Curious Nashville: What’s Inside The Governor's Old Fallout Shelter In The Woods? | Nashville Public Radio

Curious Nashville: What’s Inside The Governor's Old Fallout Shelter In The Woods?

Aug 19, 2019

Out in the ridges and thick woods of West Nashville rests an epic remnant of Cold War history. But it is largely unknown.

It’s massive. Mostly underground. Once considered of the utmost importance to the state, but eventually ravaged by mold and vandals. It’s the defunct fallout shelter where Tennessee’s governors would have gone in the case of nuclear attack.

The facility has rarely appeared in news stories. But it does get a mention on Wikipedia. And that was enough to spur a question to Curious Nashville:

Wikipedia says Pasquo was the site of the state of Tennessee's abandoned Cold War Communications Center. Exactly where? And why was it located there?

Longtime Nashville nurse Marie Bell asked. She came across the brief mention after wondering about the unincorporated area of Davidson County called Pasquo, which she commutes past each day from Fairview.

The area is probably best known for biscuits — at the Loveless Cafe. But Bell found the Cold War mention most interesting.

“And I just thought: What in the world would they want to do with Pasquo, Tennessee?” Bell said. “I never thought that really anybody would know anything about it. I figured it was just one of those secret things that would sorta be hidden.”

But Bell took a moment to ask. She’d grown up in the secretive “Atomic City” of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and says she’s come to understand how frightening the Cold War really was.  

What follows below this audio is an abbreviated written story that answers the question. For the full exploration, please play this sound-rich episode of the Curious Nashville podcast:

More: Read the transcript for this episode (PDF)

‘I Just Felt Goosebumps For The Most Part’

As chance would have it, Curious Nashville began inquiring about Bell’s question at an ideal time. The current owner of the defunct bomb shelter had started providing tours — to prospective buyers.

More than a decade earlier, local businessman Ray McCall had scooped it up on a bit of a whim.

“The realtor suggested this place. I didn’t know the bomb shelter was actually a part of it,” McCall said. “I just happened to live a couple miles down the road. … So, I lived here for 20 years not knowing the purpose of the building.”

McCall is part of a famously entrepreneurial family with multiple businesses that date back decades. He’s involved in carpet and furniture stores.

For him, the underground facility has functioned as extra storage. But like the government agency that first built the place, he has imagined that it could be more.

A museum. A brewery. Maybe an underground swimming pool, in what is a perpetually cool lair.

While those plans haven’t materialized, one has: McCall converted one portion of the building into an apartment, and some of his employees have lived there for several years.

Former WPLN news intern Jay Shah met the tenants and toured the facility for this story.

“I felt that I should have told someone where I was going when I went there. It felt like one of those abandoned buildings you explore when you’re in college,” Shah said. “And as I was getting closer and closer that I was, ‘Oh wait we’re going underground? Cool. You’re telling me there’s 23 inches of concrete all around me? Great. I don’t have any cell reception here anymore? Great.”

The facility on Griffith Road is largely shrouded by trees, and it’s only partially visible at the surface. The most obvious thing that draws attention to it is a 200-foot metal communications tower that rises from the hill above.

The bunker itself has a plain concrete façade, which looks like a retaining wall against the side of a hill. No windows. The most defining characteristic is a long paved driveway that rises up a slope to a landing on top of the bunker — there’s a red brick garage that loaded tractor-trailers could have driven inside to deliver supplies.

The interior of the bunker is largely in disrepair. It's also used for storage, including for holiday decorations salvaged from the former Bellevue Center shopping mall.
Credit Jay Shah / WPLN

Inside, Shah saw the remnants of a facility designed to keep 60 people alive for 60 days. But the showers, bunk rooms and communications “pit” — like what you’d envision in a war film, or a commdand center — have largely been damaged by copper thieves and graffiti vandals, along with the creep of rust and mold.

To add a touch of the surreal, much of what McCall keeps inside are Christmas and Mardi Gras decorations that he salvaged from the old Bellevue Center shopping mall before its demolition.

Shah says there are Nutcracker figures tucked into corners.

“Every time [McCall] would open the door, I would just tense up a little bit, like, ‘Oh what are we gonna find now?’” Shah said. “You know, once you see a Nutcracker man in a closet … I felt weird about turning my back to it.”

And the renovated apartment? It’s on an above-ground level of the building, and “quite cozy,” Shah said.

“It was such a different style of living — a former bomb shelter turned into a warehouse turned into a quasi-apartment.”

Shah’s surprise — that’s been the standard reaction to the facility for decades.

Working In The Woods

“Shock,” says Cecil Whaley, who used to work in the bunker. “[Visitors] had no idea the state had a facility like that.”

Whaley is assistant director of preparedness for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. He’s been with the state since 1974, and worked for a few years at the Pasquo facility in the early 1990s.

The interior evoked a command center you might envision for NASA or a war film, complete with a 35-foot table for high-pressure deliberations.

“Looked like Dr. Strangelove’s table,” Whaley said. “Except it had a huge, round, state seal in the middle of it that I’ve never seen the equal of. It was metal and probably weighed 200 pounds.”

Where that seal ended up? TEMA officials couldn’t say.

While working in the bunker, lunch breaks were a highlight fo Whaley.

“I would liken it to working out in the Great Smoky Mountains,” he said of the scenic isolation. “We would have deer come by. We would feed deer out of our hands. We had raccoons. Every conceivable wild animal you could think of shared the space with us.”

Cecil Whaley, with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, worked in the state's underground facility in Pasquo in the 1990s.
Credit Tony Gonzalez / WPLN

That secluded location is a major reason the state chose it for the facility in 1952. Those who worked there had special security clearance, and invites to the facility were rare — typically only for training first responders.

A second reason was just as important: The hill above the bunker was the highest point in Davidson County to the west of downtown.

“It turned out to be the perfect communications site.”

That was key, because Tennessee was ready to join the president’s nationwide warning system to inform the public in the case of attack.

Whaley said the building itself could withstand a 20-kiloton nuclear attack within a half-mile, and sustain the state’s top officials underground for two months.

Yet the center’s demise was attributable more to a threat from inside.

“The mold situation. Oh my gosh. It was just horrible,” Whaley said. “You could come back into the building and it’d be 2 inches of green mold on the on the walls.”

Eventually, the maintenance was too costly. The state sold it cheap in 2004.

“I was in love with it,” Whaley said. “It was a great place to work.”

In recent years, little has changed at the site.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment came in February 2015. During an intense ice storm, a city snowplow overturned on the steep embankment next to the bunker, spilling stones onto the property.

In 2018, the North Carolina band American Aquarium got McCall’s permission to film a music video in the facility. They came out with a post-apocalyptic scene that McCall still laughs about — in hindsight, unsure he should have approved.

Otherwise, McCall has showed the facility a few times, but has not yet found a buyer.

“God will bring me a buyer when he wants me to have one,” McCall said. “I look at it like a bottle of wine. The older it gets, the more valuable it gets.”

State of Tennessee seals still adorn the rusting doors of the former fallout shelter in the unincorporated Pasquo area in West Nashville.
Credit Jay Shah / WPLN

Episode credits

Curious Nashville is a project of Nashville Public Radio. Tony Gonzalez is the executive producer. The stories are edited by Emily Siner and Anita Bugg. Audio mastering by Carl Pedersen. Website by Mack Linebaugh.

The theme music is by Podington Bear.

The episode includes archival audio from the Prelinger Archives online and a music excerpt from American Aquarium.