October 20, 2008

Atlas missile silo gains industrial elegance


LEWIS -- The four-megaton Atlas nuclear missile was removed in 1964, leaving a hole 168 feet deep.

Two floors below the wide-open blast doors, hunks of twisted steel lurk like metallic monsters in the shadows.

The floor is steel mesh stretched halfway across the hole.

Peering over the edge, you can see a few stories dropping into the silo abyss.

A sporadic dripping sound echoes up from the bottom.

Nobody has climbed down a narrow spiral staircase to see what's there for at least 40 years.

The blast doors have never been closed. They let in what there is of light, framing on this visit blue skies.

A newly painted, bright yellow-and-black-striped pneumatic cylinder holds one thick cement wing open.

Another rebuilt cylinder lies "above ground," awaiting installation.

"They just walked away and left the doors open," said Alexander Michael, an Australian industrial architect and interior designer who bought the decommissioned Atlas missile silo in 1996.

He spent $160,000 for the industrial guts in the giant hole, including adjoining bunker quarters.

The new hinge is a signature, really, of Michael's work.

"It was just a nightmare," he said of his first impression of the place. "I still can't believe I bought it."


Of the 12 missile silos built surrounding the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base, the one in Lewis retained most of the interior furnishings intact.

An air conditioner hums now from the underground bunker once home to four airmen.

The living quarters are an iron and cement cylinder suspended in a hole, connecting to the missile silo through blast doors by a long tunnel.

A cement column some five feet thick holds up the entire bunker.

"They were designed to be reused," Michael said of the launch quarters. "As if they would reload another Atlas nuclear missile."

Reclaiming the bunker has been a grueling challenge of scraping military-gray paint and sandblasting pitted iron.

Bright-orange trusses gleam now against walls wrapped in gray quilted fabric. A bank of three flat-screen televisions broadcast news images from CNN, the sound muted.

Designer chairs imported from Europe collect around a round living-room table with a Geiger counter centerpiece.

"I though it would be fitting," Michael smiled, taking the metal wand in hand.

The top floor of the silo quarters has a kitchen, storage area and a bathroom that Michael kept pretty much as it was built.

Label-on numbers still designate military part numbers on the bathroom sinks, faucets and soap dispensers.

Making coffee in the kitchen, Michael described 12 years of industrial-sized labor. How he fought to unfreeze eight-inch hinges on giant blast doors of the entrapment vestibule, an entrance designed to protect the missile launch crew. How he researched details of the bunker's layout, even meeting one of the men who lived here and corresponding over time with several others.

BOQUET 556-6

The bunker is suspended on four pneumatic jacks meant to automatically re-level the place after a missile blast.

"It was a stupid system that never worked right. The airmen told me they would be sitting at the control station, and the whole room would suddenly tilt backward. They had to get up and adjust it manually," Michael said.

But he used the pneumatic suspension system to raise the floor about four inches, making it level with the stairwell coming down 40 feet from the surface.

Michael retrofit the control room on the floor below into a bedroom. While removing old paint, he discovered the missile silo number, Boquet 556-6, and left it on the I-beam.

The original missile launch console minus the knobs and display panels (that someone took after Michael bought the silo) sits like a pianoforte in the corner of the round room.

Gauzy white curtains separate beds covered with big, white comforters.

"This one is the only silo that wasn't totally flooded," he said.

It came with its own mess.

The cement center column in living room still bears a stenciled sign warning that a safety latch, once pulled, will release four tons of sand. It was supposed to be used only in "an emergency."

Someone had set the sand flowing, and it solidified in the middle of the room.

Michael estimates it took about two weeks to chip the sand pile apart and remove it.

The public has a chance to tour Boquet 556-6 and a share its history and unique redesign at an open house on Sunday, Oct. 26.

The Lewis silo is located at 87 Hale Hill Road, off Route 9 about five miles north of the village in Lewis. Guided tours will be given from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with tea and biscuits served on the surface.