Written by Sam Marks
Atomic power defined politics, aesthetics, and culture during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. Following the United States’ bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Second World War ended and all governments in the world turned their eyes to the power of the atom. Countries across the world engaged in an arms race to counter the potentiality of unrestrained devastation caused by the nuclear blasts. In 1949, the American monopoly on nuclear armaments was broken by the Soviet Union’s development of their own atomic bomb. With nuclear weapons in the hands of the two great powers that emerged from the Allied victory, a stalemate was created where both sides craved weapons that they so desperately hoped they would not have to use. Almost immediately after the world had reigned victorious over fascism, it became increasingly likely that the nuclear-capable nations were setting the stage for an era of Mutually Assured Destruction. But humanity as a whole would not die quietly; instead, many planned to survive potential nuclear explosions by going down into quiet, below-ground nuclear shelters.
White picket-fenced suburban houses quickly became a staple of post-war America as the return of American soldiers from the Second World War prompted a housing boom. A parallel Baby Boom led to the development of easily planned and swiftly constructed houses to suit the new nuclear family. 1950s American family life was defined by the suburbs: it was a window of opportunity where blue-collar and white-collar workers alike could have their own slice of land. Because these houses were generally made on similar infrastructure plans, they kept their aesthetic designs basic. Known as mid-century modernism (MCM), these blocks of suburbs were characterized by simple designs, a lack of decoration, and minimalism to appeal to the widest range of consumers. Surface-level construction designs seemed to counter the stresses of the Cold War in their mundanity. But while the standardized suburbs were being built above ground, elaborative construction efforts were being used for another innovation of 1950s architecture: below-ground fallout shelters.
The surface-level construction complexes seemed to counter the stress of the Cold War, while the below-ground building validated the existence of that stress. To counter the potentiality of nuclear fire raining down from the sky, the US government created a contingency plan for its own survival. It was codenamed ‘Project Greek Island’: a massive underground nuclear bunker beneath the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia.
Unlike the simple style that popularized modern suburban decor, The Greenbrier was immaculate. Its classical revivalist architecture saw columns adorn the entranceway and red carpets draped across the flooring. Six course dinners were customary, and limousines lined the driveways. Originally constructed in 1858, the resort was built near sulphur water springs, with its owner believing that bathing in mineral waters could relieve chronic conditions–a popular view shared by the local Native American tribe. Known as the ‘The Old White’ at the time due to its white-colored exterior, the hotel changed hands between the two sides of the Civil War and often served as a strategic and symbolic point of contention. The end of the Civil War in 1865 saw the resort reopened for commercial use, attracting both Southern and Northern vacationers. Multiple post-Civil War reconciliations were conducted on the Greenbrier’s grounds, providing the newly built hotel with diplomatic importance from its creation.
In 1869, a railroad line arrived where the resort was located, increasing the popularity and accessibility of the location. In 1910, the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) purchased the property, providing it with a series of upgrades. A central building with two hundred and fifty rooms and an 18-hole golf course allowed the hotel to operate on a year-long schedule rather than being exclusively a summertime destination. The Grand Central rebranded itself as ‘The Greenbrier’, naming itself after a neighboring county. In the 1940s, the C&O hired interior decorator Dorothy Draper, known for her anti-minimalist design choices. Following its redecoration, the Greenbrier reopened in 1948 and attracted a wide range of interest from both the US and abroad.
From Bing Crosby to Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, big-named clientele were notable guests of the establishment. A total of 26 US Presidents have stayed at the resort, and it has hosted visiting diplomats from a plethora of countries due to its proximity to the national capital, Washington, DC. That convenient location was noted during World War II, when the US detained Axis power diplomats at the Greenbrier from 1941 to 1942. With Project Greek Island, the Greenbrier’s usefulness came into focus again following the end of the Second World War.
The US government struck a deal with the Greenbrier to build a bunker beneath the grounds of the hotel. The bunker was built from 1959 to 1962 alongside an above-ground addition to the hotel. The West Virginia Wing was built in an effort to disguise any construction occurring below ground. The US government set up a dummy company by the name of Forsythe Associates. Government workers posed as hotel employees while building the doomsday shelter and then maintained its good condition.
Four entranceways were covered by fake walls, the doors of which measured 19.5 inches (50 cm) thick and led to hallways with 2-foot (61 cm) thick walls, capable of withstanding a nearby nuclear blast. Buried seven hundred and twenty feet (219.456 m) beneath the surface, the emergency refuge was outfitted with several amenities. Rows of bunkbeds ran throughout the eighteen dormitories, each capable of housing sixty people, totaling a capacity of one thousand and eighty: enough for every Congressmen, Senator, and one staff member with each of them. But the Bunker did not provide space for the families of its would-be inhabitants. A four hundred seat cafeteria was built near a kitchen that had its food restocked every six months by government maintenance workers. The facility even included a ‘pathological waste incinerator’ (a scientific name for crematorium) that would be used in the event of the death of an inhabitant. But unlike the suburbs above ground, there was no ability for Congress to have separate areas for work life and home life in the emergency shelter.
Three chambers were constructed so Congress could still function as the legislative branch of the American government. Two chambers for the House and Senate respectively were joined by the ‘Exhibit Hall’, 89 by 186 feet (27 by 57 m) and twenty feet (6.1 m) high, which had a large enough capacity to hold a joint session of Congress (535 voting members in total). The chambers were modeled after the Capitol building and similar to the structure of Congress as a body for the deliberation of laws. What was new, however, was how members of Congress could inform the public of their activities. The facility housed a large broadcast apparatus that allowed Congress to communicate to whoever may be left alive on American soil. Changeable seasonal backdrops of Washington, DC were included to achieve the irreplaceable federal sentiment the city offered. A broadcast tower was set up near the bunker site to transmit signals across the country. Despite all the time, money, and effort devoted to building the Bunker, it was never actually used.
The closest the Bunker ever came to being fully activated was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. However, the diplomacy that solved the issue saw the climax of the Cold War pass and the threat of annihilation never emerged to such a degree again. Having no reason to activate the Project, the Bunker stayed dormant but readily equipped to welcome Congress. But some members of Congress themselves had their doubts about the plan even if it did occur. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill said he had ‘never put much credence in it, to tell you the truth’ and found the evacuation plan far-fetched’. O’Neill as well as other members of Congress and Cabinet members also voiced their personal opposition to the plan upon finding out they would be unable to take their families with them.
Project Greek Island remained classified until 1992, when Washington Post reporter Ted Gup broke the story that revealed its existence to the public. The Cold War having ended and the US government having no strong reason to keep the story under wraps immediately declassified the Bunker. Once the subject of hotel staff rumors, the Bunker’s existence was suddenly confirmed in the public domain. Since then, the Greenbrier has made use of the colossal structure to boost its already widely recognized name. Parts of the site are used as a data storage facility while others are open to the public as a tourist attraction known as ‘The Bunker’. Even after being declassified and open for tourism, pictures are prohibited within the Bunker. While Project Greek Island has gained some stardom out of the declassification, the serious nature of fallout shelters has remained present even after the Cold War.
Throughout the US, various bunkers or mountain complexes are active or on stand-by for various government functions in times of emergency. Switzerland, being more forward-thinking, is currently the only country in the world that has the means to house its entire population in nuclear bunkers. But while you might want to visit the declassified facility at the Greenbriar, you might not welcome the circumstances that might force you to live there.
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