It's a spacious, secure home that could probably fetch a pretty penny on today's NYC real estate market - the only problem is that no one knows if it still exists. The mystery centers around The Underground World Home, a 12,000-square-foot subterranean residence that was built for the 1964 World's Fair at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. After the fair ended, almost all of the exhibits were ordered to be demolished, but some think that the Underground Home's creator, Jay Swayze, may have left it intact. After all, why pay exorbitant demolition fees to remove the home when you could just tear down its above-ground pavilion and cover the entrance with some dirt? 50 years later, historians, students and regular Joes with shovels are still asking the question, "Is it down there?"
The Underground Home was the brainchild of Jay Swayze, a Texas home builder with a knack for understanding the fears of the American public. The demand for ultra-secure dwellings and fallout shelters in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis spurred Swayze to start the Underground World Home Corporation, and market his product with a full-size model home at the 1964 World’s Fair. The 12,000-square-foot home was built inside of a 15-foot ditch near the New York Hall of Science, and was extolled by The Wall Street Journal as “a new frontier for family living.”
Fairgoers willing to pay the admission price of $1 for adults or fifty cents for children could make their way down a staircase into the ten-room residence, but what they stepped into was much more than just a bunker. The Underground Home’s luxurious living room was decked out with a Steinway & Sons piano and a “terrace” and a combination of real and fake plants lent the space an airy feel despite its subterranean location. According to the exhibit’s souvenir brochure, the “view” seen through the home’s windows could even be dialed up at the occupant’s whim. Lighting could also be controlled using the residence’s sophisticated lighting system as explained in the pamplet: “Dimmers and a specially designed low-voltage light control system permit a rising sun effect in the kitchen, while a star-filled night blankets the “outdoor” patio.”
Photo from the Underground Home souvenir booklet of a similar home in Colorado depicting how occupants could “dial” up outside views ranging from San Francisco’s Golden Gate to New York’s skyline depending on their whims.
In addition to the dwelling’s luxurious accouterments, a system called the “Snorkel” allowed air from outside to be filtered into the interior with the ability to regulate temperature, humidity and pressure. According to Underground World Home Corporation, this air filtration system could also be modified to deal with dust, sandstorms and even fall-out particles. As for electricity, the home boasted its own 20KW diesel generator with “an automatic, 7 second cut-in in case of outside electrical utility failure” as well as a sewage lift and sewage ejector.
With all of the Underground Home’s amenities, it’s clear that a great deal of care and attention went into its design. So the million dollar question (or rather the $80,000 question, as that was the house’s pricetag at the time) is, did Jay Swayze destroy the home after the World’s Fair, or is it still there after all these years underneath what is now a soccer field? In 2012, journalist Nicholas Hirshon took a deeper look into the mystery with his article “Is it Down There?”. The piece chronicled the efforts of people like Dr. Lori Walters, a professor, and Steven Quinterno, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, who believe that the home may still exist below Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
Walters, who is a Research Assistant Professor at the Institute for Simulation and Training and Department of History at the University of Central Florida, thinks the modern-day archaeological site is worth looking into as a learning tool. “My interest in the Underground Home stems from its potential to introduce middle school children to urban archaeology,” she told us. “If we can secure the proper permissions and funding, it can provide children an opportunity to observe and participate in portions of a limited exploration of the site.”
Photo from the Underground Home souvenir booklet. The Underground World Home Corporation proposed other subterranean dwellings, such as this underground motel.
Walters also pointed out that her goal was not to dig up the site. “Ground penetrating radar would be a non-invasive first step to determine what might remain of the underground structure,” she explained. “Soil type may not permit us to conclusively determine the structure’s existence. The goal is not to uncover the Underground Home nor to provide full access to it. The greatest extent of exploration would be through an endoscopic camera and should that reveal an interior that is traversable, I am proposing a small robotic device that the children could navigate and explore. In each step, children could learn about robotics and the science behind the archaeology techniques – in addition to discovering the history of underground homes, the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair and 1960s America.”
If you’re interested in helping Dr. Walters with her research and uncovering the truth about the Underground Home, please contact her via the website of her current project, ChronoLeap: The Great World’s Fair Adventure.