By SUSAN GALLEYMORE
Edward and Dianna Peden live in a refurbished Atlas E missile silo west of Topeka, Kan. They purchased it during the 1980s, when a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union "seemed a real possibility," Ed explained.
"There were many public discussions about relocating people out of urban areas in case of nuclear war."
He taught school in the area and had heard about but never seen the nearby missile site that had been active from 1961-65.
In 1982, concerned about his own family’s safety, he set out to find it.
Atlas E missiles were placed horizontally. The silo was outfitted with a 400-ton metal door and pulleys and cranes to raise the missile upright for launch.
Peden said he first explored the interior of the silo — which would become his home — in a canoe. "It was flooded and in rough condition," he recalled.
Soon after that, he purchased it from a scrap-metal dealer who had stripped the site of recyclable materials.
Dianna and Ed Peden
Ed paid $40,000 for the facility — minus the missile loaded with a four-megaton warhead. In 1960, taxpayers had spent $3.3 million for the silo.
For close to 18 years, the Pedens have lived under a layer of earth approximately three feet deep that covers the top layer of reinforced concrete. The 3-foot-thick floors and 18-inch-thick walls and ceilings — 15 feet high — are built with a special concrete designed to withstand a nuclear blast.
Today, the 16-by-8-foot open hatch that once allowed heavy equipment to manipulate the missile allows direct sunlight into their living space.
"We love the solid, quiet feel of the place. Not only is it very well built — it is very easy to heat and cool," Ed said.
The Pedens have built a large greenhouse around the hatch that also houses a spiral staircase that leads inside. They grow vegetables and other edibles in large, sustainable gardens, too.
Once word got out about how homey life can be inside a former missile site, people interested in owning their own missile silo contacted the Pedens.
A neighbor in an adjacent silo asked them to sell his property. After that unexpected success, the couple capitalized on their know-how; soon they found themselves in a niche real estate market.
About half of these specialized properties are owned privately or by cities, counties, school districts, water companies and other commercial entities. Whenever possible, the Pedens contact the owners and negotiate an option-to-purchase contract.
They are not the only people specializing in former military sites, but they have been at it the longest and have racked up 55 sales — about five of which are properties they have turned over more than once.
Who buys these sites?
"Military or former military personnel like the structures since they are familiar with them and know the benefits. Some buyers just want interesting projects to restore; a lot of people want the seclusion, privacy and security," Ed said.
One owner is making a survivalist’s condo out of his silo. Each floor is just under 2,000 square feet and there are 14 floors. The asking price: $2 million per floor … and people are buying.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many companies sought properties that offered extra-secure facilities for data storage — Ed Peden acknowledges he also encounters many interested buyers who admit a lot of nervousness about what is going on in our society and in the world.
The 2012 Mayan calendar predictions, too, play into apocalyptic fears.
Comet Elenin ignited some nervousness earlier this year, with some seeking turnkey properties to buy quickly without having to do all the renovating usually required. Their interest waned when the Elenin scare dissipated.
"Some potential buyers are survival-oriented people who want to bunker up and prepare for the worst," Ed said.
The common factor is an interest in the security offered by a nuclear blast-proof underground structure.
Business is slow in the current economic climate because banks are not loaning money on these sorts of fixer-uppers. Moreover, these properties prove a challenge when it comes to appraisals and comparable values.
"We’ve seen tremendous change in prices, too; they have increased many-fold and are still rising," he said.
The Pedens named their business 20th Century Castles because they see these structures as the 21st century’s counterpart to European castles that hold so much interest and mystery.
Ed laughs as he shares an irony: "These defense sites were built by the government to protect ‘the realm’ at the cost of billions of dollars to the ‘royal’ treasuries … yet here they are being sold by ‘peasants!’"
He added, "We love that we’re putting our energy into something that’s going to last a very long time."
The following sites offer a glimpse into the range of former defense structures available through 20th Century Castles:
Former Nike missile base in southeastern Indiana
This site offers approximately 14.5 acres, three underground missile magazines each 5,000 square feet, and a horse barn with four stables.
One magazine has been converted as a residential space and features a kitchen, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, an exercise room, indoor swimming pool, and Jacuzzi tub. Another has been converted into shop and garage space.
All have single-phase electric, city water, paved access with remote-control rolling front gate, and high-security chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire.
Price: $1.5 million.
Poolside at former Nike missile site in Indiana. Source: Ed Peden/20th Century Castles LLC.
Underground living room in former Nike missile facility. Source: Ed Peden/20th Century Castles LLC.