Nantucket's Kennedy Bunker Being Considered For National Historic Landmark

Jason Graziadei •

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President John F. Kennedy's doomsday bunker in Tom Nevers has certainly seen better days.

The Cold War relic was recently vandalized, and remains off-limits to the public. But the bunker at the former Navy Base property along Nantucket's southeastern shore is nonetheless being considered for a National Historic Landmark designation by the National Park Service (NPS).

The Kennedy presidential bunker in Tom Nevers and its sister bunker on Peanut Island in Florida are among 24 properties across the country with significant connections to the Cold War that have been identified by the NPS as potentially worthy of the prestigious designation.

The Tom Nevers bunker was built during the Cold War as a potential evacuation site for President John F. Kennedy in the event of a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. Nantucket's Navy Base was chosen as one of the two locations for evacuation bunkers given its proximity to Kennedy's summer compound in Hyannis. The Quonset Hut was buried under sand, lead, and concrete, with a design based on bunkers that had survived nuclear tests at detonation test sites in Nevada.

A recent study produced by the NPS, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, and the Cold War Advisory Committee - Protecting America: Cold War Defensive Sites - was released last Friday and documented the two dozen sites - including the Nantucket bunker.

“As a former Cold War Veteran, I understand this study meets an urgent need to identify Cold War properties that are rapidly disappearing," said NPS Director Chuck Sams. "The history of the Cold War is told in just a handful of our national parks and National Historic Landmarks, but there are many opportunities to learn about and discuss this complex and recent history. This study provides a framework for scholars, researchers, and educators to share a deeper history through the power of place."

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Kennedy never set foot in the bunker, and in the decades since the closure of the Tom Nevers Navy base, the bunker has been used for storage for the island's county fair, and briefly as a clubhouse for Nantucket Hunting Association, which installed a bar inside. Four years ago, there was some momentum to convert the Nantucket bunker property into a formal museum, but the concept never got off the ground. Most recently, the bunker was vandalized in December 2021 when a suspect used a motor vehicle to rip the heavy steel door off its frame. Since then, cement blocks have been piled in front of the entrance to prevent further attempts.

Properties generally must be 50 years old or "exceptionally important" to be considered eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places or designated as a National Historic Landmark. While the Kennedy bunker on Nantucket is under consideration along with the other sites, the NPS said "thorough studies of their relative significance and integrity will inform whether they appear to meet National Historic Landmark requirements."

Nantucket Preservation Trust executive director Mary Bergman said the NPS' interest in the Nantucket bunker was "very interesting," and described it as a reminder that the island's history goes well beyond the whaling era.

"This would draw much-needed attention to the importance of Nantucket’s military history," Bergman said. "Some of the former Naval Base has already suffered from erosion. Even if President Kennedy never visited the bunker, the fact that it was constructed for presidential use elevates this unassuming structure to the national stage. I’d be excited to see what history could be uncovered. This is a great reminder that Nantucket’s history does not begin and end with the whaling era but is constantly evolving."

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