In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand envisioned a world where the wealthy and talented depart America one by one, absconding to a hidden Utopia, leaving the mediocre behind to perish in our mediocre world. I read it in high school and haven’t given it much thought in the intervening years, but Rand’s book keeps popping into my mind lately as I browse, of all things, real estate listings in the town where I live.
That’s because I live in Greenwich, Connecticut. Located just north of the New York State border, home to a population of about 61,000 people, Greenwich is a haven for hedge funders like Ray Dalio, Paul Tudor Jones, Clifford Asness, and Steve Cohen, along with an assortment of well-compensated CEOs, celebrities, tech investors, and assorted other varietals of one-percenters. It’s also a town where a fair number of middle-income people live, and that’s where I come in.
In 2013, when I decided to move here from Manhattan, I set the search parameters on real estate sites according to what I could afford, and my search returned exactly one result. I thought there must be some mistake, but it was true: at that moment in time, there existed but a single solitary home on the Greenwich real estate market in my price range.
Zoned for a good school, walkable to the Metro North train station, my sole search result was a slate-blue clapboard cottage on a steep, awkward lot accessed by narrow concrete stairs, with a backyard that crossed the state line into Port Chester, NY. As the weeks passed, a few more properties popped up in my search, but the slate-blue cottage had a certain charm, so I bought it. But I kept looking.
Homes like mine—a two-bedroom for under a half million—are relatively rare here; my search yielded only a handful that first year. Greenwich being a market without much movement, I soon got bored of seeing the same four or five dismal listings over and over and started making random changes to my search parameters. Tinkering with the price range filter one day, I accidentally turned it off altogether.
Scrapping the price filter was like entering another world: a world where party barns, guest cottages, and four-car garages are a thing.
Scrapping the price filter was like entering another world: a world where party barns, guest cottages, and four-car garages are a thing; where some bedrooms have French doors that open onto terraces, some onto balconies, and others onto mere “Juliets” (apparently a real estate term for tiny, decorative balconies). It was a world that messed with my sense of proportion: a four-bedroom house with seven bathrooms was commonplace; I read the term “walk-in fireplace” with only mild surprise. Prices just under $10 million soon ceased to shock me—or even, really, to register at all.
Based on my informal data-gathering during the four years I’ve lived here, the upper range for real estate listings in Greenwich hovers somewhere between $45 and $65 million; mansions and estates in the $10-to-$15-million range are common. At first, these homes—with their pristine white kitchens, their double-height entryways filled with soaring spiral staircases, their outdoor fireplaces big enough to drive your Maserati through—paralyzed the analytical part of my brain through the sheer force of their luxuriousness, and their sparkling fairytale magic.
But when the fairy dust wore off, I began to notice a theme. A disturbing theme. And this is where Ayn Rand comes in.
Many of these high-end properties seem to be designed with the end of the world in mind. They feature what I’ve come to think of as doomsday perks: concealed panic rooms; underground safe rooms; whole-house generators; alternative energy sources that let you sell energy back to the grid—until you need to get off the grid entirely; state-of-the-art security systems; whole-estate border walls with gated entry and guard booths; bulletproof glass. And after a few months of browsing, some relatively ordinary features—producing orchards and gardens; whole-house water and air filtration systems—began to appear to me in a different light: how useful would they be post-apocalypse?
Once you notice a trend, it begins to pop up everywhere. An architect I went on a blind date with said a recent client spent hundreds of thousands of dollars replacing all the glass in his home with the bulletproof variety. At a function at my daughter’s school, one parent told me: “You don’t want both your homes to be too near the coast, because what about sea level rise and superstorms?” And a friend who lives in Palo Alto said she’d noticed the doomsday-proof trend in listings there.
In short, it’s not just Greenwich. It’s become a selling point in upscale real estate markets around the country: features that would help you survive a doomsday scenario. The New Yorker ran an article about wealthy doomsday preppers; the New York Times Real Estate section and AM New York both ran pieces about upscale apartments with panic rooms. (The AM New York piece even mentions HEPA filtration—you know, in case of a virulent superbug or bioterrorist attack.)
Survivalists aren’t a new phenomenon. During the 1950s, as Americans collectively came to terms with the looming nuclear threat and Russia’s rise as a global power, a fad for bomb shelters arose. Ordinary Americans could have one installed in the back yard. The stock within was mundane: Canned goods, cots and sleeping bags, flashlights, first-aid kits.
But the new bunkers are not mere fallout shelters. Rather than squirreling away dried beans and rice, the anxious one-percenter can now provide for an upscale, curated existence to be sustained for a period of years. A custom panic room company called Rising S—which posts a constant stream of alarming headlines on its Facebook page (“Hawaii Tests Cold-War Era Sirens After North Korean Missile Tests”)—lists three luxury bunker floor plans on its website. The Aristocrat model includes a bowling alley; garage space for luxury cars is standard.
Things have changed a lot since the 1950s, but the nuclear threat is still with us, this time with North Korea doing the looming. The average citizen can reel off a litany of the new threats to American peace of mind that have joined it: terrorist attacks, mass shootings, Donald Trump’s presidency, climate change, bioterror and biological warfare, the refugee crisis.
Perhaps the threats are more various, more colorful, and so the survivalists have gotten more creative and elaborate in response. Or perhaps it’s simply that the rich are richer now: a recent article in The Atlantic called out Fairfield County, where Greenwich is located, as having the worst income inequality in the nation.
Whatever the reason, the basic little bomb-safe shed under a grassy hill in the backyard has given way to something more exotic. But the question remains: If the very rich are constantly poised for the imminent end of the world, what does that say about their level of investment in the continued quality of life for the rest of us?
The more I looked through these listings, the more I appreciated my shabby, non-doomsday-proof house, and recently I realized why. These houses don’t look meant to be lived in. Nor, for that matter, do the bunkers. What one pictures taking place there is a kind of upscale afterlife.
Oddly enough, the more I looked through these listings, the more I appreciated my shabby, non-doomsday-proof house, and recently I realized why. These houses don’t look meant to be lived in. Nor, for that matter, do the bunkers. What one pictures taking place there is a kind of upscale afterlife.
All architecture is, at its most essential, a defense against human frailty, and what makes us feel frailer than the realization that one day we will no longer exist? Doomsday, by its nature, is an unsettling thing to contemplate, and once you reach a certain income level you may have more time to contemplate it. This is why doomsday-ready estates and luxury bunkers remind me of nothing so much as the tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. The items that delighted the monarch in life can be brought along to the afterlife: servants, jewelry, livestock, food, furniture and pets.
Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, with its narrative of petulant capitalist entitlement and self-reliance, has become shorthand for a certain set of Republican ideals. But this imagined retreat from society crosses party lines—as wealth surely does, too—and feels more anxious, less aggressive. The Egyptians had a good run, but eventually they were conquered by the Romans; and even a really well-defended tomb can’t keep out the graverobbers forever. The bunkers have no more than a ritual significance: a superstitious waving of money as a powerful amulet against the ultimate annihilation that awaits us all.
Feature image courtesy of Houlihan Lawrence.