'I Live in a 15,000 Sq Ft Underground Nuclear Fallout Bunker With a Swimming Pool'

When I first walked into the Las Vegas underground house in March 2014, it immediately reminded me of the movie Blast From The Past. The ambience of the underground space is very much like what you see in that movie. Perhaps the producers toured this underground house before they created the movie sets, because that was certainly my impression: this is the Blast From The Past house.

The house was built in the mid '70s by businessman Girard "Jerry" Henderson as a nuclear fallout shelter for him and his family, and it definitely brought back memories from that era. I remembered cowering under my school desk while nuclear drills happened. About once a month the air raid siren would go off and the teacher would instruct us kids to get down under the desk and put our head into our hands.

But living in an underground bunker home was not something I ever conceived I'd do. My life just took me to Las Vegas. I'm actually trained as an optical scientist and engineer, but I had been taking care of my parents in their 90s for three years and it was getting difficult, so we moved them up to San Jose in northern California. I then had nothing to do and nowhere to live, but I had an ex-girlfriend living in Las Vegas, so I came and crashed on her sofa, looking for work.

A good friend of ours was involved in buying this underground house and he suggested I move in and manage it. I agreed. The house is owned by a non-profit that used to be The Society for Preservation of Near Extinct Species but is now the Stasis Foundation. It's a non-profit that is headquartered in central Texas with another huge property there. These two properties are owned by the non-profit. Whenever there is an event at either property, any money that is made goes into medical research work into anti-ageing and self-preservation.

Not a lot of original Las Vegas buildings still exist, but this place is a time capsule of that '70s era. It was originally built so that the Hendersons could, if they ever needed to, stay in the home for up to one year without having to come to the surface. But it's a nuclear fallout shelter rather than a nuclear bomb shelter. A bomb shelter will protect you if that bomb lands right near the shelter. But after a nuclear explosion, there would be a period of high radiation in the environment, and if you wanted to avoid getting sick, you would need to seclude yourself from that radiation for some time, which is what this fallout bunker was built for. It does have some protection against explosions though. On top of the home there is a slab of concrete with rebar in it, and on top of that is maybe a meter of earth.

In terms of survival, the underground home has a backup diesel generator for electricity. While fresh water is supplied by the city water district, and waste water pumped into the city sewer with a lift station, if necessary, the backup diesel electric generator would power the house, including the wastewater pumps. And we have 1,000 gallons of water set aside in tanks.

Plus, having a swimming pool means there's another 12,000 gallons of water there that could be used for cleaning and bathing. In terms of air circulation, because it's like a cavern, you can actually turn the ventilation system off, for example during any heavy nuclear fallout and a couple of people would have enough air to breathe for a few weeks.

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The land the property is underneath is right in between a commercial and residential area. On the surface, there's a normal-looking Spanish-style tiled roof house. But you go into that house and instead of a living room, you see a hallway and at the end of that, to the left, there is an elevator downstairs. You travel 26 feet down and when the doors open again you walk out into this huge underground space. The house on the surface is about 2,500 square feet, but the underground space is almost 15,000 square feet.

If you imagine a single storey ranch style home, that's what the property looks like. There's even a one bedroom guest cottage off to one side, and a swimming pool in the yard. The main underground house actually has front, side and back yards. It's not a rabbit warren, it's a house with "outside" space. The main house has a lounge area, a bar, a dining area, two bedrooms with en suites, and there is an additional guest bath as well. Then, off to the side in the yard is the guest cottage which is about 700 square feet; it's a separate little one bedroom apartment with a bathroom.

When it was purchased, the property was in foreclosure and it was devoid of furniture in the underground space, so it took about 18 months to refurbish the space appropriately. We kept all the curtains, most of the carpeting and the wall coverings. But we did bring in new furniture. The original owners liked French provincial furniture, which was not to my taste. Instead, we took each room and created something that was compatible with the era of the '70s. We had a little fun with it, and each room has a different feel.

Underground 15,000 sq ft Home From 1970s
Underground 15,000 sq ft Home From 1970s
Underground 15,000 sq ft Home From 1970s

You can forget you're underground in the property, because it's built to give you the feeling that you're not in an underground space. The walls and ceiling are covered in murals, so when the lighting is set correctly and you're inside the underground house, with a little suspension of disbelief, you can easily imagine you're sitting in a suburban house looking out onto the Hollywood Hills. The architect and artist who designed the underground house were very successful in opening the space up and not making it look like a concrete bunker underground.

Over the years, we've had fashion shoots, film shoots and even music videos have been filmed in the underground space. And it's been hired out for private corporate events and parties.

The fashion brand Miu Miu got hold of us several years ago because they were filming a series of short movies called Women's Tales. One of them was filmed in the underground house, it had a sort of apocalyptic theme to it. That was fun. An interesting aspect was that I got to meet Miuccia Prada because she came to the house during the filming.

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Recently a big indie band filmed a music video here and the British photographer Juno Calypso also shot work here. We've hosted a couple of birthday parties, but we haven't yet had a wedding or wedding reception. If COVID hadn't come along, we probably would have done by now, because Las Vegas is obviously a big wedding destination.

Although I don't sleep in the underground house for weeks at a time, I spend a lot of time in there and often go down with my friends for a party; to swim in the pool, play on the billiard table and have a barbeque down there. The underground property also has four hole putting green, a Swedish sauna, a dance floor with mirrored disco ball and two stripper poles. Plus, there's a full bar so I can make everyone cocktails. But I often sleep in the upstairs house because I like being tied to the solar cycle.

I never thought I'd be living in Vegas until I moved here, but I get to meet new people and it's really interesting in that way. The underground house is currently for sale, so if and when it sells, I don't know where I'll live. I'm not really tied to anywhere, although a friend and I are building an astronomical observatory on his land in Utah. We have been working on it for about four years and expect it to go live in 2022.

Underground 15,000 sq ft Home From 1970s
Underground 15,000 sq ft Home From 1970s
Underground 15,000 sq ft Home From 1970s
Underground 15,000 sq ft Home From 1970s

I often make the point that this underground home is really a modern day castle. If you go to Europe, you see all these beautiful, romantic castles all over the landscape. But they were not built to be beautiful, they were built as military installations to protect against attacks that would occur in that era. This underground house was built as a protection against military attack from an enemy, so to me, is the 20th Century version of a castle.

Throughout my life I've been interested in space colonization, like colonies on Mars. If you want to live somewhere like that you're going to be in an enclosed space. I think my experience living in this underground house is similar to what living on a lunar colony is going to be like. You can be in an inside space so large, you can forget that you're not outside.

That's an interesting aspect of living here; maybe I'm getting a taste of the future?

Mark Voelker is caretaker and manager of the Las Vegas Underground house. For more details on the home, please visit undergroundhouse.vegas.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.