A Look Inside the Luxury Bunker Built by Doomsday Preppers for the Apocalypse

Survivalists and doomsday preppers—once seen as fringe outliers—are increasingly going mainstream. In addition to a popular reality TV show about preppers, more and more "regular people" are preparing go-bags for events ranging from hurricanes to blackouts to civil unrest. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, people who have a well-stocked bug-out location already prepared are starting to seem prescient. In his new book, Bunker: Preparing for the End Times (Scribner, August), Bradley Garrett—worldwide adventurer and author—explores communities around the world preparing for the apocalypse and shares an inside perspective on why and how they are preparing for the unexpected—and a close-up look at their varied accommodations. In this excerpt, he shares what life is like inside one such bunker.

The Survival Condo is a self-sufficient, inverted skyscraper hidden behind 8-ton armored blast-proof doors. Bradley Garrett

The Survival Condo in Kansas—the most lavish and sophisticated private bunker in the world—was once a Cold War U.S. government missile silo. Built in the early 1960s at a cost of approximately $15 million to the U.S. taxpayer, it was one of 72 "hardened" missile silo structures built to protect a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Many of these silos were blown up and buried after decades of disuse. But not all of them.

Larry Hall wasn't the first to reuse one of these Cold War relics. But his is arguably the most gobsmacking. An ex-government contractor, property developer and doomsday prepper with a master's degree in business, he first planned to build a data center in a silo, but quickly realized there was another, emerging market in doomsday prepping for the super-rich.

Hall bought the 197-foot-deep silo for $300,000 in 2008, and transformed it into a 15-story luxury bolt-hole, where a community of up to 75 individuals can weather a maximum of five years during a doomsday event. When the event passes, residents expect to be able to re-emerge into the post-apocalyptic world to rebuild.

It's not that difficult to imagine living underground in an environment that can sustain life, technically. The basics of survival at the bottom of the psychologist Abraham Maslow's 1943 hierarchy-of-needs pyramid—food, water, shelter and security—are relatively easy to provide for over a short-term lock-in. What's rather more of a challenge is to create a psychologically and socially tolerable environment—in order, not to put too fine a point on it, that the members of this newly troglodytic community didn't murder each other. And the creation of such an environment was central to Hall's vision of life in the Survival Condo.

There are three armories in the Survival Condo, each containing sniper rifles, ARs, helmets, gas masks, first aid kits and non-lethal weapons like military-grade pepper spray. Bradley Garrett

During the early days of the Cold War, governments, military and universities conducted numerous experiments to see how long people could withstand being trapped underground together. In total, in the early 1960s, some 7,000 people volunteered to be locked in spaces with groups ranging from the size of a family to over 1,000 people as part of the U.S. government's attempts to assess psychological/behavioral impact on people and communities. While these studies yielded interesting information, they all had numerous shortcomings. Two were glaringly evident: they were for a set time period, and people knew they were a performance. If such studies were truly to assess the psychological impact of bunker life, they would have to embrace a realism that was clearly impossible to simulate.

Hall, however, thought he had worked out a solution to these two potential obstacles. The key to well-being underground, he told me, could be about creating an illusion of "normal," aboveground, pre-event life. "So," Larry said, "we will have people baking bread and making coffee, people can advertise their yoga class on the café blackboard and we're going to stack this deli case full of three different species of tilapia that are grown in the aquaponics facility next door." The nitrates from the fish droppings would fertilize soil for the plants in the FDA-certified aquaponics facility. The fresh produce from here would end up in the general store. Leftover vegetable matter, fish heads and bones would be put through a grinder to become food for the residents' dogs and cats—including Larry's cat, Lollipop, who was now happily roaming around the silo four stories above us.

