Post-apocalyptic accommodations begin where the pavement ends on a stretch of highway in rural north-central Kansas. A white sign in the shape of an old-fashioned tombstone prop sits in the roadside's tall grass and reads, "This Old Missile Base." The sign's black, missile-shaped arrow points travelers off the highway and north on a rocky, muddy path.
A sliding gate, festooned with barbed wire and signs warning of surveillance cameras, blocks the end of the trail. The scene beyond the fence resembles any condominium construction site with dirt piles, trucks, a Bobcat and a Porta-Potty. The housing complex being built here isn't visible. It's underground, in what was an Atlas-F missile silo built in the early 1960s. Here, 54-year-old developer Larry Hall is converting the subterranean silo into million-dollar luxury dwellings that he calls "Survival Condo." Hall is marketing these homes — built with 9-foot-thick concrete walls and capable of withstanding a nuclear blast — to rich and famous buyers.
On a blustery late-January day, Hall walks out of the only aboveground building at the site, a 4,000-square-foot steel structure that's divided into a temporary two-bedroom home, an office and a storage area. He tells visitors that the security precautions are necessary to keep out snoops compelled to take a look once they hear about the silo.
"It's been crazy," Hall says. He insists that The Pitch and other media outlets not disclose the location of his silo.
Hall asks visitors to wipe their feet before entering his pristinely clean living room, where a 55-inch flat-screen television with DirecTV gleams. Visitors are often impressed, Hall says. "They go, 'Holy cow, dude. This is a man cave! I want to be out here.' "
A photo of Hall with former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler Jesse Ventura hangs on a living-room wall. It was taken during the filming of a 2010 episode of TruTV's Conspiracy Theory. Dozens of black-and-white photos show the Atlas-F, a 172-foot-deep submerged tube that housed an SM-65F missile, which was equipped with a nuclear warhead capable of hitting a target about 5,500 miles away. The only photo in the room unrelated to the silo's history is a portrait of Hall's 7-year-old son, Luke, in his soccer uniform.
With his 6-foot-3-inch frame and well-behaved gray hair, Hall looks the part of a developer, not a doomsday theorist. He wears a blue thermal shirt, jeans and work boots. For 25 years, Hall worked on defense and communications projects for the federal government and contractors, including Northrop Grumman.
Hall plans for Survival Condo to be the Park Avenue of the apocalypse. He has sliced the 52-foot-diameter silo into seven floors of circular condos. Each 1,800-square-foot floor can be bought for $2 million and can house up to 10 people. Half a floor goes for $1 million.
Hall describes the building as a resort. He lists the amenities: swimming pool, gym, pub, movie theater. Units will have biometric locks; stainless-steel kitchen appliances; and flat-panel screens that resemble windows and display pleasant views, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and sea life.
Hall has sold two units and reserved one for his family. He says the condos will be finished by June.
Who wants to buy a condo buried in Kansas? Hall says well-heeled buyers from around the world are looking for tony homes that can survive manmade and natural disasters. Twelve people have expressed interest so far.
"There's a NASCAR driver, an NFL player," Hall says. "There's a guy that writes books and is a movie producer. There's politicians. There's engineers. There's NASA scientists. There's doctors."
Hall won't name his buyers, but he says one is a mother of two teenagers. The woman designed her three-bedroom unit to have walk-in closets, a large dining room, a fireplace and a separate living space for her children. She added eight window screens that cost $15,000 apiece.
Banks, however, have been unwilling to offer mortgages for the condos. Hall initially sold out of the homes in late 2010 with buyers dropping $50,000 deposits. Several buyers, though, couldn't come up with cash to go forward, so Hall refunded their deposits and started marketing them again last fall.
Real-estate broker Ed Peden sells old military installations and sold the silo to Hall. Peden, owner of 20th Century Castles, lives in an old silo outside Topeka and says most developers who buy these abandoned military sites don't build inside the silos themselves but refurbish the two-story "launch control center," which is also underground and connected to the silo by a tunnel. Peden says it's relatively easy to convert those nearly 5,000-square-foot spaces.
"The silo is definitely a big challenge," he says, adding that Hall's plan to build condos in the silo itself is a unique one. "We've sold a lot of those Atlas-F sites, and a lot of people talk about working with the silo. But he's the only one who's successfully done it."
