UNDERGROUND WORLD HOME
Something really different in housing is displayed here: a three-bedroom house, complete below ground level. It is presented as the forerunner of dwellings that the builder says have marked advantages for today's living. Guides explain during the 20-minute tour why underground homes can provide more control over air, climate and noise than conventional houses - as well as protection from such hazards as fire and radiation fallout. The house occupies most of the area inside a rectangular concrete shell, the top of which is two and a half feet underground; a wide staircase brings visitors down to the front door. Windows in the house face scenic murals placed on the walls of the shell.
Pictures of the Underground World Home are difficult to come by, as most of it was not viewable from the surface. The low speed films of the time also made it hard to take pictures inside the home. This publicity photo from the Fair shows the rectangular-roofed entrance complex, which included a snack bar, just to the left of the General Foods Arch. (CD #TBD Publicity Set 2 #16)
The Underground World Home even included a a subterranean patio and garden, complete with artificial plants trees, in an effort to help make the place less claustrophobic. No worries about mosquitos while sitting on this patio at night! (CD #6 Set 26 #21)
In many ways, the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair was a collection of architectural wonders. Everywhere you looked there was some strange new shape to attract the eye – the immense size of the Unisphere, perhaps, the arching wall at General Motors, the moonscape roof at Kodak, or the cantilevered Bell System pavilion. Of all of the unusual structures at the Fair, however, perhaps none was stranger than an exhibit marked by several bland little buildings. Located just across the Avenue of the United Nations from the United States Space Park and the Hall of Science, these buildings marked the entrance to an exhibit that was truly one of a kind.
This was the Underground World Home. As the name implies, it was truly underground, making it one of the least seen exhibits at the Fair. Not only couldn’t you see it just by walking by, but there was an admission charge to tour the home, and it couldn’t handle large crowds. As a result, most Fair visitors just passed it by without a second thought.
If they had taken the time to go downstairs for a look, they would have found a complete home, furnished and ready for occupants. How this house buried in the Earth came to be has its beginnings in the nervousness and paranoia of the Cold War. In the late 1950s, the city of Plainview, Texas asked for bids on a prototype bomb shelter, intending to develop an affordable way for its citizens to survive a nuclear blast. The contract was won by Jay Swayze, a local builder, who went on to construct an austere 6 foot x 8 foot bunker designed to house six inhabitants until it was safe to return to the surface.
Swayze later said that he was intrigued by the possibilities affording by subterranean housing, but that he was convinced people would only move underground if they could live in relative comfort and style. He tested his theory in grand style by building a new home for his family – one far larger than the 48 square foot bomb shelter. When completed, his new home, also in (or more accurately, under) Plainview, was 2,800 square feet in size. Swayze moved his wife and two daughters into the 10 room house, then set out with his brother Kenneth to convince the rest of the world that they wanted to live under three feet of dirt.
As can be imagined, this was a tough sell, and the hoped for flood of orders failed to materialize. The high cost of underground construction limited sales to wealthy individuals such as Jerry Henderson, the founder of Avon Cosmetics, who commissioned homes outside Boulder, Colorado and Las Vegas. Undaunted at the overall lack of success, Swayze theorized that if he could only show people the merits of his concept they would order enough houses to lower the overall construction costs.
Like many other entrepreneurs, Swayze looked at the Fair as an opportunity to show his brainchild to the millions of expected visitors who would soon be flooding through Flushing Meadows. After securing the financing from Jerry Henderson, he successfully built his Underground World Home. While the living area in this version was smaller than his home back in Texas, the overall project was larger, for it had bigger underground “gardens” and a terrace. The Fair version also incorporated several design improvements, including pier and beam construction and wood floors. For fun, Swayze included an organ, an idea he freely noted he had borrowed from Carlsbad Caverns.
The Underground World Home was built exactly like the homes Swayze was hoping to sell, with a concrete shell enclosing a 5,600 square foot area. The roof and floor was 10” thick, with 13” walls. A particular construction challenge was the marshy soil at the Flushing Meadow site, for it required additional waterproofing protection and bracing. In fact, the souvenir book available at the Fair described the site as “a Long Island swamp”!
What did visitors to the Underground Home see? Before descending into the home itself there was a display about the construction techniques used and the benefits of living underground. Then it was time to head downstairs, where tour guides took visitors for a tour of the three-bedroom home. After looking around at the house and terrace, visitors then climbed back upstairs where they could buy a booklet with more information on how they could arrange for their own subterranean chalet.
Was the Fair successful in promoting Swayze’s vision? It’s hard to say, for stated attendance numbers are misleading. The 1965 version of the booklet sold at the Fair states that 516,000 visitors toured the exhibit the prior year, yet after the Fair Swayze claimed that more than 1,600,000 people had visited the Underground Home. It certainly is unlikely that more than a million people toured the home in the second season. In any event, the downturn of fears about nuclear war led to less interest in the concept, and Swayze eventually sold his Plainview home and moved to Hereford, Texas. There he and his brother formed Geobuilding Systems, which was intended to revive awareness of underground homes. In 1980 Jay Swayze wrote a book extolling the virtues of buried housing, but he only mentioned the Fair in passing. Recent searches failed to turn up further news of Swayze or Geobuilding Systems.
Finally, what became of the Underground World Home when the Fair closed? Was it destroyed or just left in place, sitting silently awaiting for someone to unearth it again? So far, no definitive word has been found as to what happened after the end of the Fair. Considering the cost that would have been incurred to rip a structure of this size out of the ground, and the lack of any real motivation to do so, it’s highly likely that the exhibitors simply emptied out the contents of the house, pulled down the surface structures, and headed back home. If this was the case the building is probably flooded, but it could be a World’s Fair legacy yet to be seen again. In the meantime, though, you can tour Jerry Henderson’s former home in Las Vegas.
Swayze’s book, by the way, is titled “Underground Gardens and Homes: The Best of Two Worlds, Above and Below”. It can be found in some large libraries and occasionally at used book stores.