Archive for May 21st, 2010

First Visit to SAGE Building at Adair AFS

It’s taken weeks to arrange, but the stars finally aligned and I was able to get inside the former SAGE building at the long decommissioned Adair AFS outside of Corvallis. I’ve been wanting to poke around the place since it will be one of the Cold War sites profiled in my documentary. Edward Elkins of McMinnville, who served at the site in the ’60s, acted as the official tour guide while the building owner Justus Seely handled the logistics. For those of you unfamiliar with SAGE, it stands for Semi Automatic Ground Environment. Basically, SAGE was an integrated North American air defense system that operated from the late 1950s up to the early 1980s. At the heart of SAGE was the AN/FSQ-7 computer. Each SAGE center (like Adair) had two AN/FSQ-7s — one that was “active” and one on standby allowing for near 100% reliability. There were probably around 22 SAGE sites across the US and Canada at the height of the Cold War, but once ICBMs became the preferred method for delivering nukes, many of the SAGE sites were closed. Adair is unique because it operated up to the ’70s and managed the air defense responsibilities for a bit chunk of the West Coast toward the end of it’s service.

So what’s the building like today? Well first, I should confess to a major screw-up: I forgot my Frezzi Mini 100 watt movie light. For some reason, I packed the NRG battery belt and back-up bulbs, but not the actual movie light. This was a huge deal, since much of the building is sans electricity. Interesting story there: when Justus bought the building years ago from the local carpenter’s union, they took advantage of closing delays to strip as much wiring from the building as they could. They didn’t mess with the first floor, since that would be more noticeable to the new buyer, but the second and third floors were thoroughly ransacked, resulting in spotting power. So having the movie light would have actually facilitated decent filming. Instead, most of the video I shot was just dark shadows and flashlight beams playing across walls, which is kind of cool from an artistic angle, but it really sucks from a documentary standpoint.

But back to the actual condition of the building. There is still a significant “footprint” of the Cold War here. The basement of the site was basically a Civil Defense bunker. There are still moldy boxes of CD supplies and other artifacts strew about the place. And since there is no power down there, it feels like a vampire movie set. The first floor of the building, where the two massive computers would have been located, is mostly taken up by Justus’ flooring company. There are a couple of other tenants using this space for storage as well. Up on the second floor, where the operations room is located, there are more rooms that are leased out for storage. There is also someone living there apparently who serves as a caretaker/watchman. We heard his dog bark somewhere in the building, but couldn’t figure out where. That made things even more surreal. Oh, the other weird thing is the building use to be used for Airsoft battles, which is similar to paintball, just without the splatter. As a result, there are thousands, maybe millions, of these little white pellets everywhere. I thought some kind of massive bean bag disaster had taken place. The third floor is where most of the computer consoles would have existed. Of course these are long gone (maybe re-purposed for the set of Lost?), but you can still see where they were mounted to the floor. The lighting in these rooms was all blue and Justus did manage to turn some power on and some of the blue lights still work, which is super cool.

Overall, the SAGE building at Adair still tells a compelling Cold War story. It helps to have someone like Ed there to explain everything though. There have been some pretty significant alterations to the building, like the addition of a couple of windows and the partition of the first floor, but it’s still a fascinating (and often mysterious) site. Hopefully, I’ll be able to return someday with a lighting rig to get better interior footage. If that doesn’t work, I would at least like to go back this summer and get some better exterior shots since the rain yesterday cut short some of the outside filming.

If you want to see some of my limited footage of the site, please visit my Vimeo account here.

9 comments May 21st, 2010


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