Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Dec. 22 2014 11:48 AM

Futuro Houses: Otherworldly Homes For Earth-Bound Humans

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

The spaceship-style dwelling pictured above may appear to be a quirky anomaly, but it is actually one of a forgotten fleet.

In 1968, Finnish architect Matti Suuronen designed a prefabricated building later dubbed the Futuro House. Initially intended to be used as a holiday home for skiers, the Futuro had an elliptical silhouette, measured 26 feet wide by 13 feet high, and stood on metal legs for stability. A ring of 20 oval windows added to the extraterrestrial aesthetic. A flip-down staircase granted access to the interior, which contained a bedroom, small bathroom, kitchen, dining area, and a wall lined with a long, curved couch designed to convert into a (very cosy) bed for six. A circular fireplace in the center screamed "space-age ski chalet."

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The Futuro House was made from fiberglass-reinforced polyester plastic, a light, insulating material derived from oil. Homes made from this plastic could be transported easily and were quick to heat up—a major plus for skiers eager to doff their boots and get stuck into the fondue after a long day on the slopes.

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A Futuro floor plan, from a Delaware tourism brochure circa 1970.

Photo:Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis/Creative Commons

Futuros went into production in the late '60s. Marketing campaigns went beyond the ski chalet image and touted the Futuro as an adaptable housing solution for all climates and topography. Licensing deals allowed Futuros to be manufactured across the world, but consumer uptake was sluggish. 

Then came the oil crisis. In October 1973, an Arab oil embargo caused the price of oil to quadruple. Suddenly, Futuro Houses were no longer cheap to make. The dramatically increased costs, combined with a general lack of enthusiasm for the spaceship design, brought Futuro production to a halt.

Fewer than 100 of the homes were ever built. Today the surviving spaceships are, as Allison Meier writes on Atlas Obscura, scattered across the world—countries where they landed include the US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. 

Many of the remaining Futuros are quietly rusting away, but others have been lovingly restored and repurposed. As Meier discovered, Australia's University of Canberra has converted a Futuro into a study space, while a Tampa strip club uses its rooftop Futuro as a VIP room

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A Futuro House in Pensacola, Florida.

Photo: TimothyJ/Creative Commons

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A Futuro House in Milton, Delaware.

Photo: Nan Palmero/Creative Commons

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Futuro Houses near Germantown in Ohio.

Photo: Rob Lambert/Creative Commons

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A Futuro House at Raglan, on the North Island of New Zealand.

Photo: Anne-Lise Heinrichs/Creative Commons

Other extraterrestrial architecture around the world:

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Dec. 19 2014 11:50 AM

Abandoned Nicosia Airport Has Been Trapped in a DMZ for 40 Years

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

In August 1974, the UN established a buffer dividing the island of Cyprus into two states: the southern Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkey.* The demilitarized zone, established after the Greek military junta backed a coup against the Cypriot government and Turkey invaded Cyprus from the north, is still under UN administration.

When the buffer zone, colloquially known as the Green Line, was demarcated, some of the country’s infrastructure got caught in the middle. One such facility was Nicosia International Airport.

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Once the main airport of Cyprus, Nicosia ceased operations in July 1974, shortly after Turkey invaded and the tarmac became a battlefield. Damage to the planes and buildings, combined with ongoing political instability, prevented the aviation hub from re-opening.

Four decades of disuse have resulted in a derelict terminal with broken windows, dust-buried floors, and seats encrusted with layers of pigeon droppings. Tumbleweeds skitter across the tarmac and collide with the sun-bleached shell of a Hawker Siddeley Trident jet, left idle since it was grounded by violence.

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Inside the terminal of Nicosia's abandoned airport.

Photo: Yiannis Kourtoglou/AFP/Getty Images

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UN barrels on the airport tarmac.

Photo: PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

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Inside the terminal.

Photo: Yiannis Kourtoglou/AFP/Getty Images

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Bird droppings cover seats in the departure lounge inside the old Nicosia airport terminal building.

Photo: MONA BOSHNAQ/AFP/Getty Images

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The abandoned Hawker Siddeley Trident 2E 5B-DAB on the tarmac.

Photo: Dickelbers/Creative Commons

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The buffer zone dividing Greek-controlled Cyprus from Turkish-administered Northern Cyprus.

