Reconstructing the Kelly Butte Bunker


Kelly Butte is a steep, wooded hill near Powell and I-205. There’s not much up there now, but there is enough old concrete and disturbed earth to make you think there is some history to the place. Curious after visiting this spring, I turned to Google and the answer surprised me: The site was Portland’s cold war era civil defense bunker. According to Atlas Obscura, the facility could shelter up to 250 local government employees, contained microfilm backups of 3 million city documents, and was designed to keep local government functioning after a Soviet nuclear strike.

The facility opened in 1956 and is featured in a 1957 documentary from CBS film ominously titled “The Day Called ‘X’”. However, in 1962 Portlanders, perhaps recognizing the insanity of protecting property records but not people, voted against continued funding for the program and the bunker was shuttered. That wasn’t the end of the Kelly Butte bunker though: From 1974 to 1994, it was the site of Portland’s 911 call center—until complaints of gloomy working conditions and stale air prompted a move. The site then lay abandoned, vandalized and inhabited by transients until it was sealed under a mount of earth in 2006.

Jeff Felker, 2016 winner of Willamette Week’s Best Web Historian has assembled material documenting the bunker’s construction, use and decay on a pair of blogs. At Fat Pencil, we often create 3d models from scant information: police photos, Google Street View, hand sketches and measurements, etc. So with the material compiled by Felker, I thought we could make a reasonably accurate model.

The floor plans are a good place to start. I removed the lens distortion in Photoshop, then imported the photos to SketchUp. Felker reports rough dimensions for the building – when I scaled the plans to that size, we get interior walls 1 foot thick, exterior walls 2 feet thick, and doorways about 3’ wide – probably about right. The upper floor and lower floor can be matched up by the location of the stairwells.

Once walls were in place, I modeled the semicircular concrete ceiling. Felker reports it to be 35 feet high, which looks like a good match for the photos, and makes sense with the floor plans.

Then all that’s left is to bury it. Looking at the topography of Kelly Butte, there’s a flat spot at the end of the access road– a pretty good match with the entrance we see in some of the photos. Behind that is a hillside devoid of trees, which probably covers what’s left of the bunker.

When the site was used as a 911 call center, local artist Henk Pander was contracted to paint a mural on the arched end wall of the main room. His surreal painting, which must have lent a strange mood to an already spooky place, is now sealed underground.

If you’d like to view our model (or contribute to it!), it’s available on SketchUp’s 3d Warehouse for free download.


Joel Newman is a Senior Designer at Fat Pencil Studio