My fascination with underground homes began around the time the Brendan Fraser and Alicia Silverstone movie Blast From the Past hit theaters. It was 1999, a time when underground homes were a relic from a bygone era when Americans had feared and prepared for the worst. By the '90s that fear faded, and these underground homes were just kitschy time capsules.
Years ago, a very intriguing rumor spread that the underground home exhibit set up for the World's Fair of 1964-65—between the Hall of Science and Terrace on the Park—was never removed from beneath the fair's site.
Could there be a mid-century underground home in Flushing Meadows Corona Park right now? A few have asked, but only uncertainty has been uncovered each time. Recently I became determined to find out once and for all—I reached out to the Parks Department, a professor at the University of Central Florida who previously proposed an excavation of the site, and a television producer who recreated the home for an episode of CSI: NY. Eventually, I discovered the answer buried not in Queens, but in the depths of the New York Public Library.
First, a little history. The fair's underground home was an exhibit funded in part by Jerry Henderson, the founder of Avon Cosmetics, who during the height of the Cold War commissioned two underground homes, one in Colorado and the other in Nevada, from brothers Jay and Kenneth Swayze. Jay Swayze was a builder who had become interested in subterranean living after being contracted to build a bomb shelter in his hometown of Plainview, Texas. After that was complete, he built himself a 2,800-square-foot subterranean home, and moved his family in.
The Swayze brothers built an underground home for Henderson, and the entrepreneur swiftly bought a 51% share of their company, Underground World Homes. This partnership funded the fair exhibit, but they soon realized the cost of building a home underground was far too prohibitive to the masses they hoped would buy them. "We split up [after the fair]... there wasn't enough market for the thing," Kenneth told the L.A. Times in 1996, adding, "It was not a thing that we cared to pursue."
His brother may have cared, however—he started another underground building company called Geobuilding Systems, Inc. But that was shut down, too, when he died in 1980.
The Swayze brothers are the ones who would have been responsible for removing the home from the fair grounds, as each exhibitor was under contract to remove their own exhibit. So, it's difficult to find out if they ever followed through with that removal.
The Underground home wasn't the most flashy or popular exhibit at the World's Fair, though it did allegedly have its own song (album pictured above) which played in the home. One description online reads: "there is a plan of the home on the back of the album. The home had an underground patio at the back of it and that patio was used as a discotheque during the fair. The song 'The Bottom of the Fair' was featured in this discotheque and I imagine that this album was sold there as well. It apparently did not sell well anywhere else, so it is now one of the rarest of the Johnny Mann Singers LPs. One of the drawings on the front of the cover shows people dancing in this discotheque."
The album cover even included a note from the musician, who wrote of visiting Henderson's underground house in Colorado.
Several people I asked who attended didn't even remember or know the exhibit had existed. In a May 1964 issue of LIFE magazine dedicated to the World's Fair, there's no mention of it, despite there being an entire spread dedicated to how things may look one day.
One of the least popular exhibits of the time has become one of the most intriguing in more recent years, however. There is a small group with a shared intense interest in finding out if the Underground Home is still there, or in some cases, being content believing that it is.
Lori Walters, a professor in Florida who has also been scanning historic sites, including remaining structures at the World's Fair site, was attempting to dig up the site back in 2012. She told us over email this year that she "elected not to prepare a formal proposal for excavation to the Parks Department until I was able to conduct research that could confirm or at least support the possibility that there were still elements of the Underground Home remaining beneath the park. Unfortunately, to date I have not been able to locate evidence in the form of a document or photograph to support the existence."
On the other end of the spectrum there's Trey Callaway, a television writer who has not yet grabbed a shovel, but has advanced the idea of its existence through his work. In 2009 he wrote an episode of CSI: NY that brought his World's Fair intrigue into the show. "Manhattanhenge" centered around a murderer who was living in the Underground Home, which in CSI's New York was still there.
"We're standing in the Underground Home," the fictional NYPD's Stella Bonasera declares. "When the Fair closed they just trucked in some top soil and left it right here."
I recently asked Callaway—who holds a large collection of World's Fair memorabilia, and named his production company World's Fair Entertainment—about recreating the home for the show.
The Underground Home was recreated by production designer Vaughan Edwards as an impressively large and complex set. It was inspired by photos of the original Underground Home Pavilion... but a number of dramatic liberties were taken— especially our suggestion that the home had been left as-is once the Pavilion was finally deserted at the Fair’s end. So in our set, there were still lots of aging, water-stained, and cobweb covered furnishings on display— in order to make it feel like an appropriately creepy lair for “The Compass Killer,” a murderous madman portrayed by guest star Skeet Ulrich.
Callaway added that he "definitely wanted to feature all kinds of dusty, dirty, period decor that would’ve been true to mid-60’s era design," therefore including "plush carpets, a circular fireplace, mod wall-hangings, a working television, and even a mineral oil 'rain lamp' that was identical to one I’d grown up with in my Grandma’s house." And one thing that was true to the World's Fair home was the outdoor mural—"We wanted an exterior backdrop 'picture window' like those featured in the original attraction to help combat the claustrophobia of living underground. But what Vaughan Edwards found to fit that particular bill turned out to be a beautiful piece of Hollywood history itself: a hand-painted view of Manhattan that was originally created for an Alfred Hitchcock film."
