Las Vegas Home Spotlight:, We’re Going to the Underground House

 

Located less than three miles from the iconic Las Vegas Strip, but with no traces of its glitter or glamor, stands 3970 Spencer Street. You could easily drive past it without giving it a second glance. But even if you took a long, hard look, you’d only see an unassuming, slightly dilapidated townhouse. Yet, as the old adage goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. And in this case, you can’t judge a 15,000-square foot compound by its surface level townhouse. That’s right; just a mere 26 feet below this cookie cutter home spreads one of Las Vegas’s most impressive oddities. And if you’ve been reading this blog regularly, that’s saying something! So, grab your desert island items, your iodine pills, and take one last look at that blue sky above. We’re going to the Underground House. 

The Elevator to the Underground House

Enter the humble townhouse and you’ll find a small elevator as well as a staircase descending into what you can only assume is a basement. And in a way, you’d be correct. If you’re bold enough to squeeze into the tight elevator, you’ll find a window overlooking the shaft, emphasized by a painted mural. It creates the impression that you’re descending deep into a secret mine, though the elevator actually only transits about 17 feet. That’s all it takes to arrive in a new world the average Las Vegas resident wouldn’t even suspect. Whether you take the elevator or the stairs, it only takes a few moments before you find a 15,000-square foot Cold War-era bunker home spreading before you.

Photo credit: The Underground House Las Vegas

Concrete support beams wear ersatz bark and synthetic leaves to resemble pastoral trees that inexplicably terminate into a ceiling painted to resemble the sky. Plastic rocks further sell the effect. But the Underground House takes on an ethereal familiarity with adjustable lighting that can simulate any hour of the day. You can have dawn, twilight, or starlight with a single touch. The painted sky illuminates with constellations in darkness; over 1,000 fluorescent bulbs firing to create a nocturnal dreamscape. 

Wander the “grounds”, treading the evergreen astroturf and you’ll find a 6-feet deep swimming pool bordered by genuine rocks harvested from Red Rock Canyon. The underground house predates Red Rock’s national conservation designation. Perhaps the home’s creator, Jerry Henderson, wanted keepsakes from the world above. Did he imagine he’d one day be sitting below ground admiring those authentic boulders in bittersweet nostalgia as the world above descended into nuclear winter? 

What Do You Do for Fun Around Here? 

More comforts of the modern world abound in the Underground House. You’ll find two spas, a barbecue pit housed by a plastic boulder for those bold enough to grill underground, and even a four-hole micro golf course. Don’t forget your golf clubs, though you can probably retire that driver. 

Photo credit: The Underground House Las Vegas

But how do you keep from going completely mad when your whole world extends just 15,000 square feet? Maybe you don’t. But if you do, chances are good that it’s a result of Jewel Smith’s murals. The artist was employed by Henderson to lovingly recreate the world he’d be leaving behind. She spent nearly two years painstakingly painting landscapes that recreated Henderson’s former yards in upstate New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay, and Colorado. These painted horizons, populated by curious deer, snow capped mountains, and verdant forests create the impression that the world goes on… even when it doesn’t. 

The underground Las Vegas nightlife gets a new meaning with the Underground House. The synthetic lawn boasts a dancer’s pole and disco ball that casts neon light across a glossy laminate oval dancefloor. The real question remains: who do you dance with when you’re the last man on earth? Fortunately, there’s also a nearby bar to drown your sorrows, assuming you can stockpile enough booze. 

Isolation Station

At the center of this plastic retread of the earth’s greatest hits stands a 6,400 square foot luxury home. This five-bedroom, six-bathroom mini mansion features vintage furniture and accessories reflective of its original era. But this furniture didn’t belong to Henderson. Rather, the décor was painstakingly curated by the current owners; an organization committed to extending the longevity of human life dubbed the Society for the Preservation of Near-Extinct Species. It’s uncertain whether the sizable stainless-steel cryogenic chamber is included with the home or goes with the group when they move. But this brings us to the current state of the eccentric property. The organization has been fixing up the Underground House over the years with plans to sell it. 

Photo credit: The Underground House Las Vegas

The Underground House creates an otherworldly, almost lonely feeling with its plasticity. But it’s also instantly familiar. Video game fans will no doubt recall the Fallout series with its experimental subterranean Vault compounds. Or maybe they’ll think of Resident Evil with its haunted mansion hiding a buried laboratory crawling with undead horrors. Film buffs will no doubt consider post-apocalyptic cinema like The Omega ManThe Last Man on Earthor A Boy and His Dog. Literary lovers will likely clutch their dog-eared Harlan Ellison novel of the same name or Matheson’s I Am Legend. Even TV enthusiasts will recall Lost and bunker-based Desmond Hume’s singular mission of pressing a button every 108 minutes. And some of us just may think back to the last couple years of self-quarantine when our worlds ended at our front doors. But the underground house Las Vegas hides beneath its sun faded veneer is its own distinct thing; wondrous yet creepy, beautiful yet heartbreaking. 

The Man Behind the Home

It was sometime in the 1970s that Jerry Henderson, a savvy investor, businessman, and director for Avon, purchased a single acre lot of land near the Las Vegas Strip. Henderson had been obsessed with the concept of living underground. He even started his own company, Underground World Homes, which exhibited at the New York World’s Fair for two years in the mid-1960s.

Practicing what he preached, he briefly lived in a 45,000 square foot underground home of his own creation in Colorado. But his vision for the one-acre lot of land in Las Vegas was even grander in scale. He devoted over $10 million to the excavation and construction of what would become the Underground House.  

