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Cold War missile site now a cozy underground home

Ed Peden pauses before walking through a 120-foot lighted concrete-and-steeel tunnel leading to the underground entrance to his home at Subterra Castle, a converted nuclear missile base about 25 miles west of Topeka.
Ed Peden pauses before walking through a 120-foot lighted concrete-and-steeel tunnel leading to the underground entrance to his home at Subterra Castle, a converted nuclear missile base about 25 miles west of Topeka. The Kansas City Star

Talk about your nuclear family.

The previous resident of their house was a rocket topped with a four-megaton hydrogen bomb. Their 47-ton garage door was designed to withstand a doomsday blast.

For the last 21 years, self-described ’60s peaceniks Ed Peden and his wife, Dianna Ricke-Peden, have made their home in a decommissioned Cold War-era missile site just west of Topeka. They call their subterranean home Subterra Castle.

For the last 21 years, self-described ’60s peaceniks Ed Peden and his wife, Dianna Ricke-Peden, have made their home in a decommissioned Cold War-era missile site just west of Topeka. They call their subterranean home Subterra Castle. (Video by Ja

The Pedens were one of the first to turn a missile site into a livable space. They now run a business called 20th Century Castles that helps others do the same.

“It’s amazing what they’ve done,” says neighbor Leigh Ann Fulkerson. “They’ve transformed it from a place of war and destruction to a place of community, family and love.”

Ed Peden, a history buff and former high school teacher with flowing shoulder-length hair and wire-rimmed glasses, smiles thinking about it.

“We like to think of it as a transformational symbol,” he says.

You can think of it as the flower children thumbing their nose at the military industrial complex.

And you can tour it — with their permission.

“We don’t want people dropping by,” says Ed. “But they’re welcome to set up an appointment.”

Ed, 67, loves giving tours. He’s shown his home to individuals and classrooms. Russian TV has been there four times. Japanese TV, six.

Active during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the site was decommissioned in 1965 when new technology rendered it obsolete.

“There are lots of these old missile sites in Kansas, partly because Eisenhower was president during a lot of the planning,” Ed says of the president from Abilene. “There are nine of these Atlas E missile sites around Topeka, 12 Atlas Fs around Salina and 18 Titan IIs around Wichita.”

Old missile sites dot the country. The federal government sold most to the private sector, but others are owned by federal agencies or state governments. In 1969, the North Jackson School District in Holton, Kan., even built a high school on an old missile site it bought for $1.

Missouri has no old Atlas missile bases. While it did have 150 Minuteman II missile sites, they were imploded after being decommissioned.

The 75-foot, nuclear-tipped Atlas E rocket is gone now from the Pedens’ home. But from 1961 to 1965, it stood ready to deliver a payload 320 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima to targets deep inside the former Soviet Union. What remains is a sprawling Bat Cave-like support structure, built for $3.3 million.

Ed first saw the abandoned property in the early ’80s. It was flooded with nine feet of water, and he had to tour it in a canoe. But where others saw problems, Ed saw opportunity.

With almost endless living space of unmatched quality (18-inch concrete walls, three-foot concrete floors and 15-foot ceilings) its potential seemed limitless. So in 1983 he bought the site for $40,000. Sure, it needed work. He carted out hundreds of wheelbarrows of trash and reactivated sump pumps to remove the water. He fixed the electricity, plugged leaks and worked on the plumbing.

After he checked to make sure there were no traces of radiation, radon or other contamination, he and Dianna moved in and began transforming the Cold War relic into a warm family home.

Dianna, a speech pathologist, remembers when she told her mother she was moving there.

“She was very upset with me,” says Dianna, now 61. “She thought her son-in-law was taking her daughter to a depraved, rough and crude place. But my father was thrilled. He saw it as a big man cave (and) did a lot of the plumbing for us.”

The home consists of two main areas. The former missile bay and launch control center now serve as a gargantuan garage and workshop. Ed and Dianna live in the old missile launch complex, which is connected to the workshop by a 120-foot lighted steel-and-concrete tunnel that’s straight out of a sci-fi movie.

At the end of the tunnel is a wooden door with a small knocker. As Ed opens the door, the Cold War melts into a warm cocoon of peaceful vibes and New Age decor. They installed solid oak floors, laid down rugs, hung tapestries and added rustic wood, rattan, natural fibers and stained glass. Today the place has several bedrooms, an eat-in kitchen, home offices and modern bathrooms. But not everything’s modern. You can almost feel the ’60s give you a hug as the sound of flutes floats softly through the incense-flavored air.

As homey as it is, Subterra still retains links to its roots. Ed kept the old missile control panel, complete with emergency hotline.

“Mr. President,” he intones with a serious face. “Are you sure?”

On the walls: pictures of the old site and the “missileers” who worked there. There’s also a framed photo of one of his uncles. Forrest Peden, killed in France in 1945, was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, for his valor during World War II.

“It would have been nice to have met him,” Ed said.

By far the couple’s favorite place in the home is the old diesel generator room, a huge space they’ve converted into a drum circle room. Purple fabric drapes from the ceiling, and chairs and drums wait for friends to come make music.

To Ed and Dianna, Subterra is more than a home. Ed calls these sites 20th century castles. He’s even used salvaged fuel tanks that he’s covered with stone to erect his own castle towers on the property.

Let other people think he’s eccentric.

“This has been the best buy of a lifetime,” he says.

Subterra Castle

15513 Missile Base Road, Eskridge, Kan., about 25 miles west of Topeka

Cost: $5 per person or $25 for a group (whichever is greater)

Info: To book a tour (by appointment only) or for more information, visit subterracastle.com or missilebases.com.

Notable sites in Lawrence

Comanche

Comanche, one of the few surviving horses from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, was once the most famous horse in America. He toured the country in the late 1800s, drawing large, patriotic crowds. When he died in 1890, his hide was given to the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, where he was stuffed and put on exhibit. More than 100 years later, he’s still there.

Details: University of Kansas Natural History Museum, 1345 Jayhawk Blvd. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (closes at 8 p.m. on Thursday); noon to 5 on Sunday. Closed Monday. 785-864-4450. Visit naturalhistory.ku.edu.

Cost: Suggested donation of $5 for adults, $3 for children.

Museum of Odd

If you love odd things, such as Elvis’ toothbrush and toenail, or a couch full of hundreds of sock monkeys, the Museum of Odd might be right up your slightly off-center alley. Otherwise known as the home of Randy “Honey Boy” Walker, this unusual collection is guaranteed to make you say “Wha?” at least once, and leave with a smile on your face.

Details: 1012 New York St. By appointment only. 785-843-8750. Visit the museum on Facebook facebook.com/MuseumOfOdd

Cost: Free-will donation

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