Down Home

Converted Cold War missile sites combine brilliant adaptive use with survivalist chic.

By Christina Le Beau

Living underground would seem to have certain disadvantages: dampness, lack of sunlight. Ed Peden thought so, too, until one day in 1982 when curiosity led him to an abandoned missile silo near his home in Topeka, Kan. Built by the U.S. government in the early 1960s, the underground site housed a nuclear missile until 1965, when the facility was decommissioned and sold to a salvage company. Like most of the 126 other Cold War missile silos decommissioned at that time, it was full of accumulated rainwater. So Peden did his touring by canoe.

Paddling below ground through a maze of concrete rooms, he thought he saw some possibilities. A year later, he bought the place, and today, using old military maps to track down surviving sites and owners, he is in the business of buying and selling old missile sites. He and his wife, Dianna, have become advocates of a curious kind of nesting that has attracted a small but dedicated group of followers. Some like the security of sites built to survive a nuclear blast—or at least a blast by 1960s standards; others, like the Pedens, enjoy the irony of peaceful living in structures built for war. And there is the appeal of this distinct brand of industrial architecture, with its cavernous spaces that lend themselves to ambitious visions of condos and dance clubsÑnot classic preservation, maybe, but clever adaptive use.

The Pedens' home was an Atlas E base, which, as missile sites go, is the most desirable. Its spacious floor plan allows for drive-in access, making it the most adaptable of the first-generation intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos, which also include Atlas D, Atlas F, and Titan I. One of the largest military construction projects ever undertaken, the silos were manned around the clock by small crews that stood ready to send nuclear warheads to the former Soviet Union. Orders never came, of course, but if they had, the Atlas D missiles, stored above ground, would have been called into service first. The Atlas E sites, three feet below ground, would have been activated next, followed by the Atlas F sites, six feet down. Then, the coup de grace: the Titan I sites, with three missiles, each stored in a separate silo, part of a sprawling subterranean complex straight out of science fiction.

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