Okla. man turning defunct missile silo into home

HOBART, Okla. —The front door is about all most people see of David Johnson's future home.

Aside from two Quonset huts and a security fence around the perimeter, the door — big and gray and framed in white concrete — is really the only sign anything exists here at all.

A fenced-in door to nowhere in the middle of rural Kiowa County — through which Johnson, 48, appears to be entering — begs an immediate explanation.

"I bought this with the intention of putting a home in what's called the LCC, the launch control center," Johnson said, and then he steps inside.

Five miles west of Hobart, this is the entryway to one of dozens of underground Cold War-era missile silos discarded and abandoned as quickly as they were developed in the early 1960s.

Most see the old Atlas F launch sites as unsalvageable junk, a giant, vertical hole in the ground fit only for water and concrete. But in December 1999, still living in Dallas, Johnson purchased the Hobart silo from a private seller on the Internet.

"It was just something I became fascinated with," he said, stepping through the big, gray door and into a stairwell that winds three and a half stories down. "I just think it's unique."

The inside of Johnson's missile silo looks like the set of a forgotten Stanley Kubrick film.

It's the future of the past — bold red and white colors, tunneled hallways separated by hefty blast doors, minimalist in fixtures and in design.

The main room, just at the bottom of the stairwell, is the so-called LCC, and it is large, with white and round curved walls, 27 feet tall, and with a giant hourglass-shaped column stretching from floor to ceiling.

Johnson, who works in information technology and is a bachelor, said he could see himself sleeping in here within the next year or so.

"It will make about 3,700 square feet of livable area," he said, detailing his plans to convert the LCC back into its original, two-story design.

From surface to LCC, Johnson has spent the past decade restoring the silo, stripping away layers of rust, smoothing and painting the interior walls and the blast doors, installing the stairs, and rigging the facilities with electricity, plumbing and telephone service.

He estimates he's spent 10,000 hours and countless dollars refurbishing the silo since 1999.

"When we started, the only thing here was a single electrical outlet," he said. "Everything else has been put in from scratch. I've already got Internet down here."

The Hobart missile silo is part of a dozen sites forming a ring around Altus Air Force Base, part of a network of 72 silos developed across the United States in the 1960s to house the Atlas F missile.

The underground facilities were all developed the same — a 176-foot-deep silo, where the warhead was stored and maintained, near the top of which was a tunnel connected to the LCC, the living quarters and computer center for the soldiers who manned the complex.

The missile itself was lifted hydraulically through 90-ton doors that opened outward to the sky, and the whole complex is lined on all sides by three feet of concrete.

Other features of the design include an emergency escape hatch and a telescope sighting system trained on the North Star.

Richard Guinan, a historian for the 97th Air Mobility Wing, said that he took aerial photographs of all the missile silo sites in Southwest Oklahoma in 2008, and that they are all in various stages of decay and ownership. Most of the silo sites were sealed off and donated to area schools and many area school districts still use the land, having placed FFA barns or other such ag-ed facilities and equipment at the sites.

Other silos, such as the ones in Creta (near Olustee) and Cache, were sold off to private owners, who farm the land or store personal equipment there. Reports are that the rest in Willow, Frederick, Manitou, Russell and Lone Wolf are also in the hands of private owners, but the individual owners could not be reached for confirmation.

Ross Adkins, the chief of public affairs for the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Tulsa, said the government has helped seal off a couple of the old silos, filling them with concrete and welding the doors shut, but that private owners can pretty much do what they want with them.

"The only time we're being involved is if there's a public health or other type of hazard and we're asked to do something," Adkins said. "It really depends on the individual case."

Guinan said he had a chance to visit Johnson's silo last year and was surprised at what he saw.

"You see things you don't read about, about how there's so many turns from the top door, and where you walk through just to get down to the area where he's set up," Guinan said. "The size and the quality of the work, the concrete walls, everything still looks new."

The appeal, he said, is that it's a callback to a different time in the country's military and political history.

"When you walk into his complex and just look around, it takes you back to a time when the nation had a different threat," he said. "We didn't have to worry about the terrorists so much, it was the end-of-the-world threat, nuclear attack."

Johnson said this history was certainly part of his attraction to the Hobart silo.

"It was a whole different mindset during that time," he said. "The idea of surviving a nuclear war, that was just part of life."

And despite the years of work, Johnson's restoration project is far from complete. In addition to installing a second floor in the LCC, months of work remain in the tunnel that leads from the L CC to the silo, and the silo itself well, let's not go there. Standing in the dark where the tunnel opens out into the massive cylinder, Johnson said he will probably leave this portion of the project to someone else.

"At this point I don't have any specific plans for it," he said. "The costs of trying to do some renovation here would be expensive. You could spend millions."

For now, he said, the silo will remain filled with water. Call it central air. Johnson confessed he has also toyed around with selling his so-called fixer-upper. He said he listed it on eBay earlier this year and will probably list it again after he's gotten some more work completed.

"It would take another year, I'm sure," he said. "I've gotten a lot of interest, but I haven't found the right person yet."