Hall plans to turn the former control center into a hydroponic-produce garden.
Peden has sold 55 former military facilities in 18 years. He says it's no surprise that Hall's original buyers dropped out.
"I tell you what's happening the last couple of years: a lot of interest, not much buying," Peden says. "The banks are very tight, and they just probably won't even lend on these types of properties."
Peden says he sold one silo last year. Although he's intrigued by Hall's plan, the condo might not make economic sense.
"I worry a little for him there," Peden says. "I'm glad he's in that position and I'm in mine."
Hall theorizes about what event could send folks scurrying underground. His favorite theory: Solar flares knock out the power grid. Two days earlier, a solar storm — the strongest in nearly a decade, according to NASA scientists — diverted flights on polar routes between the United States and Asia.
The theory that Hall adheres to is that the sun will shoot humongous streams of charged particles, called coronal mass ejections, toward Earth. If the particles get through holes in the Earth's magnetic field, they could travel on power lines to transformers and destroy them, knocking out much of the grid. Although Survival Condo will be connected to the local power grid, Hall's contingency plan is for a wind turbine, a diesel generator and solar panels.
Hall believes this is the most likely scenario that will lead people to the condos. However, he says other doomsday events — food shortages, economic collapse, civil unrest, global weather changes — may force people underground.
"I think there are a lot of things the Survival Condo would be useful for," Hall says. "You know, pick your poison. Whatever worries you have may or may not worry me. But, in either case, I've got a one-size-fits-all solution."
Over lunch at a café and wine bar in a small town about 12 miles from the silo, Hall says life inside Survival Condo would operate in two modes: normal and lockdown. Under normal circumstances, the silo will be a regular condominium building with a homeowners association, contractors providing a security detail, and groundskeepers on the surface. But if a disaster struck, the silo would be sealed from the surface and the people inside would adhere to a set of democratically determined rules. Residents would eat stockpiled, certified-organic dehydrated food; produce grown in the hydroponic center; and farmed fish. The millionaire inhabitants would maintain the building through a task-rotation system, in which everyone would have to learn every job (operating pumps, working at the general store and other duties). If one person couldn't complete a chore, everyone would know how to do it. It also would keep people from resenting one another. It's an idea that he cribbed from the Biosphere 2 experiment.
As in any community, Hall predicts problems. He says he's prepared for almost any scenario. The first: the bathroom.
"Do you know how much storage space you would need for toilet paper? It is staggering," he says. "I would need another silo just for toilet paper to even have something like a 10-year capacity."
Bidets take up too much space. The solution: the toilet of the future.
"There is a company called Toto that makes these electric toilets that has a built-in bidet in the toilet. They're $2,500 toilets. But we have the best of the best. So we have eco-friendly bidets that warm your butt and clean you off in a single motion, without having to change platforms."
Hall, who says he sleeps four hours a night, bats away other potential problems that could arise for the subterranean upper crust. What happens if a resident gets pregnant?
"Typically they have a baby," Hall says with a dash of arrogance.
Hall says the life-support system in the silo would allow for the community to grow, if needed, and he has planned for variations in oxygen and food consumption.
"The equipment has specifications, but it's typically within a 15 percent variation," Hall says. "Infants are going to be well within that variation. So does that mean that we want to, right off the get-go, start letting 15 percent more people in, to be operating at 110 percent or 115 percent of our capacity? No, but that's in our contingency planning because that's something that could happen."
What about crime?
"We have a two-cell holding area that we can use for either medical isolation or incarceration," he says and adds that tasers would be used.
Hall has also prepared for threats from the outside world. The one he mentions most: roving gangs seeking food and shelter from whatever hell was on the surface. Those trying to penetrate the silo would be met with serious firepower. Hall says there will be a formidable cache of weapons inside the silo.
"I can say this: There's well over 10,000 rounds of ammunition," he says. "And there are multiple kinds of guns and multiple calibers of guns, some of which are completely automated. We don't even have to go outside to shoot somebody.
"It's like a video game," Hall continues as he takes a bite of his chicken-salad sandwich.
