Gimme Subterranean Shelter

When it comes to home security, you can't beat a house designed to withstand an atom bomb.

Whenever Timothy Ivory reads a newspaper, he starts to laugh. Hurricanes? Hah! Home invasion robbers? Tee-hee! Noise pollution? Heat waves? Third World tyrants with nuclear weapons? Wahoo!

The things that worry normal people don't apply to Ivory. He's the latest lucky local to discover Miami's best-kept real estate secret -- a three-room, Cold War bomb shelter hidden beneath Coconut Grove that rents for $600 per month.

Between August 1961 and January 1962, Dade County issued 143 building permits for family fallout shelters. One hundred others were built secretly in back yards from Homestead to North Miami, civil defense officials estimate. Today the subterranean safe houses are forgotten oddities, mostly sealed up and grown over with weeds. Timothy Ivory reckons he's the last Miamian still living underground in the Atomic Age.

His 900-square-foot hideout is impervious to storms, radiation, civil unrest, and Jehovah's Witnesses, and it also appears to be landlord-proof. Ivory, a 42-year-old street performer and bamboo craftsman, says he's three months behind on the rent. Architect George F. Reed, writing 35 years ago, explains why forcible eviction might prove difficult:

"The shelter rooms, buried under the earth, are entered down spiral stairs cantilevered from the walls of a small stone tower. To stop radiation, lead-lined doors, gasketed, lead into a zigzag entrance hall. The shelter is set in solid rock that has been cement-plastered and waterproofed with hot tar.

"In the event of city water and power failure, an electric generator fueled by butane gas will operate air conditioning, water heater, lighting, refrigeration, and a pump to draw well water for about three weeks. If the generator fails, a hand pump will supply air, batteries will supply light, and the sanitation will be by chemical means."

Aboveground, the corner lot at Hibiscus Street and Avocado Avenue seems almost vacant. A small limestone turret stands in the middle of an unkempt Japanese garden, looking like a medieval missile silo. If you ring the doorbell and Ivory has you in to tea, you climb down 21 steps into the earth, squeeze past the double radiation doors, and proceed to the main room. It's here in windowless splendor that Ivory practices fire eating, juggling, and tightrope walking. Late at night he cranks up his power tools -- a table saw, a planer, and a belt sander. The noise is almost inaudible outside.

"I used to live on Miami Beach at Nineteenth and Ocean Drive," Ivory says. "There were fights, shootings, people screaming, the police coming to break up wives and husbands, you name it. I've lived in some very loud, horrible places. Even in this neighborhood you have the sound of leaf blowers and weed whackers. But not down here. If there's a storm, I can barely hear the thunder. I love it."

Ivory usually doesn't go to bed until dawn, but that's no problem. When he turns off the lights it's darker than midnight, even at noon. "The first time I hit the switch, I thought God had struck me blind," he notes.

The shelter stays cool in the summer and toasty in the winter. Because the property is fourteen feet above sea level, Ivory's home is relatively dry. "When the ground is saturated, like when it's been raining for a week, there is a small amount of leakage," he says. "But you would measure it in pints, not gallons."

Ivory has a fax, phone, and computer. There's no periscope, but his wife and two kids rigged up a pulley and rope to lower groceries down from the front door. Off the spacious main room is a kitchen, a tiled bath, and an emergency escape hatch, plus a utility room with the old electrical generator and water storage tanks, now unused.

"The house is impregnable," says Ivory. "There's only one entrance, and unless you bang down the door with a battering ram, you're not getting in. There's at least a foot of poured concrete on the roof, plus three feet of soil over that. If a bomb hit, I'd be as safe as anybody in Miami. Meanwhile, it's as quiet and as peaceful a sleep as you can get in a city."

Ivory says his mother rolled her eyes when she heard he was moving into a bomb shelter. She called it the Mausoleum. But Mom changed her tune this summer -- twice she had to evacuate her home in Hilton Head, South Carolina, because of hurricanes.

Ivory isn't a personal-protection nut, but his affection for 3636 Hibiscus St. does have a dark side. He thinks he's becoming a misanthrope. The problem began when he performed his tightrope routine at Bayside Marketplace downtown. He used a pair of sculptures to prop up the ends of the rope. For the show to work, audience members had to stand on the sculptures.

"Out of all the thousands of shows I've done all over the world, the only time people ever stepped off the sculptures was here in Miami," Ivory says. "They'd go, 'Uno, dos, tres, ha-ha, let's jump off!' In fact, it was hard to get them up there in the first place. They'd go, 'ACuanto va a pagarme? How much are you going to pay me?' The show was about cooperation, but they didn't get it. And then one day someone stole the sculptures!"

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