Photo: Athena Lao/Creative Commons

Other amazing aviation places:

Correction, Dec. 22, 2014: This post originally referred to the two states as "the Greek-controlled south and Turkish-controlled north." It has been updated to more accurately reflect the political division of Cyprus.

Dec. 18 2014 2:24 PM

The Petrifying Grottoes, Where Everyday Objects Turn to Stone

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

At these limestone caverns in central France, everyday objects turn to stone.

Items left for six months to a year under the mineral-rich springs of Les Grottes Pétrifiantes de Savonnières—the petrifying grottoes of Savonnières—emerge coated in a perfectly pure white layer of limestone.

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The owners of the adjacent Museum of Petrifaction have capitalized on this natural phenomenon by placing rubber molds in the caves and retrieving them two years later, when calcite deposits have collected in the molds to form intricate bas reliefs. These beautiful petrified objects are presented for public display and offered for sale at the grotto gift shop.

It's not just rubber molds that get calcified: gnomes, vegetables, Buddha statues, and pine cones are among the objects that have been placed in the caves. The longer they stay, the more amorphous they become. Some have been getting dripped on for a decade. In order to ensure even distribution of the limestone layers, the museum owners must turn each object regularly.

Other curious caves around the world: 

Dec. 17 2014 12:38 PM

The Georgia Guidestones: Mysterious Stone Slabs Inscribed With Odd Instrutions 

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

When in need of life guidance, some turn to a higher power. Others turn to Oprah. Still others look to four granite slabs in rural Nuberg, Georgia.

In 1979 a man using the name “R.C. Christian” approached Georgia’s Elberton Granite Finishing Co. with plans to build a monument. He stressed that money was no object and discretion was paramount. The design of the monument incorporated four granite slabs, each almost 20 feet tall, arranged in a cluster and topped with a smaller, horizontal slab. Each of the four vertical stones was to be inscribed with the same 10 precepts for humanity, carved in eight languages.

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These guidelines for living ranged from common-sense advice (“Balance personal rights with social duties”) to New Agey maxims (“Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite”) to downright impractical instructions, served up with a hint of genocide (“Maintain humanity under 500,000,000”). The placement of the stones was carefully configured to align with solar solstices and equinoxes.   

Armed with the detailed blueprints, the Elberton Granite Finishing Co. duly created this mysterious monument and installed it in a field off Highway 77. A granite tablet was placed a few feet from the monument to provide some context for the “Georgia Guidestones,” as they have come to be known. It reads, in part, “Let these be guidestones to an Age of Reason.”

The guidestones opened to the public in March 1980 and immediately became a magnet for conspiracy theorists, particularly those fond of using the phrase “blueprint for a New World Order.” Over the years, visitors to the guidestones have scrawled symbols and commentary on the monument, and, on rare occasions, even made alterations to the design.

In 2009, a 6-inch cube of granite was removed from the top of one of the guidestones. Four years later, police arrested William Jeremy Ellis, having caught him trying to replace that same cube in the middle of the night. He confessed he was the original thief, and explained he stole the chunk of granite for “personal esoteric and numerological reasons.” When apprehended, he was in the process of returning it because he “didn’t want that weight anymore.”

The notch from which the cube was filched remained empty until just this summer, when a new cube marked with letters and numbers appeared in the hole. Speculation over the addition ran rampant, as did numerological analysis of the 8, 16, 20, and 14 that had been carved into the cube’s faces. One online theory name-checked The Simpsons, Ebola, and 9/11 in its analysis of the cube's meaning.

An anticlimactic explanation came in November, when Michael Massanelli posted an hour-long YouTube video explaining, among various other conspiracy-fueled ramblings, that he had created and installed the new cube to commemorate his wedding date: 8/16/2014.

There is still no definitive explanation for what the Georgia Guidestones mean, who they are meant to instruct, and when the Age of Reason is due to be ushered in. 

More stones with fascinating backstories:

Dec. 16 2014 12:10 PM

The Magnificent Ruined Mansion of Talisay

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Its proper name is the Don Mariano Ledesma Lacson Mansion, but locals just call it “the ruins.” Built on a sugar plantation in the Negros Occidental province of the Philippines circa 1920, this 10-room Italianate manor was the grandest home for miles around. Its origin story has a lot of variants—each more dramatic than the next—but the prevailing tale is that Don Lacson, a Spanish-Filipino sugar baron, built the home as a tribute to his Portuguese wife, Maria Braga, who died in an accident while pregnant with their 11th child.

