DEFCON 2 in the Adirondacks
by Lisa Bramen
Australian architect Alexander Michael has one of the more unusual houses in the Adirondacks. No fancy twig-work or million-dollar views here. No windows, in fact. What’s special about the home he bought in 1996 in the Essex County town of Lewis is that it’s a piece of Cold War history: it was originally built in 1962 as an underground silo and control center for an Atlas F intercontinental ballistic missile.
Fifty years ago this week, the United States Strategic Air Command went to DEFCON 2, the highest level of military defense readiness ever reached. The Cuban Missile Crisis was ratcheting up, and a dozen missile sites within 100 miles of Plattsburgh Air Force Base were nearing completion. Eight of them were within the Blue Line; in addition to the one in Lewis were sites at Ellenburg Center, Brainardsville, Dannemora, Riverview, Redford, Au Sable Forks and Willsboro.
Once finished, the missile silos were staffed with airmen who were on alert around the clock, ready to deploy their weapons in retaliation for a Soviet strike, should one ever come.
Thankfully, it never did. The silos were decommissioned in 1965, and the only casualties they ever caused were related to their construction and demolition. A Massena pipefitter fell to his death while working in Ellenburg in 1961. In 1962 Malone man died and another worker was injured during the building of the Sugarbush/Riverview site when a pipe fell on them. Years later, during a salvage operation at the same site, a welder died when his torch ignited a 20-millimeter shell and sent the casing into his head.
Today most of the Adirondack silos are either in private hands or owned by municipalities. The town of Black Brook wanted to use the Au Sable Forks site for a municipal water system in the 1970s, but the water turned out to be unsuitable. A 1980s plan to turn the site into an industrial park was scuttled by federal bureaucracy.
Alexander Michael’s home in Lewis is one of two converted missile silo residences in the park. The Redford site’s control center was turned into a very secure luxury home complete with its own private runway. It’s currently for sale, listed for $750,000.
Meanwhile, Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH) recently gave Michael an award for the renovation of his silo, which has been ongoing for more than 15 years. I wrote a freelance article for Smithsonianmag.com about the home; it includes the recollections of Richard Somerset, a retired Air Force ballistic missile analyst technician who worked in the silo from 1962 to 1965. He now lives in Vermont. You can also read Mary Thill’s “Full Circle” (2006 Collectors Issue), about round houses, which includes a section on the missile silo.
AARCH will be giving tours of the space on October 27. That evening three engineers will be staging an interactive LED light performance in the silo.