June 20, 2013 - 10:23 am
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” begins by describing the titular character’s underground home as “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat.”
“It was a hobbit-hole,” the description concludes. “And that means comfort.”
The underground house at 3970 Spencer St. was built for comfort, too, with two hot tubs, a sauna and an in-ground pool in a room larger than some houses in the valley.
It was also constructed to withstand a nuclear blast. It had to be. Girard “Jerry” B. Henderson, who had the home built in 1978, planned to wait out the end of the world inside the structure. Now it’s on the market for $1.7 million, which includes the two-bedroom underground house, the one-bedroom underground guest house, the two-bedroom, two-story caretaker’s house, a four-car garage and more than 1 acre of surface property.
“I’ve been told when he built it, he had a million dollars of marble imported from Italy,” said Winston King of Kingly Properties, which is handling the sale of the house. “It’s here on the fireplace and around the pool now.”
When it was built, the only signs of the house on the surface were an unusual number of ground-mounted air-conditioning units camouflaged by clusters of large rocks. A few larger rocks concealed stairways and an elevator. A caretaker’s house was added later, and the main entrance to the underground house now runs through it.
When visitors reach the ground level, they’re in the front yard of the house looking at the entrance to the 40-foot-by-46-foot room. To the left are the dance floor and the stage. The décor still greatly reflects the original owners’ tastes, from the indoor fountains and waterfalls to the abundance of pink in the kitchen and bathroom.
“They had it all down here,” said King, opening up an artificial rock to reveal an underground outdoor grill. “This vents through the tree behind it.”
Henderson made a lot of money in several companies, including Avon cosmetics, the Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. and the now-defunct Monterey Peninsula Television. In 1964, he married his second wife, Mary, and formed Underground World Homes.
At the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and 1965, he and his new company sponsored the exhibit “Why Live Underground.” The company was inspired in part by Henderson’s belief that the Cold War would not end as it did — with a David Hasselhoff concert and Mikhail Gorbachev tearing down that wall — but with the last remnants of humanity hunkered down in underground bunkers.
Henderson and his wife planned to hunker down in style. The home includes lavish wallpaper, a 360-degree mural, a putting green, lighted display cases and a large kitchen with built-in sound and a toaster built into the wall. The house even includes an underground yard that surrounds it on all four sides.
The home on Spencer Street is the second underground house Henderson had constructed for himself by Texas building contractors Kenneth and Jay Swayze. The first home was near Boulder, Colo.
Rather than building a shelter to duck into when the air raid sirens blew, the Hendersons lived underground full time. There is plenty of storage space and shelving so the couple could hole up for a year or more if they had to.
“Originally, there was a tunnel that connected to the building next door, where he worked,” King said. “When he died and the property went to separate ownership, the tunnel was filled in.”
Jerry Henderson died in 1983 and Mary in 1989. The house was passed on to a distant relative, Tex Edmundson, who left his mark in the garden in the form of the name “Tex” spelled in 3-foot letters.
The house is now bank-owned. In 2001, it was on the market for $8 million.
“One practical buyer would be a tour company or a special events venue,” said Jack Levine, who operates veryvintagevegas.com, a website specializing in Mid-century modern architecture and real estate. “I wish I knew someone with the money to buy that and set it up as a tourist destination.”
Levine said there were complaints by neighbors when it was used for special events in the past, but the housing market and neighborhood have changed, so that may no longer be an issue.
“There are a lot of office buildings near it,” Levine said. “It’s priced at only about $100 a square foot. It could sell soon.”
King has shown the property to several serious buyers in the last few months, but so far, no one has made an offer. He feels confident that he will find a buyer, but that hasn’t stopped him from doing some creative marketing.
“I posted about it on the ‘Doomsday Preppers’ website the other day,” King said, referring to the National Geographic cable TV show that focuses on Americans preparing for the end of the world. “Maybe that will get some people talking about it.”
Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at email@example.com or 702-380-4532.