Don Lacson and his progeny occupied the home for 20 years. Then came the encroachment of World War II. When Japan invaded the Philippines in December 1941, the mansion became a target. To prevent the Japanese from taking over the mansion and using it as a military command center, American and Filipino armed forces took a dramatic step: they torched the place. 

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The magnificent mansion burned for days. When the fire died, all that was left of Don Lacson’s stately home was its majestic concrete skeleton, streaked with soot and ash.

After sitting idle for decades, the ruins and gardens at Talisay have been restored, and are now open to the public. The mansion is still without windows, a roof, interior walls, and much of the floor that once divided the first and second stories.  

Other ruined wonders around the world:

Dec. 12 2014 11:23 AM

The Dark Hedges: A Delightfully Dramatic Tree Tunnel in Northern Ireland

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

On a small section of Bregagh Road, in the Northern Ireland parish of Ballymoney, rows of beech trees stretch their limbs from either side to form a canopy of intertwining boughs. This dramatic stretch of road, known as the Dark Hedges, was originally intended to impress visitors to Gracehill House, the mansion built at the end of the road circa 1775. The Stuart family, owners of Gracehill, planted the beeches so that those approaching their home by horse-drawn carriage would gaze up and think, "Wow. Stately. This is truly a manse to remember."

If your thoughts when looking at these photos are more along the lines of, “That looks exactly like the King’s Road along which Arya Stark traveled in the guise of a boy with Yoren, Gendry, and Hot Pie in order to join the Night’s Watch in season two, episode one of Game of Thrones,” you’re a sharp one. That scene was shot on this very road.

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Dec. 11 2014 1:26 PM

The Tree-Climbing Goats of Morocco

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

In the southwest of Morocco, goats climb trees. And it’s not a case of the odd unruly goat scrambling up a trunk for the sake of mischief. You could easily find a dozen goats standing on the branches of a single tree.

The trees in question are Argania spinosa, or argan, a species endemic to Morocco and a small region of western Algeria. Goats are drawn to the argan’s fruit, which ripens in June each year. They have no qualms about scampering to the top of the 30-foot-tall trees in search of a feast, and will stand on a skinny branch post-nosh, looking blissed out and whinnying softly. 

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The small, firm argan fruit has a thick peel and pulp surrounding an almond-shaped nut. When a goat eat the fruit, this nut passes through its digestive system whole and eventually gets excreted. Traditionally, members of the indigenous Berber population would gather nuts from the goat droppings, crack them open with stones, then roast and grind the seeds inside. The argan oil extracted from this process is high in essential fatty acids and vitamin E, and has long been used locally as a skin treatment and cooking ingredient. 

In the last decade or so, argan oil has become a cult beauty product in the U.S. A 1.7-ounce bottle of Josie Maran 100 percent Argan Oil, for example, retails for $48. The production process, however, does not involve goat excrement—these days, argan oil intended for export is produced by women’s cooperatives in southwest Morocco, who gather the fruit straight from the trees.

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Photo: FADEL SENNA/AFP/GettyImages

Other arboreal astonishments around the world:

Dec. 10 2014 12:40 PM

Carousels of Criminals: The Revolving Jails of the Midwest

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

In the spring of 1881, architect William H. Brown and iron foundry owner Benjamin F. Haugh, both of Indianapolis, filed a patent for a most ingenious innovation: a jail with revolving cells.

“The object of our invention,” they wrote in their application, “is to produce a jail or prison in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard … This arrangement makes the whole prison as convenient to the keeper as though it consisted of but a single cell, and as safe as if it contained but a single prisoner.”

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The submitted design consisted of a two-tier cylindrical cell block with a central column that served as both support and plumbing for the individual toilets in the cells. Each tier had eight wedge-shaped cells, but the surrounding structure had only one door. When a guard rotated a hand crank, the cell block spun, sending the prisoners on a disorienting carousel ride past the lone access point.

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An image of a rotary jail from the 1881 patent.

