Preparing For Liftoff

The Cold War is over, but the North Country's missile silos are ready to launch a new era

In the event of nuclear war, Gregory Gibbons knows what he has to do. He’ll simply open a particular door in his Redford, N.Y. home, take his wife, two children, and three large dogs, and casually walk downstairs. Of course, Gibbons’s basement isn’t exactly your standard underground vault. It’s spacious, with 20,000 square feet at his disposal, including a two-level, three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom living space. It’s comfortable, with the earth-moderated temperature always hovering around 58 degrees, no matter how raw the outdoor conditions might be. And most importantly for the security-minded dweller, Gibbons’s subterranean citadel is safe, protected by an eight-level steel infrastructure and tested by the United States Air Force to withstand even the strongest nuclear blast.

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A schematic drawing reveals Gibbons's Adirondack home...with one very expansive basement

Photo courtesy of Gregory Gibbons

Once upon a time, this location was home to an 81-foot-tall missile, the front lines of defense against a Soviet attack that never came. Yet those days are long gone, 44 years into the history books. Today, this spot 174 feet beneath the ground serves a far different purpose: seasonal home for Gibbons and his family, a property purchased as a teenage lark living on as an undeniably innovative living space. "It’s great,"Gibbons says. "I mean, it’s basically a hole in the ground, a hard-to-maintain hole in the ground. But it’s a real missile site that you can now live in. You can’t get much more unique than that."

Should that nuclear war happen to hit during April or October, Alexander Michael won’t have to do anything. He’ll simply stay right where he is. Since 1996, the noted Australian architect has spent six weeks every year in Lewis, N.Y., transforming the old missile silo on the outskirts of town into a luxury home. After more than a decade of labor on a site that was, in Michael’s words, "just a hideous piece of trash"when he first laid eyes on it, the often-irreverent designer has created a stylish underground condominium that has earned mentions in publications around the world and a feature spot on Home and Garden TV. His orange-hued rec room and bedroom occupy most of the two-story area that once served as the Launch Control Center, quarters for the five-person crew responsible for supervising the site. Now, it’s the living space for one happy architect. "This is my favorite project,"Michael says of renovating the silo, "and it really hasn’t even begun. There’s so much more I need to do here. It’s a mammoth task, and it will take me God-only-knows-how-long to complete it, but it’s been a great adventure for me."

"How many people can wake up in the morning and say they have their own missile silo?"

And if that nuclear war comes too soon, it just might force Gerald Fitzpatrick to speed up the task that has occupied his last three summers. A former Peace Corps volunteer who spends much of his time abroad working in war-torn countries for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Fitzpatrick was in search of a "renovation challenge"when he spied the online auction listing for a decommissioned missile base in Champlain, N.Y. After a few visits and a $175,000 transaction, the eight-acre lot was his…and so was all the work that came with it. Flooded with water and crammed with scrap metal, Fitzpatrick’s silo was hardly fit for human habitation. After three summers of intense toil, the site remains a work in progress. Living above ground in a Quonset hut (a domed metal building used for storage during the missile silo’s active days) between trips to Africa and Asia, the energetic Fitzpatrick admits he has quite an assignment on his hands. "It’s a mess,"he announces, in what just might be the understatement of the century. "I’ve got a white elephant on my hands. But I don’t care. How many people can wake up in the morning and say they have their own missile silo?"

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Gerald Fitzpatrick stands at the entrance of his missile silo, an ongoing "work in progress" for the owner

Photo by Benjamin Pomerance

More people than you might think. In a region known more for natural beauty than for nuclear defense, twelve missile silos linger beneath the surface, unyielding reminders of humanity’s trip to the brink of self-destruction. The missiles are gone, of course, carted away in the spring of 1965 — just three years after the silos were built at the tune of $14 to $18 million per site. Yet the memories remain, mental artifacts locked in the minds of the people who worked at these military posts and the townsfolk who lived, sometimes unknowingly, on the front lines of Cold War activity. Twelve remote locations, each one only the push of a button away from starting a war and possibly ending the world — those aren’t the kind of recollections that are easy to forget.