Photo credit: The Underground House Las Vegas

A Hole Deep Enough to Hide From Fear

The company name Underground World Homes stirs up feelings of wonder and amazement. This was certainly part of his fascination with subterranean living. But it would be shortsighted to assume fear wasn’t also a factor in his desire to champion bunker lifestyles. It’s probably no coincidence that the Underground World Homes exhibit at the World’s Fair closely tailed the Cuban Missile Crisis

Then there was that pervasive fear that America’s Cold War with Russia would start to heat up. Even as Henderson’s crew broke ground on the Underground House, nuclear testing was commencing just 65 miles north of Las Vegas. Today, the Nevada Test Site is remembered as one of the most notable scenes of nuclear weapons testing in the U.S. From the early 1950s through the 1990s, this stretch of desert was instrumental in the country’s development of nuclear weapons in a tight arms race with the Soviet Union. The black humor and straight up horror of our atomic weaponry programs is immortalized in the National Atomic Testing Museum recently highlighted in our blog. It’s important to remember Henderson lived in a frightening time. And even as current U.S./Russia relations deteriorate with hints at nuclear war, it doesn’t match the blanketed ominousness of that time. 

Photo credit: Atomic Heritage Foundation

The Above Ground Home

Jerry Henderson died in the Underground House in 1983 of a heart attack at the age of 78 years. Many would remember him best as the founder of the Alexander Dawson School. Some may have recalled working closely with him during his time with Avon Products. Still others would recall his penchant for finding the right investment. His fascination with subterranean living was just another one of his many passions. But it was one that his wife, Mary Henderson, did not share. Shortly after his passing, she had the boulders marking the site of the underground home removed. In its place, she erected the simple townhouse that stands there today. Perhaps it was too haunting to continue living in that plastic silence without its creator. Yet, she never strayed far from its concrete trees and painted forests. 

The townhouse blends in behind the added security of a spired gate and a sandswept yard punctuated with weather-beaten palms waving lethargically in the heat. If you look closely, you might be able to notice the occasional air vent hinting at the wonders beneath the surface. Plastic rocks do an adequate job of hiding the stairway access from anyone not looking for it. At one time, the two-story stucco townhome offered two bedrooms, a casita, and three bathrooms. The current occupants, the Society for the Preservation of Near-Extinct Species, have divided the house into individual apartments. 

Looking for a Forever Home

When Mary Henderson passed away in 1989, the Underground House rapidly shifted from owner to owner until going into foreclosure. It wasn’t until 2015 that the Society for the Preservation of Near Extinct Species purchased the property for a mere $1.15 million. Perhaps their mission to extend human life found them gravitating to a house designed to withstand the apocalypse. Their original plan was to use the Underground House as a sort of museum to longevity. The home would be used to showcase documents and artifacts of significance to their mission. They also believed it a secure enough compound to store cryogenically preserved DNA, organs, tissue, and specimens. But it turns out that the Underground House wasn’t as secure as they, or the original owner, believed. 

Photo credit: The Underground House Las Vegas

The sobering truth is that the Underground House would stand little chance of surviving a nuclear blast. Its air vents provide no protection from poisoned or irradiated air. Its network of concrete trees and steel supports aren’t even close to an adequate blast shield. And at just 26-feet beneath the surface, the Underground House would be as much a crater as the rest of the Las Vegas region. 

Yet, the Underground House does offer more attractive amenities for doomsday preppers than your average home. While the home currently runs off the city’s electrical grid, it boasts a diesel generator and two 500-gallon water tanks. Therefore, using the Underground House to live off the grid is actually feasible. 

The Underground House Hits the Market… Again

But without adequate resistance to nuclear warfare, the Society for the Preservation of Near Extinct Species no longer has use for it. They’ve had the Underground House on the market since 2019 when it first listed at a staggering $18 million. Since public record shows the property selling in 2015 for a meager (by comparison) $1.15 million, the inflated price tag was a hard sell. The seller argued that the price was reflective of the cost to replicate such a wondrous abode. As they pointed out, it would be a nearly impossible feat in modern times. 

The mysterious organization also invested over $1 million of their own money into upgrading the property with modern conveniences. They installed repeaters that would allow for phone reception, internet access, and cable within the subterranean environment. The property’s eight air conditioners have been fully replaced. The sewage and electrical systems have been updated. But even with the aforementioned vintage furniture and decor, the home stagnated on the market. The curious were attracted to its novelty, but not enough to pony up $18 million. Today, the home is still listed, but at the severely reduced price of $5.9 million. The price includes the live-in service of the property’s current caretaker. And, yes, this is a member of the Society for the Preservation of Near Extinct Species. 

Photo credit: The Underground House Las Vegas

Plastic Meets Peaceful

While the Underground Home waits for its next owner, it’s amassed quite the resume. The reclusive residence has hosted weddings, corporate retreats, and general receptions while also finding its way into movies, shows, music videos, and even print advertising. Its hyper plasticity and kitschy retro chic contrast against its subtext of nuclear panic in a way that can only be described as otherworldly. Speaking with Review Journal, Underground House caretaker Tee Thompson summed up a feeling that seems to transcend joy and sorrow. “When it is dark, it is pitch black, and it’s very peaceful and quiet,” Thompson explained. “It’s beautiful being down here. If you’re not focused on what you’re doing, you lose track of time.” 

It’s almost as if Thompson were describing the absence of the human experience; the inverse to life itself. And it’s the great conclusion that the Society for the Preservation of Near-Extinct Species and perhaps Jerry Henderson tried to escape. It’s the natural terminus of life that remains hidden behind the veil… or buried underground.