Unreal Structures Built in Secret
People can build incredible, unimaginable things. Chances are good that you passed something on your way to work this morning that would make our ancestors accuse someone of witchcraft. But we never stop to wonder what awe-inspiring creation someone could be producing right under our noses, because why would anyone build something impressive and keep it a secret? Plenty of usually insane reasons, it turns out.
Dr. Dyar's Catacombs
In September of 1924, a truck was driving in Washington, D.C., when its tires sank into the ground. On closer inspection, workers found that they had discovered the entrance to an intricate series of tunnels, with 6-foot ceilings and walls painstakingly lined with white enameled brick, an expensive building material at the time. For days, newspapers had a field day speculating who had built this mysterious underground labyrinth. Was it World War I spies? Confederate soldiers? Mad scientists?
Dr. Harrison G. Dyar, entomologist and mosquito expert at the Smithsonian Institution, let the speculation continue for a few days - presumably while wringing his hands and laughing maniacally - before stepping forward to admit that he had single-handedly constructed the catacombs. The first indication that he was telling the truth, and not just some crazy bug expert, was that the tunnels originated from the backyard of his former residence. But the idea that it was the handiwork of just one guy seemed impossible. The tunnels extended hundreds of feet in length and reached depths of up to 32 feet below the surface. Not only had Dyar done it all by his lonesome, but he'd also kept the project secret, starting work on the tunnels in 1906 and continuing until he moved away from the house in 1916, removing every bit of the dirt himself. In buckets. Once people got their heads around the fact that one guy had really done this all by himself, the search must have been on for all the dead people he'd dug the tunnels to store.
When the tunnels came up clean for dead bodies, officials were forced to accept the fact that they were dealing with the most monumentally bored person on the planet, because "I did it for exercise," he said. "Digging tunnels after work is my hobby. There's nothing really mysterious about it." His digging habit didn't end at his former residence, either: at his new home on what is Independence Avenue today, Dyar constructed a second series of tunnels, this time featuring concrete walls, stone stairways and electric lighting, and reaching depths of up to 24 feet.
The Chrysler Building's Secret Spire
In early 20th century New York City, size most definitely mattered. Corporations built towering skyscrapers for promotional value and to increase name recognition. And while claims of dick-measuring contests are overused, the phallic implications were pretty straightforward here: America's wealthiest companies were competing to be the island of Manhattan's biggest dick. In 1929, two corporate behemoths began chubbing up in an effort to become the tallest building on the island. In one corner was the Chrysler Building, a shining beacon of hope for America's unstoppable automotive industry, and in the other was the building that today is 40 Wall Street, sponsored by the Bank of Manhattan Trust. William Van Alen, architect of the Chrysler Building project, went through several revisions before arriving at a final design with a projected height of 807 feet. Just one month after announcing the final design, Van Alen learned that his former partner, the sinisterly named H. Craig Severance, had been commissioned to develop a building at 40 Wall Street with specific instructions to build something "taller than that Chrysler bulls*it."
Both parties began designing and redesigning their buildings in a mad flurry of competitive architecture that would undoubtedly be difficult to make exciting were this story ever adapted to film. As construction on the buildings neared completion, they both looked like they would be coming in at exactly 840 feet. That's when Severance decided to show them boys up at Chrysler who wanted this thing more, scrambling the designs they'd been using all along to squeeze another three stories and 87 feet into the Bank of Manhattan Trust building, publicly claiming the title of the world's tallest building. But as he and the boys whooped about town having "World's Tallest Building" mugs and T-shirts made, Van Alen was up to something. Something secret. And tall. Van Alen had a 185-foot spire secretly constructed in huge ventilation shafts that were built in order to vent smoke in case of a fire. On October 23, 1929 - after Severance's project had reached its full height and could get no taller - Van Alen had his giant steel middle finger hoisted to the top of the Chrysler Building, surpassing 40 Wall Street as the tallest building in the world and the Eiffel Tower as the tallest structure.
This touched off intense debate over whether or not it counted. Critics immediately ripped into the spire as nothing more than an embarrassing gimmick. However, many architectural minds praised the overall integrity of the building, with or without a spire. The next year, everyone unanimously agreed that nobody gave a shit anymore, as a new, even taller building designed as a dock for zeppelins stole the Chrysler's spire-shaped crown. Of course, it wasn't all a loss for the Chrysler, which was recently rated by architects as the most admired building in Manhattan. The Bank of Manhattan Trust building has changed hands many times since its very foundation was extended upward as part of an ultimately pointless publicity stunt, and today it is appropriately known as the Trump Tower.
