JFK bunker, historic Coast Guard buildings in disrepair as port awaits offer
By ANTONIO FINS | The Palm Beach Post | Published: November 29, 2019
PALM BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — While President Trump is at Mar-a-Lago adding to Palm Beach County's presidential lore this week, one of his predecessor's landmarks literally gathers dust not faraway.
The Cold War fallout bunker built by the U.S. Navy in 1961 for President John F. Kennedy today remains closed to the public.
The Peanut Island shelter and nearby historical Coast Guard station and house, which were closed to public tours in October 2017, are showing the signs of abandonment.
Paint is chipping and weeds cover walkways at the former Coast Guard structures. Windows broken by vandals, including one who tossed a coconut threw a glass pane, are now boarded up with plywood.
A layer of dust covers the presidential seal and desk that remain in the Kennedy bunker. A door at the back of the facility shows signs of attempted break-ins.
The disrepair aside, the landmark is important for its presidential legacy but also as a Cold War historic site.
"I think it is historically important for many reasons," said Debi Murray, head of the Palm Beach County Historical Society. "It depicts a particular period time in our nation's history. Cuba is only, what, 90 miles south of Florida? And Khrushchev was sending missiles. Kennedy had a tendency to visit. The government decided he needed a bomb shelter. A lot of bomb shelters were built across the United States during the Cold War, and this was one more."
The Peanut Island bunker — dubbed by the Navy as a "detachment hotel" at the time — is one of two believed to have been built for JFK. The other one was on Nantucket, close to the Kennedy family's compound in Hyannis Port, Mass.
On Peanut Island, the bunker and old Coast Guard structures, station, boathouse and docks, are still in the hands of Port of Palm Beach officials. But, for more than two years, they have been looking to turn it over to a local municipality.
The port had leased the facilities to the Palm Beach Maritime Museum until the fall of 2017. But after the museum did not file documents to renew the lease earlier that year, the contract expired, the museum moved out and the facilities were locked up.
At the time, port officials said they were hopeful the county would step in.
"We were in discussions with Palm Beach County to lease it to them," said Kenneth Hern, the port's senior director for Operations, Security, Facilities and Railroad. "Then Riviera Beach indicated they were interested."
Indeed, the lone suitor is the city of Riviera Beach. In a statement on Nov. 27, the city said it is mulling a $5 million proposal to renovate the historical sites on the island, including the Coast Guard buildings. The city said it would cover the costs with "grant funding from local, state and federal agencies."
"We would invest in this rich part of American history and revitalize the area's legacy of ecotourism by renovating and restoring these historic treasures. We are also committed to environmental education, which would be a fundamental part of this initiative," the statement read.
Palm Beach County officials might also play a role. But for now, the county parks department is letting Riviera Beach take the lead.
"We have decided to stand down while the port negotiates with the city, and we can resume discussions if they decide not to move forward with the city," said Eric Call, director of the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department.
Meanwhile, the properties continue to decay, mothballing a rare homegrown link to an American presidency in a state that is not loaded up with presidential historical sites. George Washington never slept here, after all.
Other presidential landmarks are not around anymore. Before Mar-a-Lago, there was another so-called Winter White House — Richard Nixon's Key Biscayne home. But that house was torn down and rebuilt after the Nixons sold it.
The most prominent presidential historic location in Florida today is the Key West "Little White House" that President Harry S. Truman frequented. It has been refurbished and is now a museum.
JFK is said to have visited the Peanut Island bunker at least once for a dry-run to gauge how much time it would take to get him there in the event of a national emergency.
It was built with circular corrugated steel resembling a pipe. Then concrete was poured on top for added buffer. A layer of sand, which vegetation soon covered, topped the structure off.
During the Camelot years, the only entrance was via a tube — similar to the entry for a submarine. A door at the other end was added many years later.
In February 2012, The Palm Beach Post reported that Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, the president's younger brother, visited the location along with her son, Robert Kennedy Jr., and a number of grandchildren, according to the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, which offered tours.
When it might again be open to the public is unclear. Historians remain hopeful.
"I think that any history about Florida that can be saved and shared should be," said the historical society's Murray. "I'm hoping that whoever decides to take it on will be successful."
The bunker built for JFK near the old Coast Guard station on Peanut Island was recently restored to what a few people remember it to be. The presidential seal was only recently painted on the floor, however.
STEPHANIE WELSH, THE PALM BEACH POST/TNS