Then there are the new memories, the ones being made today. Owners like Gibbons and Michael and Fitzpatrick are bringing new life and novel purposes to these remnants of the arms race, from town garages to atypical offices to private homes. A journey through these Cold War relics, all twelve arranged in a circle like numbers on the face of a clock, is a trip back in time, digging through piles of what was and what might have been. Yet it is also a voyage into the future, a look at the ways in which a spot built for destruction can be preserved for posterity. Each silo has its own unique past, its own place in the North Country’s often-overlooked Cold War heritage. Now, thanks to a band of dedicated proprietors, many of these sites will also have their own unique future.

"Like I tell people, this place is an ongoing process."

In just three years of ownership, Fitzpatrick has found out exactly how dedicated a modern-day missile silo owner needs to be. After buying the Champlain site — Site One on the missile maps of the ‘60s — Fitzpatrick knew he was in trouble the first time he tried to venture down into the depths of his new property. "Most of these sites had water problems,"he says, a wry grin on his face, "and mine was no exception. I had to do some major drainage work to get this place to the state it’s in now."Visiting the Champlain silo today, one can only imagine how waterlogged the place must have been when Fitzpatrick first laid eyes on it. Puddles of water still can be found in the Launch Control Center, and the sound of dripping provides continuous background music to a visit into the silo. "Condensation is an issue I’m always battling," Fitzpatrick says. "Like I tell people, this place is an ongoing process."

Fitzpatrick is the rookie in the clubhouse of North Country silo owners, and his site shows little of the refinement seen in Gibbons’s and Michael’s underground dwellings. The massive blast doors are rusted, as are the other metal components of the silo, and the Launch Control Center is completely empty…except for the occasional snake falling through the open escape hatch. "They just drop right through," Fitzpatrick laughs. "To them, it’s like a hole in the ground."Still, it’s a hole in which Fitzpatrick takes great pride. "I’m not sure what I want to do with it when I get it finished,"he admits. "For me, it’s about the process as much as anything. I’ve just been exploring, seeing what I have, and taking little steps in the project when I can."He laughs, shaking his head. "You wouldn’t know it, but it’s already come a long way from where it was."

If Fitzpatrick’s silo seems rustic to the average observer, then Site Two — across the lake in Alburgh, Vt. — appears downright primitive. Designated by a historical marker outside the Alburgh visitors center, this missile base has found new life with the Town of Alburgh Highway Department. The two Quonset huts, visible behind the tourist center, are used to store vehicles and equipment for the town, as well as large piles of unidentifiable metal materials. The silo itself is flooded, and access to it is impossible. Yet Clarence Bruyette remembers when preventing access to the silo and its contents was a way of life for a select group of individuals. A security guard at the Alburgh site, Bruyette says he can’t forget the atmosphere in which the missile crews worked. "It was very tense, very secret,"Bruyette recalls. "We had important cargo that we were guarding. It wasn’t like the missile was indestructible. The skin on it was so thin, a 22-caliber rifle shot could have put it out of commission. So we needed to make sure nobody got in except for the people who were supposed to come in."

Today, Bruyette lives down the road in Swanton, the location of Site Three. "I remember being in Swanton when the military brought the missile to the silo," he says. "They brought it right through the center of town. People would come out of their houses and watch it come by."No such excitement disturbs this silo in the heart of dairy farming country today. The only equipment needed at the site today is the well-drilling machinery used by Chevalier Drilling Company, the current owners of the former missile base. Unlike most of the sites, the massive doors to the silo are wide open. Yet the underground space is still mostly filled with water, and is not used for any particular purpose today.

Site Four, however, has a very definite purpose in modern times: the home of Air Force veteran Tony L’Esperance. Located on the outskirts of Willsboro, N.Y., the two Quonset huts form L’Esperance’s residence and place of business. Atlas Picture Framing, named for the Atlas-F missiles that used to occupy the site, prevents L’Esperance from having, in the artist’s words, "too much free time on my hands."

