It's 8:15 on a sunny Tuesday morning and I'm standing 201 feet below ground. With my phone in hand (and, somehow, with service), I'm on the 15th floor underground of an old missile silo in remote Kansas that's been converted into a luxury bunker. To get there, I flew from New York City to Atlanta, then hopped on a plane to Wichita, where I rented an SUV and drove nearly 200 miles to a secret location near a city called Concordia. With a population of just about 5,000 people, Concordia is your typical small American town, with a Main Street, an old movie theater and, just another 10 miles away, the Survival Condo Complex — a 54,000 square foot structure built inside an Atlas missile silo, a government structure built to withstand a 200 pound-per-square-inch atomic blast that once housed a nuclear warhead and now holds 12 high-end apartments costing upwards of 1.5 million dollars, built for rich people to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, volcano eruptions, nuclear disasters and the end of the world.
Between the Complex and Concordia are a slew of fast food chains, picturesque farmland and, directly outside the compound, a combination armored fence/steel gate where a security guard named Dave, who's dressed in head-to-toe fatigues and holding a 12-gauge shotgun, asks to see my identification. Laughing (probably at my ID, which was taken, between sobs, after a night of fighting with my then-boyfriend), he questions: "Do you have any firearms? Knives? Weapons of any kind? Is Larry expecting you?"
Larry is Larry Hall, the Denver-based owner of the Survival Condo and a handful of other Atlas missile silos, which he also plans to turn into bunkers, each more extravagant and expensive than the last. And yes, he's expecting me.
After Dave ushers me through the gates, Larry quickly appears from behind two giant steel doors and waves me inside the bunker. When we meet, he shakes my hand and leads me through a garage, past a camo-painted World War II-era Volkswagen, and through another set of steel doors that open to a decontamination chamber, where during a pandemic or a nuclear emergency, all owners would be stripped and given a chemical shower, before being analyzed with a Geiger counter (used to measure levels of radiation) and dressed in a hospital gown. Next to Larry is his associate, Mark Menosky, and the three of us exchange niceties in a hallway that, in one direction, turns into a mini gallery filled with photos taken by the US Army Corps of Engineers of the silo from its inception in 1960 through 1965, when it was decommissioned; in the other, a staircase to the facility's fully equipped shooting range.
Survivalism, whose practitioners are now commonly referred to as "preppers," can be traced back to the 1930s and '40s, when the stock market crash of 1929 and the advent of the atomic bomb led to an overwhelming increase of global anxiety (the word itself was coined in 1976 by author Kurt Saxon). Suddenly, people began building bomb shelters and stockpiling food and guns, preparing for a coming catastrophe, which some members of the movement, often labeled "Doomsday preppers," believe is Armageddon.
Whatever the reason, as the years passed, with each real or perceived crisis — the dawn of the Cold War and Age of Anxiety in the '50s, increased inflation throughout the '60s, the 1973 oil crisis, Y2K — survivalism became simultaneously more popular and more scrutinized, with cults like David Koresh's Branch Davidians, who had been collecting illegal firearms at their compound in Waco, Texas in anticipation of an imminent apocalypse, bringing the movement to the attention of the mainstream, and only furthering criticism of it. But it wasn't always a national punchline. In fact, during the Cold War, our government urged American citizens to get involved and help build fallout shelters for the threat of nuclear war, while kids at school were taught to "duck and cover." Eventually, the apprehension concluded when the Cold War did and what was once seen as necessary became a total extreme. And then 9/11 happened.
Afterwards, Hall, who worked as a military consultant and has degrees in both business and engineering, saw the US government investing in contingency programs for both high-ranking officials and, even more prominently, data, in case of disaster. "I started thinking, 'What do they know that I don't?'" he says. And, "If they're going to all these lengths to protect data, what are they planning for? Why shouldn't I protect people?"