The FDA-certified fish tanks next to the aquaponics facility will be stocked with tilapia. Bradley Garrett

"It's critical that we encourage people to come down and shop and be social," Larry was saying, "because obviously everything in here is already paid for." Money, in other words, would have no value in the Survival Condo. Which was just as well, given the bankruptcy-inducing prices of buying into the Condo in the first place. Half-floor apartments here were $1.5 million; full-floor apartments $3 million; and a two-level, 3600-square-foot penthouse had sold for $4.5 million. In total, 57 people would be living in 12 apartments, each paying an additional $5,000 a month in residents' association fees. One of these apartments, purchased with cash, was designed to feel like a log cabin, with a loft looking down on a fake fireplace flanked by a six-screen 4K display of a snowcapped mountain range.

None of those buying into the project were currently in residence. Unsurprisingly, the buyers were elusive and close-lipped. One was Nik Halik, an Australian from Melbourne, Australia, and self-described "thrillionaire" adventurer and wealth strategist. Another, Tyler Allen, a real estate developer from Florida, had been quoted in The New Yorker as saying, "They don't put tinfoil on your head if you're the President and you go to Camp David. But they do put tinfoil on your head if you have the means and you take steps to protect your family should a problem occur." Both, clearly, had the means.

On level 11, about 165-feet underground, we visited a well-appointed full-floor 1800-square-foot condo. I had had the same feeling walking into a bedroom in a clean, predictable hotel chain. The apartment had a Southwestern print rug, a cushy white living room set and a stone electric fireplace with a flat-panel TV mounted over it. A marble countertop extended to a bar that separated the living room from the kitchen, which was filled with high-end appliances. I looked at one of the windows and was shocked to see that it was dark outside. My instant, physiological reaction was to assume that we must have been underground for longer than I thought. Then I realized my mistake.

"Got you," Hall said, laughing. He picked up a remote control and flicked on a video feed being piped into the "window," a vertically-installed LED screen. The scene depicted was the view from the front, surface-level entrance of the Condo. It was daytime, breezy and green outside. I could see my parked car through the rustling branches of an oak tree. In the distance, the camouflaged sentry was standing in the same place as when we arrived. But when this video was made was unclear—maybe there was a time lapse, and I was watching a pre-recorded past I was convinced was the present. The thought sent a prickle of unease down my spine. Survival Condo was a capsule, meant to exclude the hardships of a hostile surface. Creating an illusion of reality through the screens was necessary to uphold stability after an event, and was clearly part of Larry's plan to maintain order.

"The screens can be loaded up with material or have a live feed piped in," Larry said. It was a comment that drove home to me how much Survival Condo depended on Larry setting the rules and controlling people's experiences below ground. After lockdown, the other occupants' sense of context, of reality, of what was happening above ground—whether or not the world had ended—was entirely in Larry's grip. "Most people prefer to know what time of day it is than to see a beach in San Francisco though," he said casually, flicking the feed off again. The screen went blank.

Inside, vertical LED screens with outdoor scenes act as "windows’" to the outside, and a gas fireplace and comfortable seating make the condos places of respite during periods of lockdown. Bradley Garrett

"The thing the psychologist we hired drilled into me was that my job as the developer was to make this place as normal as possible," Larry told me. "She did work on that project [the Biosphere in Arizona]," Hall said. "She went over everything in meticulous detail. Even the LED lights in the bunker are set to 3000 degrees Kelvin to prevent depression. People want to know why residents need all this 'luxury'—the cinema, climbing wall, table tennis, video games, shooting range, sauna, library and everything, but what they don't get is that this isn't about luxury. This stuff is key to survival. If you don't have all this stuff built in, your brain keeps subconscious score, and you start to get varying degrees of depression or cabin fever."

Larry expanded on his theme. "In fact, everyone needs to work generally. People on vacation constantly get destructive tendencies. That's just human nature. You need to have a four-hour minimum work day and rotate jobs, so people don't get bored and break things," he said. "You want good quality food and water and for everyone to feel safe and to feel they're working together toward a common purpose. This thing's gotta function like a miniature cruise ship."

From Bunker: Building for the End Times. Copyright © 2020 by Bradley Garrett. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.