Five-story fixer-upper with a view: Radar tower for sale

This former Cold War-era radar tower near Birch Bay – five stories of reinforced concrete – is listed for sale at $1.5 million. The Air Force’s 757th Radar Squadron was stationed at Blaine AFS from 1951 to 1979; most of the site is now Bay Horizon Park.
This former Cold War-era radar tower near Birch Bay – five stories of reinforced concrete – is listed for sale at $1.5 million. The Air Force’s 757th Radar Squadron was stationed at Blaine AFS from 1951 to 1979; most of the site is now Bay Horizon Park. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

In real estate, the term “unique” is a common description, even for a stick-frame rambler. But this property is as unique as they come.

For sale at $1.5 million: a five-story massive concrete building, on top of which once sat a 70-ton rotating radar.

This was during the Cold War, and the radar was part of a system on the lookout for incoming Soviet bombers. It was in a prime location to search the horizon, right by the Canadian border, with a magnificent view looking out at the San Juans.

Potential buyers ought to have no earthquake worries. Each floor has four solid concrete columns. Each column is 3 feet square. Outside walls are a foot thick and reinforced with rebar.

“It was explained to me that it was constructed to withstand a nuclear attack,” says Stefanie Fuller, who in 2003 was in charge of selling the surplus radar tower for the state.

$125,000 Price paid by Mike Paul for the surplus radar tower in 2003

$1.5 million Paul’s asking price for the five-story concrete building in 2016

The Air Force’s 757th Radar Squadron had been at Blaine AFS from 1951 to 1979. Its logo shows an eagle reaching for what appears to be a radar atop the globe. “Non Transibunt,” it says in Latin, for “cannot pass.”

That would refer to Russian planes, and they didn’t. No intruders ever came across U.S. borders in the Cold War.

Satellites watching from high above ended the role of these radars.

With surplus government property, other agencies get first dibs. If there is no interest, then everyone else gets a chance.

The base was nearly 7 acres. Whatcom County ended up with most of the land and it’s now Bay Horizon Park. It has retained many of the base’s buildings, such as barracks now used as a Lions camp for special-needs youths.

The state took possession of the radar tower and for a while used it to store archives. Mike Paul, a commercial real-estate broker, was about the only one interested in buying it in 2003. He offered $125,000. The state said fine.

It was different. That was the main thing. I like stuff that’s different.

Mike Paul, on why he bought the radar tower

Not your average Joe

An unusual building requires an unusual owner.

Paul, 69, is that.

“It was different,” he says about the radar tower. “That was the main thing. I like stuff that’s different.”

Even its street address was different. The tower is at the intersection of Mercury and Gemini streets, named by the Air Force.

Paul is the kind of guy who buys those little triangles of land surplussed by the state when freeway onramps are constructed. He always offered $127.52 for the tiny parcels, just because that was the number he chose.

He then would turn around and sell the odd lot to, oh, a guy building housing on adjacent property. Paul would tell him that with this additional strip of land he could qualify to build two more units. That’s worth $8,000, right?

Paul had a vision for the radar tower’s roof. “A large residence, all glass, like a greenhouse.” Anywhere you looked, it would have had spectacular, unimpeded views.

The building is 60 by 60 feet of reinforced concrete. You could build a house on each of the five floors, where ceilings range from 14 to 24 feet.

He set up a Spartan residence on the fifth floor, with a bed, TV and rigged-up wood heater. The rest of the floor is filled with his collectibles.

Paul also had visions for what could be done with each floor, which have ceilings ranging from 14 to 24 feet.

The building was 60 by 60 feet. You could put a house on each floor.

True, the tower had no windows. So cut through the foot-thick concrete walls.

But those visions never came to be. There was the money part of building a glass house on the roof, and there was the time involved.

Paul, divorced a long time ago, with two grown children, likes to travel. He counts 126 countries so far.

In recent years, it’s been Nicaragua that has attracted him. He says he simply likes the people and spends about six months each year there.

“I’m gonna be 70 in September,” says Paul. It was time to move on from the radar tower.

He decided on asking $1.5 million after finding that warehouses with comparable space sold for $2.5 million. Of course, those warehouses were all one story for better access. The radar tower does have a heavy-duty freight elevator that can haul 6,000 pounds.

Paul admits about the $1.5 million price, “It’s an ego thing.”

Now, as in 2003 when the state sold, the problem with pricing the tower is there is nothing around even remotely comparable.

After nearly a month on the market, there have been no serious inquiries.

Paul pictures another unusual person like himself buying the place.

“Home on the fifth floor. Band practice on the fourth floor. Woodworking on the third floor ... I’m looking for a guy for which this place fits like a glove.”

Anyone visiting the tower will already have been warned by Paul that “I’m a pack rat.”

He cannot control himself about buying a bargain.

Parked outside are numerous vehicles – from two motor homes to a 1954 Chevy to conversion vans. He also has 10 motorcycles.

Inside the tower, every floor is packed with the astounding array of stuff that Paul has bought. Carpets from Thailand, eight pairs of brand-new hiking boots “that I probably picked up for 99 cents,” decorative wineglasses, brand-new sports shirts.

Maybe 200,000 items, maybe 300,000 items.

If the tower were sold, says Paul, he would have a massive auction for all those items.

Getting together

Meanwhile, on Sept. 17 the veterans of the 757th Radar Squadron are planning their first-ever reunion at the old base.

One of the organizers is TJ Juckette, 59, of Lutz, Fla. He now fixes medical equipment, but at age 22 he was in the Air Force, assigned to Blaine in radar repair.

Blaine was considered a plum assignment, he says.

“The majority of radar sites were extremely isolated, and when I say isolated, I mean on top of some mountain in Alaska covered with snow. In Blaine, we were right by Vancouver, 90 miles from Seattle and right on Birch Bay.”

We were playing nuclear Russian roulette.

TJ Juckette, veteran of the 757th Radar Squadron stationed in Blaine

Off days were fun.

He says radar crew never have gotten much recognition.

“You don’t get recognized in the Air Force unless you’re a pilot,” says Juckette. “You don’t get recognized for being a ground-pounder.”

But this was the Cold War, the term derived because the U.S. and the Soviet Union didn’t fight each other directly. That might lead to a nuclear war. Instead the two sides went against each other by means such as propaganda and proxy wars involving other countries.

“We were playing nuclear Russian roulette,” Juckette says about the radar scanning the horizon 24/7.

The radar system used at Blaine and 11 other Air Force sites was called the FPS-24.

It was powerful. Juckette remembers the size of one of the transmitters. It was in a pressurized tank 10 feet high and 6 feet in diameter.

“Five or six men could stretch their hands out in a circle of this canister.”

The sail-shaped radar made five to six revolutions per minute. That meant every 12 or so seconds, if you were listening to the radio or watching TV, you’d hear a piercing sound or see a screen full of snow. Such was the price of freedom for the locals.

Juckette also remembers the biggest thrills for a radar repairman.

The antenna was 120 feet wide and there was a catwalk across it. A repairman at each end would be strapped, standing up, to the catwalk and it would begin twirling. Their job was to listen for creaks in the metal.

Because they were standing at the ends, “you were further away from the center of gravity, and it felt like you were going 100 miles an hour.”

The radar squadron vets posted on their Facebook page about the tower being for sale.

$1.5 million?

Man, what memories.

“If I had the money I’d buy it in a heartbeat,” says Juckette.