The work L’Esperance does today is hardly his first love, as the photograph-lined walls of his Quonset huts reveal. "I was,"he says wistfully, "a photographer." In 1993, L’Esperance moved his business to the Willsboro missile site, the perfect excuse to live in the area he loved to photograph. Yet when a skiing accident left him unable to walk, L’Esperance was forced to retire from the hobby he loved. Today, the prints hanging throughout his Quonset hut home remind him of the work he still wants to do. Someday, L’Esperance hopes to return to photography, provided he can find a way to run a darkroom from the motorized wheelchair he now uses to travel around his home.

As far as homes go, L’Esperance says a Quonset hut makes a relatively pleasant domicile. "It’s a cave,"he says, "but it works fine for me."His attempts to uncover the contents of the silo, however, have been unsuccessful, thwarted by water problems. L’Esperance tried twice to drain the underground space, but to no avail. A scuba diver even explored it once, thinking of turning the silo into a diving school, but the amount of rust on the metal made it impossible to see. "I’d like to know what’s down there,"L’Esperance says, "but with all this water, I think that’s impossible."

Visitors to Site Five know exactly what’s beneath the surface: Alexander Michael’s stylish seasonal home. From the three TV screens and clocks displaying the time in several of the world’s major cities to a bedroom built around the original missile launch console, Michael’s silo remains the crown jewel of the region’s restoration projects. Yet his self-imposed labors are hardly over. "If there’s a stain on somebody’s dress, even if it’s a little one, that’s the first thing you look at,"Michael explains. "It just looks so dirty. That’s the frame of mind I seem to have with this place. When I walk into a room here and something hasn’t been done, my eye goes straight to it."

"For me, this really is the project of a lifetime."

Michael’s missions are many, from landscaping the property surrounding his site to turning the silo into a subterranean dance club, complete with M.A.S.H.-style post-party accommodations. "It’s a real haul for me to come here,"Michael says. "So when I do, I need to have a project. I need to have something I can accomplish."For the architect, it truly is a labor of love. "I’ve always dreamed of living in a space that wasn’t originally designed for living," he smiles. "So for me, this really is the project of a lifetime."

Site Six, located on a remote stretch of road near Au Sable Forks, N.Y., never did turn into the project of a lifetime, much to the chagrin of one of the site’s former security guards. Au Sable resident Chris Brown remembers her brother’s grand scheme for the silo he helped to guard during its military tenure. "When he worked there, we would sit around and talk about what would happen to the silo when it was no longer needed to house a missile,"Brown says. "And my brother was convinced it would make the perfect funeral parlor. You could drive up to it, and there’d be music playing, and those big doors would open. On the first level, he planned to have the greeting area for the families, and on the second level, he would have the coffin for the viewing. And on the very bottom level, he wanted to put a boiler room with a huge fire going to heat the place."She laughs. "He was really serious about this. He’d talk about that funeral parlor all the time."

Brown’s dreams never came to fruition. Instead, the Au Sable site remains one of the more unused silos today, the doors to the underground levels fastened shut and the lot filled with debris. The current owner, a Florida resident named Michael "Mickey" Danielle, bought the property with the intent to sell it. To this day, however, it still appears to be in his name.

The only spot as undeveloped than Site Six is Site Seven, found on an unmarked access road near the hamlet of Riverview, N.Y. Stacks of metal litter the site today, along with jugs of a mystery liquid labeled as "non-edible vegetable oil." The Quonset huts have been demolished, and the launch doors are shut. Still, this silo once saw more active days. Riverview resident Melinda Hadley remembers them well. Growing up in a house practically next door to Site Seven, Hadley was always fascinated with the surreptitious activities taking place at the silo. Yet nothing impressed her more than the morning in October of 1962 — right in the heart of the Cuban Missile Crisis — when she woke up and saw the giant missile raised above ground, poised for launch. "I ran downstairs and told my mother I wasn’t going to school that day, because I wanted to watch the war,"Hadley remembers. "I wanted to watch that thing go."She laughs. "Oh, if only I knew what I know now."