Image: PatentUS244358 A/Public domain

Brown and Haugh's invention quickly became a reality. In 1882, the first spinning jail, a two-tiered, 16-cell institution known as Montgomery County Rotary Jail, opened in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Other states in the midwest soon got in on the idea—the three-tiered, rotating Pottawattamie County Jail, nicknamed the "Squirrel Cage Jail," opened in Iowa in 1885, followed by a single-story spinning jail in Gallatin, Missouri, in 1889. Records vary, but between six and 18 rotary jails were built in the United States, mostly in the midwest.

Unfortunately, Brown and Haugh's novel, almost whimsical design had its flaws. Chief among them was the fact that a prisoner standing at the front of a cell with his hands resting on the bars had a decent chance of getting an arm crushed when the rotary mechanism was engaged. Natural light was scant, ventilation was poor, and mechanical problems could interfere with the operation of a jail. In the case of a fire, all the prisoners whose cells weren't aligned with the access door would likely be doomed. 

In light of these problems, many rotary jails had their turntables immobilized during the 1930s. After operating in a modified state for decades, Montgomery County Jail closed for good in 1973. Pottawattamie County Jail sent its prisoners away in 1969, while the Gallatin jail shut up shop in 1975. All three now operate as museums. Montgomery County is the only one that still spins.

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Two of the drawings included in the 1881 patent.

Image: Patent US244358 A/Public domain

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The circular room in the cellar, showing the steel support structure for the rotating cells at Montgomery County Rotary Jail.

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HAER IND,54-CRAVI,16/Public domain

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The cog ring and pinion mechanism used to rotate cell blocks at Montgomery County Rotary Jail.

Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HAER IND,54-CRAVI,19/Public domain

Tales of other odd jails:

Dec. 9 2014 8:55 AM

Head to the World’s Steepest Street for the Annual Racing of the Candy

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Suburban Baldwin Street, in Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island, is only 1,150 feet long, but walking to the end of it will leave you panting for breath and in need of a drink. At a gradient of 1:2.86 (a 19-degree slope), the residential street is the steepest in the world.

Baldwin Street’s claim to fame came about quite by accident. When British surveyor Charles Kettle drew up road plans for Dunedin during the mid-19th century, he modeled the design on the elegant grids of Edinburgh’s New Town. Dunedin’s erratic topography, however, was less than ideal for the street system that had worked so well in Scotland. Nonetheless, city planners forged ahead and ended up with Baldwin Street, whose gradient has earned it a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

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Every July the street hosts a Jaffa race, in which 25,000 individually numbered Jaffas (spherical chocolate-orange candies with red shells, popular in Australia and New Zealand) are released at the top of the hill. Spectators can bet on a Jaffa for a dollar, with proceeds from the sales going to charity.

Other streets of intrigue:

Dec. 8 2014 12:53 PM

Flamenco Beach is Paradise With Battle Tanks

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

With its soft white sand, turquoise-tinted water, and proximate empanadas, Flamenco Beach on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra is regarded as one of the best beaches in the world. But there is one incongruous sight in this paradise: a pair of rusting battle tanks, left on the sand as a souvenir from the U.S. Navy.

In 1901, following Spain's ceding of Puerto Rico to the U.S., President Theodore Roosevelt allocated all of Culebra's public land to the Navy. Soon, troops were conducting test landings and ground maneuvers on the island. In 1936, the Navy began using Culebra for bombing practice. Bombardment reached its peak during 1969, when pilots trained for the war in Vietnam. Missiles hit the island on 228 days of that year.

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By 1970, the 700 residents of Culebra were well and truly fed up with the Navy using their home as a bombing ground. Unexploded ordnance littered the island and the ground bore craters and pock marks from the shelling. A naval attempt to evict the entire population of Culebra was the last straw. In the summer of 1970, residents began a series of non-violent protests, aiming to rid the island of naval occupation.

After seven months of marches, sit-ins, and human blockades of naval sites, the Culebra activists succeeded. In January 1971, the Navy agreed to stop using the island as a test location by 1975. A New York Times article on the deal called Culebra "the Caribbean mouse that roared at the United States Navy."

Though it's been almost 40 years since the Navy left, the force's long-term presence is still evident. The tanks on the beach, painted over and over by locals, are the most obvious sign, but sometimes unexpected reminders occur. In March 2013, a young girl visiting Culebra with her family found unexploded ordnance on Flamenco Beach. Oblivious to its danger, the girl carried it around and played with it, causing the fragile object to break open and burn her.

Other intriguing beaches around the world:

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