Could this be your Northern California dream home?
For Sale: On 23 mostly wooded acres, a nearly 4,000-square-foot, custom-built home with four bedrooms, six baths, an outdoor swimming pool … and three underground, 1950s-era U.S. anti-aircraft missile bunkers. Missiles not included.
Yes, that last detail is an attention-grabber. But it’s only a fraction of the story of a property listed for $1.5 million on Lewis Road in a rural area east of downtown Vacaville.
“It’s one of the more unique properties you’ll ever see, not only because of the military history but the thousands of trees on it, plus the incredible home,” said Lillian Fulton, the real estate agent handling the sale for Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento.
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The property is a study in dramatic contradictions.
Much of the acreage is covered in hundreds of trees – date palms, redwoods and eucalyptus to name just a few, plus fruit trees bearing figs, apples, pomegranates and other edibles.
All were planted or placed in the last 30 years by the owner, retired U.S. Navy Medical Corps physician and captain Dave Haworth, who bid $101,000 to acquire the former military site in 1982.
“There was one tree on the property when I first saw it,” said the 69-year-old Haworth, who now estimates there are 5,000 trees dotting his property.
Aside from trees, it’s what’s imbedded in concrete that is most startling on this sprawling homesite. In a cleared, paved area, the long-sealed metal doors of three underground anti-aircraft missile storage/launch buildings are lined up in a row. The hydraulic systems that once allowed the massive surface doors to fold downward have been disabled, but the presence of Cold War-era history is palpable when you climb down into the damp, dark, rooms that once housed rocket-propelled warheads.
These underground buildings, the size of double-wide mobile homes, were once among the West Coast’s first line of defense against a foreign airborne attack, following the end of World War II. They were part of Project Nike, the U.S. Army’s network of anti-aircraft missile sites developed with Bell Laboratories in the 1950s. They were intended to defend against the rapid evolution of Soviet jet bombers, considered a new, fearsome weapon for delivering destruction from the sky.
Through the 1950s, more than 250 Project Nike sites were established nationwide. Due to its coastal geography, the Golden State was peppered with bases. According to Bee research, there were 16 bases in the Los Angeles area, about 12 in the Bay Area and four near Travis Air Force Base, including Haworth’s property.
Haworth, who knows the Project Nike history in detail, says the missile buildings on his property had one purpose: “protecting Travis Air Force Base.” He said the storage, maneuvering and firing of the Nike missiles were coordinated underground using ground-based radar and computers.
By the mid-1960s, the advanced capabilities of intercontinental ballistic missiles developed by the Soviet Union rendered the Nike missile sites obsolete, and a decommissioning process began. Federal agencies were offered first crack at the deactivated sites. Over the years, they were converted to National Guard facilities, military training sites, parks or historic sites, and offered to private developers. The Vacaville property was put up for sale in 1982.
At the time, Haworth was still in the U.S. Navy and out at sea. He could not be on hand when the bids were opened by the federal General Services Administration in San Francisco. He said he later learned that his winning bid of $101,000 was the first of 19 opened: “I guess everybody present just went ‘ohh’ because they knew that was a pretty high bid at the time.”
Haworth, who was single at the time, recalls that he had “no idea” what the undeveloped property’s future would become, but he started planting trees at a manic pace. He installed an elaborate drip irrigation system to circulate water throughout the property. Today, the abandoned underground missile buildings routinely fill up with groundwater, which Haworth pumps out to irrigate his acreage.
Haworth remains endlessly fascinated with the underground missile buildings and other former military buildings on his property. Last week, amid the semi-darkness in one of the underground bunkers, which housed several missiles, Haworth pointed to ghostly spaces where Project Nike electronics systems once operated.
Aside from the underground bunkers, there are a handful of former military structures scattered around the property. He points to a “ready room” building where visitors had to be cleared to enter the base (today it’s a guesthouse). There’s a generator building, now a workout/hobby shop for Haworth’s wife, Aurora, a native Filipino, U.S. Air Force veteran and physician. There’s also a former missile assembly site and another building where the all-important warheads were handled. Today, the latter are used as workshops or storage sites.
A small cluster of chain-link kennels also remain on the grounds, evidence of a time when attack dogs were trained on-site to protect military personnel and installations. Four animal enclosures still have signs bearing the names of the dogs, such as “Lucky.”
For the most part, the former military structures are in cleared-off areas of the property, which is fine with Haworth because, as he explained with a sheepish grin, “I like to collect things.”
That’s an understatement. Both inside and outside the buildings, Haworth has accumulated scores of old iMac computers, tons of long-ago computer hardware and monitors, bins of screws and bolts, microscopes, electronic devices, laboratory equipment and more. Most of it is carefully stacked and laid out, but it’s not included in the property sale.
All of the accumulated possessions ultimately will be moved, sold or scrapped, Haworth said. In recent weeks, he said that 50,000 pounds of material has already been removed.
Just when you think the site is partly a hoarder’s paradise, you come to a winding, palm tree-lined driveway that ends at the door of an elegant home that looks like something you’d see in a decidedly upscale neighborhood, not on an abandoned missile site.
“You go from the old military buildings to an area that looks like the garden of Eden. That was my first thought,” said Fulton, the Sacramento real estate agent.
Construction on the 3,800-square-foot home was completed in 1996 by a “Street of Dreams” builder, and the surrounding landscaping includes lush, colorful plantings and ornate meditation gardens. The home’s interior includes an enormous, restaurant-quality kitchen, two master bedrooms, coffered ceilings and a hidden panic room.
Walls were built 6 inches thick, as a security and sound-deadening measure. A custom-designed, outdoor swimming pool is visible from the kitchen.
“The contrasts are striking. Coming here is like visiting several different places at once,” Fulton said.
The property’s Cold War-era history was not readily recalled by Solano County officials.
In an e-mail, county spokesman Matthew Davis said he checked with the county’s real estate department. “At this time, they have no record of the county ever owning or performing any work on the property. Regarding the missile (sites), I cannot even begin to speculate on how or who managed their decommission/disposal.”
Attempts to obtain comment from U.S. Air Force and Army officials were not successful, but past news accounts of the decommissioning procedures quoted military officials as saying that all potentially dangerous or harmful materials were carefully removed from Nike missile sites.
Given the time and money he’s put into the property over three decades, it’s hard to envision Haworth ever leaving it. But, he said, “it’s time … There’s just the two of us now, with all the kids grown up.”
Haworth said he ultimately plans to buy a home in the Seattle area, where his brothers reside.
The Vacaville property has been listed for several months, and a few parties have expressed interest in it, said Fulton, who is hosting an open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. For details, go to: lily.golyon.com or call (916) 485-5459.
Who might pay $1.5 million for a former missile site? Fulton envisions a prospective buyer who is fascinated “with everything that is here, maybe someone who wants to get away from it all and putter around … or someone who wants a glimpse of history.”