Gimme Subterranean Shelter

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

Ivory was hired recently to help design and build the poolside tiki bar at the Delano Hotel. He says he hopes to begin selling his bamboo creations over the Internet using his home computer. He wonders aloud if it would be possible for a local health-food store to make weekly bomb-shelter deliveries.

"I'm not really keen on seeing a lot of people," Ivory says. "This place is close to perfect. The only comparable situation was when I was living in Puerto Rico. I lived across a river, and if people wanted to visit, they'd have to hike up their pants and wade across. You didn't get many namby-pamby types. This is more or less the same situation."

Ironically, the Hibiscus Street bomb shelter has been home to a long line of freethinkers, oddballs, and artists whose global politics run more toward rain-forest preservation than nuclear survivalism. The last tenant moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, after discovering he had a talent for past-life regression and spirit-world channeling.

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Frances Hunter was a basket maker and graphic artist during her underground stint from 1978 to 1984. Like all the bomb shelter residents up until 1992, Hunter had to sign a lease in which she promised to share the bunker with the landlord (and his dogs) in time of nuclear war or natural disaster. The clause was never formally invoked, and the property owner blew his best opportunity. He sold the fallout shelter two days before Hurricane Andrew.

Hunter, age 70, just finished work on a book called Miami Diary: 1896 as part of the city's centennial celebration. She says she thinks the Magic City, and the rest of the United States, will be around for another century or two. "I've never been a worrier," Hunter explains. "Since the beginning of time there have been threats, but we keep going. And when it comes to international relations and nuclear arms, there's only so much you can do locally."

This sunny outlook put Hunter at loggerheads with her landlord, a retired Pan Am executive named William Kent. In July 1960, Pres. John F. Kennedy gave a televised speech warning of Russian troop buildup in East Berlin. The speech, along with fears of U.S. nuclear inferiority, inspired Miami's brief bomb-shelter craze. On Hibiscus Street, a worried William Kent hired a topnotch builder and architect. Seven months before the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, Kent completed the Taj Mahal of local fallout shelters. He still lives across the street from his creation, and he still worries about the future.

"What happened out in Oklahoma City is nothing," says Kent. "One day some Arabs on a nice yacht are going to sail into New York Harbor and blow up the whole city. Or put a bomb on the 9:00 a.m. commuter train to Washington, D.C. I've always thought Miami is extremely vulnerable -- we have water all around us, with Castro right across the Florida Straits. It's a situation we're not facing up to.

"I don't think the shelter was a silly idea," Kent adds. "I didn't lose money on it while I had it, and I finally sold it after it became obsolete. You see, it just wouldn't handle one of the bombs they have today. Anyway, I'm tired of rental property. It's a pain in the neck."

Hunter, the ex-tenant, has stayed in touch with Kent. So has George Reed, the architect who designed the bomb shelter. In the early Sixties, Reed wore a ponytail and ran with a crew of beatnik designers who trained under regional visionary Rufus Mims. Today Reed wears a purple ascot and a cowboy shirt, and remembers the bomb shelter fondly.

"I had never done anything like it before, and I've never done anything like it since," Reed says, sipping a martini. "You must understand that as a young architect this is one of the great opportunities that comes along in your life. It was a fresh design problem that required looking at the world in a totally new way.

"It would be easy now to see Mr. Kent as self-centered, thinking he was going to walk out of there and be the only one left alive in Coconut Grove. But that's not the way I saw it. It was a very fearful time in American society, and it wasn't my privilege to second-guess the client's motivation. To some degree, I could understand the hysteria level. The Strategic Air Command had their B-29s at Homestead Air Force Base, and those planes would have been among the first targets of a nuclear strike."

Reed hired renowned Bahamian stonemason Alfonso Benabee to gather oolitic limestone boulders from local gravediggers and to build the rock tower. His plan emphasized natural beauty.

"I'm quite proud of it," Reed says. "In no way does it say 'I'm a bomb shelter.' Instead it says 'I'm a landscape design.' The second level of challenge was to make it technically correct. The thinking about fallout was a little vague. Would the half-life of this radiation be forever, or two weeks?"

When Hunter arrived in 1978, the shelter still had a French chandelier and a wallpaper mural of the Dardanelles, a strait connecting the Aegean with the Sea of Marmara.

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