all — It’s here NOW! Create Your own private world… Shut out noise, dangerous intruders, storms, pollen, air pollution.

The 200,000-odd fallout shelters Americans built during the Cold War were designed to offer meta-suburbia: A network of unregulated homes intentionally separated from the world at large and designed to minimize every bit of contact with others. Some were luxurious — like Henderson’s — and others were bare bones.

Henderson died in 1983, only a few years before glasnost emerged, and two years after self-publishing a book called Turn the Clock Back, Sam. In it, he mourned the loss of an idealised America, writing, “I have watched our country change over the last 70 years. The unmistakable drift in this country is toward a stronger central government, more and more taxes and above all, less freedom.” In 1988, a normal suburban home was built on top of the vacant access lot, and his underground home was largely forgotten until 2004, when it was put up for sale.

But 3970 Spencer was destined to continue serving as a metaphor for American suburban life long after the Cold War ended. In 2012, the home was foreclosed on after a buyer who had purchased it in 2005 couldn’t keep up with mortgage payments. Now, it’s been repossessed by the bank: Proof that even the most luxuriously-appointed Cold War bunker was immune to the subprime mortgage crisis. It’s currently listed for $US1.7 million. [Las Vegas Review-Journal; Las Vegas Inc; via MessyNessyChic]

Pictures: The Underground Home Directory, Vegas Inc

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