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!"

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.

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.

"The place was spectacular," Hunter recalls. "I would work at my desk at night downstairs, then I would spend the days upstairs. The tourist buses would stop by and look in as far as they could, but they could only see what was on top. There was a huge L-shaped fish pond with a little waterfall at one end. There was a grape arbor, and ornamental lights that fit into the architecture so beautifully."

While William Kent was laying out $20,000 for his deluxe bunker, other Miamians were building theirs on the cheap. Even as they did so, local newspapers ran headlines such as "If The Bomb Hits, Where Will You Run?" and "Grand Jury's Report: Dade Civil Defense Inadequate." Throughout the summer of 1961, the Miami Herald serialized a book by military alarmist Alexander P. de Seversky, which claimed Russia was three times mightier than the U.S.

"The county is naked to nuclear attack," Sheriff Thomas Kelly warned. "We don't care what kind of shelter the public builds, as long as it is properly constructed and is as much underground as possible." W.I. Wellons, Dade's civil defense superintendent, weighed in with the sheriff: "We firmly believe that shelters offer the best chance for survival."

On August 9, 1961, a Miami cop named Joe Ventura became the first homeowner to receive a permit for a private fallout shelter. By September, 33 more shelters were under construction. Nineteen bomb-shelter construction companies sprang up. One of them projected an eventual need for 50,000 family fallout shelters in Dade alone, and planned to open "dealerships" across the country. Local banks began making low-interest loans for shelters, and the county decided that the shelters would be assessed and taxed just like any other home addition.

After five months, the bottom fell out of the market. Government civil defense policy began to favor large public bomb shelters rather than small private ones. A federal study named 55 sites in Miami for use as communal shelters, and local officials began stocking them with food and water. They included the Dade County Jail, the Everglades Hotel, and the Virginia Key sewage treatment plant.

A disgusted Harold Jay, manager of U.S. Bomb Shelters, Inc., had this to say: "First it was shelters, now it's the Twist. I think the whole thing was a fad. We only built 32 in Dade County in a year's time. From now on, we will bid on government contracts for communal shelters." The Miami News noted that "in the wake of their departure, the builders left a not altogether enviable record. There were instances of fraud, deceit, and building code violations."

Today the entrance to Miami's first fallout shelter stands in the middle of a dog pen at 3100 NW 95th Terr. Lillie Corrieri, age 31, owns the dogs. She's trying to sell the house. "It's been a real liability," she says of the underground bunker. "People come to look at the house and they see this thing sticking out of the back yard. They think it's something the government built."

What's the shelter like on the inside? "I don't know," Corrieri says. "My mom went down there when she bought the house in 1967. It hasn't been opened since."

Corrieri bites her nails as a brawny photographer pulls open a trap door the size of a coffin lid. A rusty steel ladder disappears down a concrete shaft. At the bottom of the shaft, an old green bottle floats in a foot of water.

A corridor leads to a twelve-by-fourteen-foot room. It contains a lawn chair, a plastic Jesus statuette, and approximately 900 cockroaches. Someone has written 1961 in the cement.

"My mom says the guy who built it was a real fanatic weirdo," Corrieri notes. "He had cans of food down there, and an oxygen tank." The five-foot-tall tank is still there, along with a gas mask.

Not far across town, at 685 NE 130th St., a fireman named Jim Reilly once spent two weeks underground with his wife and four children to test the shelter he built with his own hands.

Reilly's gone now, and the current owner, a Haitian immigrant, at first denies there's anything unusual behind his house: "Bomb shelter? What bomb shelter?"

Twenty minutes later he leads a pair of visitors around back. He swings open the counterweighted lid. The shelter smells hot and dank, and the entry ladder has rusted away. "I think whoever built this thing was crazy," the homeowner snorts. "I don't want it here, but it's here. It's like a ghost in my back yard."

One day soon, even the snazziest of Miami's bomb shelters may be dark and empty, given back to the ghosts of the Cold War until new tenants can be found. Timothy Ivory's lease ran out on August 31, and he's not sure he'll renew. He loves his Coconut Grove bunker, but his wife doesn't.

"Her initial reaction was, 'Yeah, this is great!'" Ivory recalls. "Then she got concerned. She's studying acupuncture, and she's very aware of lung-liver channels and how breathing is affected by damp and cold. She kept saying, 'There's no oxygen!' I would say, 'What do you mean there's no oxygen? Of course there's oxygen. We just need one of those dehumidifiers.'"

She moved out of the underground digs and into a proper house near the airport. Bomb shelter life isn't for everyone.

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