Around the same time, the government was auctioning off an old missile silo near Concordia, Kansas. Hall, who heard about the auction from his role as a military consultant, bought the structure and began work on what he wanted to turn into an opulent bunker with WiFi, cable, and both lavish and life-saving amenities (including a full-service operating room and modern plumbing), with space for 75 total occupants. This was in 2008. Obama had just been elected, and he started receiving "phone call after phone call" from wealthy right-wing individuals requesting to buy units. By 2012, the Survival Condo Complex was completed, with owners already having purchased 920 square foot half-floor and 1,840 square foot full-floor one- and two-bedroom apartments for 1.5 and 3 million dollars, respectively, including Larry, who currently owns a half-floor unit himself. But above ground, survivalism was still seen as irrational, meant only for "camo-wearing psychos," Larry laments. But that's not his version.
"Our customers are doctors, engineers and international business people," he tells me. "These aren't conspiracy theorists. But bringing up the topic of survival condos is basically like bringing up UFOs: You get people that are open-minded, or you get people who start looking for the tinfoil."
In Larry's mind, this couldn't be more ignorant. "Looking at everything going on in the world right now, honestly, I think it's crazier not to own [a survival condo]," he insists. And he does have a point. Aside from Trump's polarizing presidential campaign and subsequent election, which led to mass social unrest, there's climate change; the alt-right; nuclear tension with North Korea; Russian saber-rattling; mass shootings at churches, mosques and synagogues; cyber warfare and conflict in the South China Sea, not to mention natural disasters like the fires in California in 2018 and hurricanes Harvey and Maria, as well as diseases like Ebola and the recent recurrence of measles.
Back in the bunker, we're standing by a pool — the kind you'd find in a Southern California McMansion, with a waterslide carved out of rocks and an overall manufactured tropical vibe that feels wholly out of place underground. But then again, I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting. Of course, the silo is outfitted with everything you'd imagine for an apocalyptic safe house: three armories filled with weapons, including shotguns, and AR-15 and sniper rifles, ammunition and a crossbow; boxes of canned food and 24/7 security (though Larry refuses to tell me how many guards he employs, or how many are on-site at any given time). Then there's the self-sustaining food system through hydroponics and aquaculture, which uses the excrement of three different types of farmed tilapia as fertilizer to grow fresh plants and vegetables. While not currently functional, the system has just introduced its first fish cycle, and, according to Larry, should be fully operational, with fresh fish and vegetables that would keep the bunker's guests alive and fed indefinitely, within the next eight months.
Then there's a gym that's covered in superhero and sports team decals, a bar and lounge, a movie theater, a dog park / rock climbing wall and a poolside restaurant, which Larry says came as a result of a meeting with all the bunker's female tenants. The condos themselves are all customized with furniture, artwork and additions, like the stone fireplace in one of the units I visited, handpicked by the owners, and there are LED window screens within each apartment that play a livestream of the land above the silo, or your choice of scenery, from a forest to the beach to a real-life recording of Central Park, as requested by one New York client.
"I get so pissed off at the people who think we haven't thought of everything," says Larry, as he flips through the screen options for me in a one-bedroom unit. "We've taken great lengths to make sure people feel like they're in the real world here. And they like it that way."
Another tool Larry's employed to help the owners imitate their lives IRL is rotating chores. Each month, clients work a job like "security, teaching or working at the store," for four hours a day, while kids in kindergarten through sixth grade, and seventh through twelfth, go to school in shifts. According to psychologists he hired when putting together the design, as well as researchers from the Biosphere Project, which observed human life in an artificially created ecological system in the '90s, this practice gets "people familiar with the day-to-day operations and maintenance of the building," Larry explains. "It's also to make them feel constructive and productive, and to give them a common denominator, like an extended family."
Standing in the general store, with its small deli counter and rows and rows (and more rows) of canned food, I can't imagine the ultra-rich serving canned apple slices and Stroganoff noodles in between their shifts running the cash register. When I start mentioning this to Larry, he cuts me off: "These are all self-made millionaires and billionaires," he tells me, "so they're comfortable with hard work. Actually, they want to work. These are people used to having high-pressure jobs, and they don't like to vacation."
That word — vacation — strikes me, and it's not because the pool is underground, so it's incredibly humid, or because the mural next to the slide, showing palm trees around a sign that reads "Lost In Paradise," feels even more ironic because of where we are. It's because Larry keeps stressing it.
