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From Missile to Mansion

Occupants of some Atlas E silos that have been made into homes tout their spaciousness and low maintenance costs.

August 03, 2003|Mead Gruver | Associated Press Writer

KIMBALL, Neb. — In the era of fear since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the underground home of Don and Charlene Zwonitzer 140 miles northeast of Denver makes duct tape and plastic sheeting seem like the first little pig's house of straw.

The Zwonitzers figure they could hold out a year without having to leave their home in an Atlas E missile silo.

"Maybe longer than that," said Don Zwonitzer, 55, a retired electrical engineer. "The two of us could live longer than that. But we would probably open up our doors to everyone we [could]."

Built in 1960, Atlas E silos not only cradled the most powerful weapon of the time, they were designed to withstand a 1-megaton blast a mile away. The Zwonitzers have topped that off with a nuclear-biological-chemical air filtration system; generators, batteries, solar panels and a wind turbine; a huge, mostly underground, greenhouse; fish ponds; and stockpiles of food and clothes.

"I go to sleep at night and I don't worry about natural disasters or manmade ones," said Charlene Zwonitzer, 53.

Some of the other 26 Atlas E silos nationwide and eight in the Nebraska-Wyoming-Colorado area have also been made into homes since they were decommissioned. But most silo-dwellers say the principal attraction is owning an unusual historic site and having the space of a mansion -- 15,000 square feet -- with heating and maintenance costs more like a cabin.

Ed Peden lives in an Atlas E silo outside Dover, Kan., and helps sell former missile sites through his company, 20th Century Castles. He estimates people live in as many as a dozen of the nation's former missile silos, including some of the elaborate Atlas F and Titan sites from the mid- to late-1960s.

"After 9-11, our calls increased probably fivefold," he said. Sales have been flat, however, because of the soft economy and the rising cost of moving into a missile silo.

Although a rough Atlas E silo sells for about $150,000, it can cost that much again to make it habitable. When solid-fuel missiles rendered the liquid-fuel Atlas E obsolete in 1965, the government all but gave away the silos to farmers, ranchers and local governments. They usually fell victim to flooding, dirt, vermin and vandalism.

Pollution from cleaning chemicals is another problem, although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will drill water wells and monitor pollution for people living at polluted missile sites.

Peden, 56, said the years of work he and his wife, Dianna, 49, put in before moving into their silo was an adventure, but they have no regrets -- especially when the Kansas summer bears down at more than 100 degrees and they enjoy an underground climate in the 70s.

"Tornadoes don't blow it away, termites don't eat into it," Peden said. "It's going to be here for centuries. I like putting my energy into that kind of project."

Atlas E silos find other uses. One near Holton, Kan., has been a high school for more than 30 years. Another is a museum and a records warehouse for Weld County, Colo.

And one near Chugwater, Wyo., was until recently a constant-temperature environment for machining precision metal parts.

An Atlas E silo is not the stereotypical vertical concrete tube in the ground, a method that began with the Atlas F.

The Atlas E was suspended horizontally under a 100-foot-long lid of concrete and steel. Before launch, powerful hydraulic equipment moved the lid to the side and the missile was raised skyward.

The silo housed a crew of 20. Chambers off the main missile bay housed maintenance equipment and the missile's liquid oxygen fuel. At the far end of the missile bay was a 40-foot-deep blast pit.

The Zwonitzers have covered their blast pit with a greenhouse roof and built metal terraces up the slanted wall. They grow vegetables in 5-gallon buckets and irrigate the plants with a drip system.

A 100-foot, concrete-and-metal tunnel linked a workshop off the missile bay with the control center, mess area, crew quarters and generator room. The Zwonitzers have converted their generator room into a cavernous yet homey recreation room with a dining table, hot tub, pool table and electric organ. A big American flag hangs on the wall.

Into one side of the room they have installed a large glass wall with a sliding door. On the other side of the wall, where the missileers' tiny mess area used to be, they have put in a large, modern kitchen with huge pantry drawers that slide out from under their living room.

The living room has a big-screen TV that provides above-ground images from a video camera that swivels and zooms. Next to the TV, a computer with a voice-recognition program controls the home's electrical and security systems.

Ceiling fans and wood trim make the two bedrooms and library seem conventional. Yet there is no natural light, the air is a bit clammy, and echoes are everywhere.

Charlene Zwonitzer calls it her dream home. "I love it down here," she said. "I love it more than I thought I would."

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