As for any personal history with the home, Callaway told me that his parents are among those who "don’t remember visiting the Underground Home... not many people did, from what I’ve gathered about it. For one thing, the Underground Home charged its own separate admission fee of $1— so I’d imagine once the average fairgoer weighed that additional cost against all the amazing things there were to see and do above ground in Flushing Meadow— there may not be many other folks around who remember visiting its luxurious, subterranean depths."
When I asked if he believed if the Underground Home was still there, Callaway told me, "As a motion picture and TV drama writer and producer, I absolutely want to believe it’s still there. Because, well… that would be really cool. Which is exactly why I used it for storytelling fodder in the first place. But in reality? I doubt very seriously the Underground Home still exists."
However, Callaway also brought up the reason why there are a few believers out there—"By the time the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair finally closed, it was in great financial duress— and it was pretty much all the fair corporation and its exhibitors could do to raze the temporary Pavilions on the surface. So of course, that’s led many World’s Fair fans to speculate the Underground Home would have been awfully easy to simply leave behind. But even if they had— after 52 years of ground settling and water saturation in what used to be an ash dump— I’d be extremely surprised if any of the structure is still intact."
So, is it still there? Callaway says, "To be honest? I almost don’t want to know. It’s much more fun to keep the mystery alive in my imagination!" Sorry Trey, we kept digging...
Gothamist photographer Scott Heins recently visited the site to look for any abnormalities in the ground to suggest the home may still be there. I pointed Heins to Underground Home Truther Bruce B's post on this message board, which read, "Being in the area of the Underground World Home recently, I noticed a sinkhole seems to be devouring the tree below. Something must have given way in the underground home. I'm going to contact Geraldo Rivera, and see if he would do a special on entering the underground home after 45 years and finally put an end to this urban legend."
Heins found no evidence of the Underground Home.
OR DID HE? Heins told me upon his return, "It's obvious that something was indeed there. The rectangle-shaped depression on the ground is really clear. There's nothing else about the area that seems unusual really, so I have no reason to disbelieve those who say the underground home was destroyed/removed. It seems like an impractical amount of work to dig it all up, rather than just pile dirt over it, but perhaps they had their reasons. There are loads of old, mostly-forgotten bits of history buried under bland bits of ground across New York. It very well could still be down there."
In 2012, an excellent Narratively piece written by Nicholas Hirshon included an anecdote from two men who "secured a permit from the Parks Department to dig on the site" using a small shovel. Despite the home only be under about 3-feet of dirt, the duo believed using just a shovel would be too much work, and instead pushed "a steel rod in the dirt and pounded on it with a shovel to see how far down they’d get." One of the men, John PIro, told Hirshon, "We were hitting that baby all the way. And... stopped at that four-and-a-half-foot mark. We definitely hit something.” Their test, which would have been around 2010, may have been the last.
I asked the Parks Department if anyone has requested to dig at the site recently, but a rep told me, "We haven’t been approached by anyone interested in digging. Even a permitted dig would be very disruptive to park use—and given the fact that the house was demolished, it would be highly unlikely to yield anything of interest."
Parks' Sam Biederman later told me, "We’re confident that the Underground House has been demolished, and that Parks has enough above-ground assets to keep any New Yorker occupied for a lifetime." There is no official proof from the Parks Department, however Biederman and the Historic House Trust did point to a Bruce Davidson photo, which simply shows rubble on top of the surface ground above the home and proves nothing.
So, it's off to the New York Public Library, which happens to hold all World's Fair records, though few are digitized. Thomas Lannon, assistant curator of NYPL's Manuscripts and Archives Division, told me:
It is possible to trace the demolition of the International Exposition at Flushing Meadow Park through Post Fair Demolition and Progress Reports of the Engineering Division of the New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Corporation. These records in part comprise the archive of the World's Fair corporation maintained in NYPL's Manuscripts and Archives Division.
Demolition of the Underground Home Exhibit commenced at the end of 1965 and carried on into 1966. The exhibit was first removed in November 1, 1965. Its full demolition was then slated to begin on December 1, 1965 and be completed by January 1, 1966.
Records show that as of February 1966 demolition of the exhibit had been contracted to Greenwich Demolition and was then 65% complete with weekly progress reported as slow. By March 4, 1966, weekly progress was good and demolition was then 80% complete. Another report in May 31, 1966 states the actual completion of demolition of the Underground Home Exhibit was March 15, 1966.
There is no question the Underground Home Exhibition site was completely demolished in fulfillment of the New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Corporation contract with the City of New York to restore Flushing Meadow Park to park use.
I wanted proof, and the NYPL helped me locate some old records, which were never previously photographed or digitized. One of the earlier documents from 1965 shows a scheduled excavation of January 1, 1966. The updated document, from June of that year, notes that the "actual completion" of the "demolition" took place on March 15, 1966.
Still want to believe? It's possible that parts of the home are still down there, but you will not find a time capsule filled with mid-century furniture. One commenter on this message board says he believes the foundation was kept and filled with dirt—"I saw a photo of the Underground World Home after it was demolished and you can see the complete floor plan of the concrete foundation still in place. I believe they just filled it in with dirt and grass."
There aren't that many photos of the home, but Callaway pointed us to his friend, Bill Cotter, who has posted some online—he says this one above is the "best one" he's found so far.
For more about the Underground Home, check out the brochure here (PDF). In it you'll see that the Swayze brothers also had plans for an "ultra-luxurious underground restaurant [in] Central Park, New York City." When I asked Biederman about it, he told me no one's picked up the ball on that one—"I’m afraid we have no record of proposals for any underground restaurants in Central Park, ultra-, semi-, or non-luxurious."