Waiting for the End of the World

A wealthy financier’s 1978 bomb shelter is the ultimate Cold War relic—and an extreme version of the government-sanctioned “security theater” still prevalent today.

The Las Vegas house shown on these pages is a sort of stage set for the Nuclear Age. Located 25 feet below-ground, it’s not a casino attraction or
a subterranean Brady Bunch pad for nostalgic high rollers but something more extreme: a relic of that odd and delusional moment during the Cold
War when our government tried convincing us that the prospect of a nuclear attack was neither unthinkable nor hopeless. We could survive, they told us, if we prepared.

This 16,000-square-foot bomb shelter—complete with ranch house, guesthouse, pool, yard, and barbecue—may be that era’s most surreal expression. And when Susan Roy, a longtime magazine editor turned architecture historian, first saw images of it eight years ago in Nest, the experience launched her on a journey that eventually resulted in a new book, Bomboozled: How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and Its People Into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear Attack (Pointed Leaf Press).

“I was kind of haunted by them,” Roy says of the Robert Polidori photographs. There was clearly a lot to be haunted by. The house was built for Girard B. Henderson, a wealthy financier with a yen for underground living (he owned another large bunker complex in Colorado) and an abiding dose of nuclear paranoia. But what’s really bizarre about the house, especially for those who remember the civil-defense drills of the 1960s, is its late completion date: 1978, 16 years after the Cuban missile crisis and long after the “duck-and-cover” hysteria had subsided. Henderson was, apparently, one of the last of the true believers. “He believed that a nuclear attack was possible and that the only way to survive it was to live underground,” Roy says. “That was why he commissioned the Las Vegas house.”

The pedigree of the house, which was built by a Texas contractor, Jay Swayze, does date back to the height of the Cold War. In 1962 Swayze was asked by the town of Plainview, Texas, to build a bomb shelter using government civil-defense plans. Shocked by the austerity of those plans, Swayze went on to design and construct a 2,800-square-foot underground ranch house that he called “Atomitat” (a combination of atomic and habitat). He lived there with his wife and two daughters for four years.

Henderson visited the deluxe bomb shelter and immediately commissioned Swayze to build him an underground house in Colorado. He helped Swayze form the Underground World Home Corporation and underwrote the Texan’s Underground Home exhibit at the 1964–65 World’s Fair in New York. It was (no surprise) one of the least popular attractions at the fair.

The Las Vegas house would be the culmination of their work together.
But contrary to popular myth, ordinary citizens didn’t rush out and construct backyard bomb shelters (although the government published detailed plans that encouraged them to do just that). Expensive to build and dreary to contemplate, they remained a tough sell even when nuclear confrontation seemed most imminent.

“The further you get into the government literature, the wackier the propaganda gets,” says Roy, who started the project as a student at Columbia University and eventually amassed a large collection of Cold War ephemera that forms the heart of the book. “The specificity of it was so strange. It started out kind of vague, but as time went on, it got more and more specific.”

So what are we to make, today, of the Henderson house or the 1960 Chicago Daily Tribune article titled “Meals for Two Days in Fallout Shelter” (beef stew was on the menu)? “I think it’s simultaneously hilarious and terrifying,” Roy says, mirroring the reaction audiences had during screenings of the deadpan 1982 documentary The Atomic Cafe.

Laughter, of course, is the easy out. And it’s easier still to dismiss the material in the book—the civil-defense posters, radiation-exposure charts, fallout-shelter plans, and lavish and spooky Henderson photos—as a form
of kitsch. But that misses a larger point and ducks a very uncomfortable question: Are we really any safer today?

“These same persuasion and propaganda techniques still exist, and we should be able to recognize them,” Roy says. “They are much easier to recognize in the material from the fifties and sixties, because they were so unsophisticated and ham-handed. But every time I go through airport security, I think, What is this about?” Roy calls it “security theater”—when the government goes to elaborate extremes to convince people that something is being to done to make them safe, when, in fact, she says, “what they’re doing is virtually useless.”

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