“Bunker” in Coral Gables a point of historical and cultural convergence

4 months ago southfloridauncovered 0

Looking at it now, the bunker seems smaller, less imposing—far from the edifice I’d held in my mind’s eye since I last saw it 14 years ago.

Now knee-deep in vegetative overgrowth, amid the staccato chirring of grassland insects, my reunion with this strange Cold War relic feels almost anticlimactic.

By Jesse Scheckner
South Florida Uncovered
@SoFloUncovered • Facebook • Instagram

The lower level of the bunker, a partially subterranean Cold War era structure in R. Hardy Matheson Preserve, has been waterlogged for decades. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)
The bunker’s upper level is covered in graffiti and ringed by layers of broken glass and litter from thousands of gatherings across 40-plus years. Four rectangular manholes grant access to its waterlogged lower depths. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

The two-story cement building, no greater than 25 feet across, mostly underground and covered with graffiti, sits less than a mile inside the city limits of Coral Gables in R. Hardy Matheson Preserve.

On Yelp.com, it’s described as a “structure of undecided origin. Possibly a listening station or mobile missile launch station.”

I’m not sure why it’s been on mind recently, but I know I’m not alone. In late March, after roughly a week of phone calls and research, I posted a short query about it on Facebook.

I was inundated with anecdotal comments and private messages from friends who’d grown up and attended schools all over Miami. For many, the long-deserted military station didn’t just represent an insignificant part of their formative years; it was something akin to a rite of passage, a Terabithia for rebellious teens that still occupies space in their hearts.


And like all good local legends, there wasn’t a consensus regarding certain details, like its colloquial name.

“It was essentially a meeting ground for everyone in high school—mostly burning palm trees and Christmas trees, hanging out, drinking, playing paintball—crap like that,” said Tim Rohde, who in the late ’90s wrote a research paper about the structure for school. “You had all the down south kids—the Cutler Ridge kids—and then you had all the South Miami and Coral Gables kids, and there really was no central spot where everyone could get together.”

The bunker was a hub for South Florida youth since the mid-1970s. (Photo courtesy of Robert Lyon, pictured far left)
The bunker was a hub for South Florida youth since the mid-1970s. (Photo courtesy of Robert Lyon, pictured far left)

The bunker, as it’s referred to in Miami-Dade County documents, was built in the early 1960s as part of Operation Mongoose, a decade-long covert operation that flooded South Florida with military and intelligence personnel to overthrown Fidel Castro and stifle Cuba’s ballistic armament by the Soviet Union.

The structure, as well as others including one in Richmond Heights near Zoo Miami, was likely an observation center whose purpose was to alert more than a dozen stations housing surface-to-air HAWK missiles in the event of an airborne attack, according to retired Navy yeoman Anthony Atwood, executive director of the Miami Military Museum.

“It would have given Downtown Miami at least a few minutes’ heads up of what was coming at them,” he said.

This included several Nike Hercules missile sites, or batteries, spread across Miami-Dade and Monroe County. Only one, HM-69 Alpha Battery in Everglades National Park, remains open to the public for guided tours.

Aerial view of missile launch site at San Cristobal, Cuba. (Wiki Commons)
Aerial view of missile launch site at San Cristobal, Cuba. (Wiki Commons)

Another structure in Miramar is now an Army reserve center. The rest have either been razed or deteriorated under the weight of time.

Atwood, also a former Florida International University history professor, called it “demolition by neglect.”

“[The Army—specifically the Army Corps of Engineers] only retain what they’re told to, and if it’s deemed to be in excess of inventory, they get rid of it,” he said. “And since they can’t get rid of land, per se, they just abandon it or allow the works of man on that land to fall apart and return to the soil, so to speak.”

R. Hardy Matheson Preserve also contains remnants of a Tequesta Indian village and burial ground, the relics from which can often be found on top of the soil, dug up by crabs. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)
R. Hardy Matheson Preserve also contains remnants of a Tequesta Indian village and burial ground, the relics from which can often be found on top of the soil, dug up by crabs. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

The park’s 2012 prospectus includes speculation that the building may qualify for the National Register of Historic Places; however, no application to do so has been submitted, according to Florida Department of State officials.

“It certainly has the potential for being listed, if not in the national, then definitely the local [register],” said Coral Gables Historical Resources and Cultural Arts Director Dona Spain. “It’s fascinating, and I’d like to see more research done on it.”

In 1968, Miami-Dade County’s first archaeologist, Robert Carr, first encountered the shelter while conducting a dig in the surrounding area, which contains the remnants of a more than 2,000-year-old Tequesta Native American village and burial ground. By that time, he said, the bunker was already deserted and stripped of its electronic entrails.

Carr, now the executive director of the Archaeological and Historic Conservancy in Davie, said the structure would only be accepted into the register as part of the network of stations, shelters and silos erected in the region between 1960 and 1970.

“That would be one part of it,” he said. “I don’t think they’d focus on that one structure and find it necessarily eligible. They’d more likely approach it as a group of sites.”

A narrow set of steps lead down to the bunker's upper level. (Left photo credit: Jackie Biver-Kaplan, March 2011; Right photo credit: Jesse Scheckner, April 2018)
A narrow set of steps lead down to the bunker’s upper level. (Left photo credit: Jackie Biver-Kaplan, March 2011; Right photo credit: Jesse Scheckner, April 2018)

A year after Carr’s first visit, the preserve was purchased by a subsidiary of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, which planned to develop the land into a golf resort. But local environmental groups intervened, petitioning the state to include the parcel on its new conservation acquisition list, and in 1982, the state purchased the land.

Since then, aside from renaming the preserve after a former county commissioner with a famous last name, not much else has been done with it. And plans to develop the space into a fully functional park, complete with biking and walking trails, picnic areas and a waterside canoe landing, have been halted indefinitely for lack of funding, according to park officials.

Graffiti artists still frequent the site, meaning the bunker never looks precisely the same way each visit. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)
Graffiti artists still frequent the site, meaning the bunker never looks precisely the same way each visit. (Photo credit: Jesse Scheckner)

Between my last visit to the preserve and now, the clear paths leading from its 4-foot wide entrance to the bunker and a popular canopied clearing farther in have all but grown over.

It’s evident people just aren’t coming as often as they used to. Perhaps kids today don’t know about it. Maybe they do and don’t care.

But for Miamians whose teenage years featured social media consisting not of screens but of brick and mortar and dirt and rock, this 813-acre area is an immutable part of South Florida folklore.

And its history as part of America’s last line of defense on the brink of nuclear war, I believe, deserves to be told.