New York City's First Subway
In the 1860s, New York City's streets were an unpleasant place to be. Crime and overcrowding were making it increasingly apparent that an alternate method of public transportation was needed. Alfred Ely Beach, publisher of Scientific American, became one of the first people to look for the solution underground. While this seems like a foregone conclusion these days, turning the inhabitants of the biggest city in the world into burrowing creatures probably seemed like a pretty crazy idea at the time. And it only got crazier when he revealed how the first subway would work: The Beach Pneumatic Transit used the same principles as those suction tubes you've probably used at your bank's drive-through, and that Callahan Auto Parts used to transport interoffice mail in the movie Tommy Boy.
Beach's planned prototype for the system consisted of a single 312-foot-long tunnel 8 feet in diameter that would run down the length of Broadway from Warren Street to Murray Street. The tube-shaped subway cars would be controlled by a 48-ton fan that would push up to 22 passengers at a time between the two destinations, presumably with a satisfying "FWOOMP!" sound when arriving at and departing from the station. But Beach had one major obstacle: legendarily corrupt politician William "Boss" Tweed. Since Tweed had a vested interest in keeping the aboveground streetcar companies in business and kicking money back to him, Beach knew that any proposals for developing an alternate underground system would be quickly shot down. So he instead applied for and received a permit to install pneumatic postal tubes below Broadway.
Using the postal permit as a cover, Beach put up $350,000 of his own money to fund the construction of his subway prototype. The construction was done mainly at night, in secret, and took only 58 days to construct. Once complete, the luxurious station featured frescoes, easy chairs, ornate statues and a goldfish pond to entertain passengers as they waited to ride. Oh, and did we mention that all this was built below Broadway right in front of City Hall? Beach's gamble seemed like it might pay off when the prototype opened to great public enthusiasm, right up until you remember that he'd spent the previous months orchestrating a covert Boss Tweed ball-stomping parade. Beach either thought he could change Tweed's mind, or merely didn't give a shit, but whichever it was, he was wrong. The project quickly died, and with it our childhood dreams of being shot through a tube like a giant blow dart.
Boeing Plant 2
In the early 1940s, Boeing Plant 2 was one of the largest, most important buildings in the world. It was responsible for producing many of the warplanes the Allies used to win World War II, which is how Boeing Plant 2 came to be known as "the building that won World War II." Also because factories were apparently last in line when it came time to pick snappy nicknames. The problem with depending on one giant building to win a world war is that your enemy can drop bombs on it from as high as they want without having to worry too much about stuff like aiming and being remotely sober.
At the height of the war, the asswhup cannery had ramped up production to as many as 12 B-17 Flying Fortresses a day. Its size of 1,776,000 square feet and location in Washington state meant that it would be the first place Japanese bombers would visit if they ever decided to fuck with American soil again. Of course, they'd have to find the damn thing first. In a decision that surely elicited a medley of harrumphing among military brass, Boeing turned to John S. Detlie, a Hollywood set designer and art director, to use his movie magic to make the very large, very obvious building less of both of those things. It cost a fortune at $1 million (estimated at $15 million in today's money), but when he was done Detlie had made America's most vulnerable target disappear under an entirely fake, 12-square-block neighborhood draped over the roof of the plant. What from the air appeared to be a normal suburban neighborhood - complete with houses, streets, trees and even hills - up close was an enormous Hollywood movie set constructed from plywood, chicken wire, burlap and a whole shitload of paint. The camouflage was so detailed that the fake roads had street signs marking them, with names like Burlap Boulevard and Synthetic Street.
The set was dismantled after the war, and the materials used to build it were offered to Boeing employees for little to no cost. So today there are real homes that were built using bits and pieces of the fake ones that once served to hide the building that won the war. It also means that, for one fleeting moment in this one instance, Hollywood was as important as it thinks it is.
The Secret City of Arras
Reeling from the horrible losses of the World War I Battle of the Somme in 1916, British generals needed a new offensive strategy. So they turned their attention toward the town of Arras in northern France, where they would employ the little-known Dig Dug military tactic. The first reason the town was valuable was simple geography: It was near the war front, and location is important whether you're slaughtering Germans or selling kitchenware. But the sneaky reason Arras caught their attention was its history. It was ancient and built over a sprawling network of cellars, tunnels and sewers, and the surrounding countryside was veined with vast underground caves where chalk had been mined during the Middle Ages. In a war that was mainly fought in the trenches, the British general realized that this could be an advantage. Tunnelers set to work connecting the subterranean web, and in a matter of months they had created two immense underground labyrinths capable of housing 25,000 troops and repositioning them wherever they wanted, since they were moving right beneath the feet of their unsuspecting enemy.