Throughout our tour, he tells me about one of his owners, "a woman and her two kids," who, when she first arrived, "got tears in her eyes." "She said, 'Oh, please don't take this the wrong way, but I didn't think it was going to be this nice. I wasn't going to come unless there was a disaster, but now I just want to hang out here.'" And she does, he says, for "two to four weeks out of the year."
It was January 2017 when Larry started getting an influx of calls from Democrats and younger Silicon Valley-types — people he describes as being "on the other side of the political spectrum" from his earlier clients and, it's clear — if not explicit — during the course of our conversation, from him. Regardless, political differences don't stop him from accepting new clients. In fact, he "wishes the world could get along the way his owners who disagree politically do." The only people who can't buy units within his structures are those with convictions for violent crimes ("White-collar and DUIs are okay," he says) and crimes against children. He also frowns on people who flip houses.
But back to 2017. Trump had just been sworn into office, leading to a surge of Americans who said they were moving to Canada and applying for foreign passports. Some of the ones who stayed, however, started looking into luxury bunkers. "It's not becoming a trend, it already is one," Larry asserts, as he lists the current projects he's working or plans to work on.
Aside from the Survival Condo outside Concordia, there's a second, more high-end structure filled only with penthouse units, being built inside another missile silo elsewhere in Kansas. He's also been hired to construct multi-million dollar private bunkers for wealthy clients.
Despite the perception that rich people are all of a sudden looking for apocalypse-surviving pied-à-terres thanks to recent political developments, if you ask Larry, he believes it's always been the case — people have just been afraid to talk about it publicly. To that, he tells me a story of an "A-list Hollywood actor" who called him to talk about buying a bunker. "This A-lister said that it would be an easier decision to come out as LGBT than to say you were a prepper or that you were interested in survival," he remembers. But also that "having money means having influence."
"A lot of our owners are connected to politicians, and high-level officials, and top dogs in Silicon Valley," he says. "Based on the information they're getting, they're realizing it would be prudent to own one of these things." Furthermore, he says "global economic collapse is probably the biggest reason people come to us. It's not just nuclear war and zombies." He continues, "I'm not saying it's 100% sure something bad is going to happen, but when you consider all of the what-ifs, it really isn't that extreme."
That's why all of his owners had escape plans, or G.O.O.D. (Get Out of Dodge) kits, as they're commonly referred to within the movement, before he even met them. Originally, the Survival Complex had access to two Hummers that, during any disaster ("from normal mode to lockdown mode," Larry says; normal mode is anything from an average day to a tornado or a hurricane; lockdown ensues when "there is a physical threat that encompasses the facility"), would pick up any of its owners within 200 miles. Unfortunately, those vehicles belonged to an owner who has since passed away, and as of now, each client is responsible for getting to the facility on their own. When Larry called a meeting to suggest different escape routes, he was glad — but not surprised — they already had B.O.V.s (another survivalist term that stands for "Bug-Out Vehicles," a form of transportation in case shit hits the fan, or SHTF in survivalist shorthand) with plans to travel by air, or in a bulletproof car with an extended range tank that could take them "from Miami to Kansas without ever having to stop for gas," he says.
But owning a bunker, and having an escape plan, isn't just a lifestyle for the rich and the paranoid. "This is like a living science project," he explains, comparing a bunker to having "life insurance versus life assurance.
"People need to think of it not as, 'I'm buying a bunker I'm never going to use,'" he says, "but like, 'I just bought a science-fair second home that happens to be nuclear hardened.'"
304 Stainless Sheet
As we get towards the end of the tour, I ask Larry more about his plans for the future. All of a sudden, we're stopped in front of a stainless steel room that's completely empty, save for a toilet and sink. "It's a jail cell," Larry clarifies, and when I ask whether it's for intruders or clients he responds, "Owners. If one of them drinks too much, or has a bad day..."
Staring at that bleak homemade cell, I quickly remembered exactly where I was, 200 feet below ground. Perhaps noticing my discomfort, Larry starts to pat me on the back. "Is it extreme to be able to be prepared for anything?" he asks. "No. It's necessary."
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