Hall scoffs at the notion that condo owners in other parts of the country or world wouldn't be able to get to their condos in the middle of Kansas. He says the condo's usefulness comes down to preparation. When he lived in Florida, he says, he had a written plan in his go-bag of supplies that outlined various ways to get to the silo. One plan was to drive as far as he could, then hike for weeks. Another involved borrowing a friend's airplane. Now, he says, he's going to fit his truck with an extra fuel tank, so he'll be able to drive his family to the condo from their home in Denver without stopping for gas.
"Those people that buy Survival Condos will have a plan," he says, "and they will have a place to go."
About 100 feet from the silo sit two original 175,000-pound steel surface doors that parted when the missile was raised on its elevator. A newly dredged 12- to 16-foot trench cuts around the silo and past the first of three 25,000-gallon water tanks the condos will rely on.
"It looks like a submarine, doesn't it?" Hall says of the custom-made tank, a behemoth crafted by a company in a nearby town.
Hall wipes his feet on a rusty grate and heads down a flight of stairs for a tour of the silo. He is quick with details, both about the history of the building and the future he envisions. He points out the little touches that people might overlook. There's the original maze of 90-degree turns built to slow the force of a nuclear blast before it could reach the control center's five-man crew. Inside the tunnel connecting the control center to the silo, Hall pauses to describe his design.
"It's going to be predominantly white; it's very bright," he says. "But it's got a wavelike glass-tile pattern in it. It's got blues and greens, and it's a transition into [the] hydroponics and aquaculture [area]."
"I'm doing most of the design myself. And I'm not even gay," he adds with laugh.
The third floor of the silo will become a general store, where residents will pick out food and socialize. He points to steel beams and says they'll be covered with wood to give the shop a rustic feel.
Hall heads downstairs to the condo purchased by the woman with teenagers. (The elevator will be one of the last things installed.)
While showing off the oversized closets, Hall recalls the woman berating him for catering to the wealthy with high-end appliances. But he says the hefty price is dictated by the limited amount of space, not luxury appliances.
"The cost drivers have nothing to do with the appliances. But the people that spend the money to come in here are used to those types of appliances," he says.
Hall says two other buyers asked him why they couldn't put Wolf Dual Fuel Ranges in their units. Hall researched the stoves and found that they would add $30,000 to the price.
"They said, 'Oh, that's all? Just freaking do it!'0x2009" he says. "These people are on another level."
Hall is enamored of the minutiae of his project: The condos' framing is built with expensive 20-gauge steel. Space between the units' walls and the silo's outer structure ensures that the floors won't crack during seismic events.
Nothing about the condo induces claustrophobia. The rooms feel large, and navigating the space is easy, even with piles of construction materials lying around. The only unsettling thing about being 75 feet below the surface is the silence. It's so quiet, your ears ring.
Despite the seven-figure price tag and high-quality appliances, Hall says he's far from making a fortune from the condos.
"Yeah, I'm making a little bit of money on them, but it's normal markup," he says. "Until I get these sold out, I'm really not going to make any money."
In the future bedroom of a teen, Hall takes a break from admiring the Survival Condo (he calls it his baby) and shifts to his son, Luke, and wife, Lori. He describes himself in his pre-family life as "just a fun-loving guy who liked skiing and scuba diving." He says he traveled to Carnival and Mardi Gras and worked "on spook projects for the government" and "nuclear programs."
"It was pretty cool," he says.
Luke was conceived a month after doctors told Hall and his wife that they were unable to have children. Hall's focus shifted to protecting his family.
"Nothing bothered me," Hall says. "But he was born, and now I can't watch the evening news without getting upset. It's actually disturbing. You don't have that peace of mind that you used to have. Once you become a parent, you lose that."
Hall doesn't stay mushy for long. He climbs a series of staircases to the surface and back into his man cave. He continues preaching preparedness and implores his guests to make a plan in case of a catastrophic event.
When you have a plan, he says, "there is this weight lifted." He stresses keeping a year's worth of dehydrated food on hand (about $1,000 per person). He recommends a Katadyn water filter to purify dirty water, crank-powered flashlights, a radio, and a gun and ammo.
"Get quality stuff," he says. "Don't get crap."