This was not just a collection of cramped tunnels and caves, either - it was a fully functional underground city. The immense caverns were transformed into dormitories, kitchens, chapels, power stations (providing the city with electric lighting) and a hospital with enough capacity to treat 700 wounded. The connecting tunnels were large enough to allow soldiers to march out to battle in one direction, while stretchers were carried back into the caves from the other direction. There were even larger tunnel routes to accommodate a supply railway. On April 9, 1917, a surprise attack was launched on the German lines from the secret city, with British troops spewing out of the ground like pissed off Morlock-lava. Within two days, the troops had made spectacular gains, advancing farther into enemy territory than the entire British Army had advanced in years. While the battle ended in a stalemate, it had to have at least fucked with the German army to see this spring out of the Earth from out of nowhere.
The Temples of Damanhur
More than 100 feet below ground, carved directly into the foothills of the Alps in northern Italy and only accessible from a small, unassuming house, lies an incredible secret. According to Oberto Airaudi, since the age of 10 he has experienced paranormal visions from "a past life" of amazingly intricate temples. While that might just sound like the ramblings of someone who smoked whatever Coleridge was on when he wrote "Kubla Khan," Falco has made it his lifelong goal to recreate his visions.
One night in August of 1978, Falco and some like-minded companions started digging into the mountainside. Over the next 14 years, they worked in four-hour shifts, using simple hand tools and sketches Falco had made of his vision. Rumors began circulating that something was going on under the house, and in 1992, police showed up at Falco's front door. When he wouldn't let them in, they threatened to use dynamite. Realizing that the cops were either serious or villains from a Disney movie, Falco and his fellow "Damanhurians" complied, leading the police through their secret door and into the mountain. It took an hour to give the officials a tour through what they had built.
A maze wound through the rock, connecting seven huge, impossibly ornate temples, some with ceilings as high as 25 feet. Overcome with amazement at what they were seeing, the authorities revealed that they were in fact Disney villains, and seized the temples on behalf of the government. Falco was told to continue with the artwork, but that he must cease any further construction since he had not received planning permission. The Italian government later dubbed the temples "The Eighth Wonder of the World," and it's not hard to see why: Tunnels and secret rooms wind miles down into the hillside. Each room was intricately designed in exact accordance with what must have been the craziest dream a 10-year-old child has ever had. We can't even put together our new nightstand from IKEA without bellowing phrases so vile that our neighbors spontaneously burst into tears, and these people single-handedly built a whole new Wonder of the World. With hand tools. While Falco is clearly inspired by something higher, the truly baffling part of this is that he did all this with friends working for free, out of the kindness of their own hearts, to make a grown-up's childhood vision a reality. We're all for lending a helping hand to our friends, but we're pretty sure we would have thrown down our tools after the first four-hour shift.
The Manhattan Project's Secret Cities
In late 1942, the United States Army Corps of Engineers purchased 59,000 acres of countryside northwest of Knoxville, Tennessee, enough land to build four cities the size of Manhattan. If that wasn't enough to get the locals asking questions, next they built three massive facilities on the property. And when we say massive, we mean that one of them was the largest building in the world at that time. Soon, 75,000 people flooded into town and began working there, and a mob of construction workers began erecting a city to house them. And still, nobody knew what the hell was going on. Even the people who worked at the giant facilities didn't know what was going on. Perhaps spookiest of all, despite having enough people to have its own minor league baseball team, the town didn't appear on any maps.
Perhaps the biggest mind fuck of all was how everyone learned just what the hell was going on: in the newspaper articles the day after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. The town in Tennessee, which would eventually be named Oak Ridge, wasn't the only secret city. As Oak Ridge was being built in Tennessee for the workers who produced the materials needed to construct the bombs, construction workers (who weren't told why they were building) were erecting another secret town in Los Alamos, New Mexico, northwest of Santa Fe. This new town, known as "Site Y" to military personnel, would provide a secluded home for the scientists and engineers involved in the project to complete their work.
Oh, and being conveniently located near the deserts of New Mexico comes in handy in case you need to, you know, explode an atomic bomb. All in all, the Manhattan Project employed more than 130,000 people, many of whom lived in secret towns and had no idea what they were doing. If you were a science major around the time of the war, your first couple years out of college was like being on Lost. Los Alamos is still home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the largest employers in New Mexico. Today, Oak Ridge is a fairly typical small town, except that they can chant, "We won WWII" any time their high school football team is getting its ass kicked.