Having owned Site Eight since late adolescence, Gibbons may have the most unique layout of any of the missile silo owners. The road to the silo now serves as a runway; the Quonset huts have been converted into airplane hangers. In fact, without passing through that particular glassed-in door in Gibbons’s kitchen, one might not even identify this spot as a missile site. "The Launch Control Center is my downstairs, if you want to think of it like that,"Gibbons says. "The house is partially on top of it. But the silo extends way beyond where my house goes. It’s a big space under the ground."

"You can’t do this kind of work overnight."

Gibbons’s site earned national attention in 2002, when The New York Times covered his attempt to sell it on eBay.com for an asking price of over $2 million. "My cousin (Bruce Francisco) and I heard some offers,"Gibbons says. "We had a data storage company that was interested because we are climate controlled. But when it came to showing us the money, they either weren’t interested or just didn’t get back to us."Gibbons says the cousins are still open to the possibility of selling the site. Until that happens, though, he’s happy to continue work on his ongoing renovations. "It’s something you pick at," Gibbons says. "You can’t do this kind of work overnight."

No such work has been done on Site Nine, located near Chazy Lake. Used today as the headquarters for the Town of Dannemora’s Highway Department, the launch doors are barely visible in the ground. The Quonset huts are used for storage, and the silo itself appears to be flooded beyond repair. Gibbons recalls looking at Site Nine when he got into "the silo business.""From above ground, these places look very unimpressive," he muses. "It’s when you find a way to get below ground that you realize how much is there…and how much work needs to be done."

Sites Ten and Eleven, practically geographic neighbors, are owned by the same Ellenburg, N.Y., resident. Leonard Casey and his family live in the remodeled Quonset hut on Site Ten, in Brainardsville, while Site Eleven, in Ellenburg Depot, serves as a storage space for Casey’s rock and firewood retailing business. For Plattsburgh native Nancy Duniho, however, the Brainardsville site has very different memories. After the military left, Duniho’s father bought the property as storage space for his car dealership. "He was a big dealer back then," Duniho says. "He stored a lot of cars and car parts out there." As a girl, Duniho remembers being fascinated with the silo, much to her father’s annoyance. "It was filled with water," she says, "and he wanted to make sure none of us went near it. He was afraid of somebody getting into an accident."

"We didn’t think that anything detrimental to the North Country could happen by having a missile silo in our area."

Duniho also recalls seeing military workers bringing the missile through town when the site was still in operation. Yet the owner of Plattsburgh’s Corner-Stone Bookshop says the nuclear weaponry didn’t exactly provoke a climate of fear. "We were naïve,"Duniho says. "We had a great sense of peace of mind that we were being protected. And because of the people who came there to work, we recognized that it was good for the regional employment. We didn’t think that anything detrimental to the North Country could happen by having a missile silo in our area."

The final stop on the silo circuit is found in the town of Mooers, N.Y., scarcely recognizable as a missile site today. Currently used as the town’s garage, Site Twelve’s launch doors were paved shut long ago. The Quonset huts, now painted a reddish-brown color, house large town vehicles and a variety of spare parts. Fitzpatrick remembers visiting the Mooers site shortly after purchasing his property in Champlain. "I went there when nobody was around, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow — what a lot of junk,"Fitzpatrick laughs. "And now what do I have at my place? A lot of junk."

Yet beneath the junk lies treasure. A project, a home, a storage space, a gallery — whatever the purpose, new visions for these military enclaves can be found in the eyes and minds of regional silo aficionados. "If you have the patience and the desire to work at it,"Michael states, "the possibilities of what you can do with these places are endless."Indeed, as the North Country enters the 21st century, these Cold War leftovers are hardly rotting away, unused and abandoned. Instead, they are gearing up for a new beginning, twelve sites that never launched a missile in their lives at last preparing for liftoff.

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