Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

April 23 2015 9:15 AM

The Abandoned Memorial to the Victims of Apollo I

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

What was once a hotbed for NASA rocket departures, Launch Complex 34, or LC-34, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, is now abandoned, and dedicated to preserving the memory of the three astronauts who perished in a shuttle fire at the site in 1967.

While a number of rockets were fired into outer space from LC-34, it was the tragedy of the Apollo I project (the first manned rocket in the series), that secured the location’s place in history.

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Despite a number of concerns over the amount of flammable material contained within the cockpit of the Apollo I landing module, among other design flaws, the conical spacecraft went through a rehearsal launch in January 1967. During the exercise, a small cabin fire ignited, which led to a deadly chain of events, leaving all three astronauts (Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee) in the cabin dead. The fire reacted with the pressurized oxygen and other gasses in the chamber, and within 16 seconds it had turned the air inside caustically lethal, quickly melting the astronauts’ suits and hoses and exposing them to the unbreathable atmosphere before they could open the door.

Following the tragedy, LC-34 stayed in use for another year, but was finally retired in 1968. Many of the large structures were dismantled, but the main rocket cradle, as well as a couple of ramped fire guards, were left in place. The large cement cradle sits in the middle of the launch pad and is now the official memorial to the brave astronauts who perished there, adorned with a commemorative plaque that tells their tale.

It might be earthbound, but the memorial remembers an important, if tragic, bump on our road to the stars.

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April 21 2015 9:45 AM

The Eiffel Tower’s Secret Apartment

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 the Eiffel Tower opened in 1889 to universal wonder and acclaim, designer Gustave Eiffel soaked up the praise. But as if that wasn’t enough, it was soon revealed that he had built himself a small apartment near the top of the world wonder, garnering him the envy of the Parisian elite in addition to his new fame.

Located on the third level of the tower, Eiffel’s private apartment was not large, but it was cozy. In contrast to the steely industrial girders of the rest of the tower, as RM1000 reports, author Henri Girard described the apartment in his 1891 book La Tour Eiffel de Trois Cent Métres as being “furnished in the simple style dear to scientists.” The walls were covered in warm wallpaper, and the furniture included soft chintzes, wooden cabinets, and even a grand piano, creating a comfortable atmosphere perched nearly 1,000 feet in the air. Adjacent to the small apartment were some laboratory areas equipped with the experimentation gear of the day.

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Once word got out about Eiffel’s little nest in the sky, all of Parisian high society turned simultaneously green with jealousy. Eiffel is said to have received a number of sky-high (pun intended) offers to rent out the space, even for one night. He declined them all, preferring to use the space for quiet reflection, and to entertain prestigious guests such as Thomas Edison himself, who gifted Eiffel one of his newfangled phonograph machines.

Today, after being off limits for years, the apartment is on display for visitors to come and peer into. The furnishings remain much the same and there are a couple of rather wan-looking mannequins of Eiffel and Edison. For the right type of architectural admirer, Eiffel’s secret apartment could inspire as much jealousy today as it did when it was built. 

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April 20 2015 10:00 AM

The World’s Kindest Prison

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

Just under 50 miles off the coast of Norway’s capital, Oslo, is tiny Bastøy Island. More accurately known as Bastøy Prison, the isle has a legacy of incarceration going back over a century. During that time, conditions have vacillated from brutality that triggered a revolt of young boys, to the humane criminal commune it is today.

Like San Francisco’s Alcatraz, Bastøy Island proved to be a prime natural spot for incarceration, with the natural sea barrier preventing most any escape. Thus, in 1900, the Bastøy boys’ home opened on the island and began taking in wayward young men to be reconditioned in the isolated environs. The conditions in the institution were stark, and the punishment for misbehavior was draconian, even for the day.

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The poor treatment came to a head in 1915, when a group of boys tried to escape. They were caught, but the arrest caused the rest of the youths to riot, burning down a barn in the process. It took the intervention of the Norwegian military, which deployed troops to the island to bring the boys in line. Unfortunately the riot changed little, and the boys’ home remained in operation until 1970.

Once the home was closed, the island was converted to a minimum-security prison that took a more humane approach to prison life. In Bastøy Prison, which still operates in the same conscientious manner today, the inmates are treated as part of a community. They are given jobs that they must perform, but they are also given downtime and the limited freedom to roam the island. They are roomed in well-appointed cabins and fed meals prepared by a professional chef. And these are not minor offenders, either. Among the more than 100 inmates living on Bastøy Island are those convicted of rape, murder, and drug smuggling.

Many have raised eyebrows at providing such an experience and calling it punishment, but only 16 percent of prisoners released from Bastøy Prison end up reoffending, compared with Europe’s general average of 70 percent. The prison also sets out to be ecologically aware by having the prisoners care for the natural habitat of the island. The prison governor summed up the philosophy nicely in a 2012 CNN report: “If we have created a holiday camp for criminals here, so what? We should reduce the risk of reoffending, because if we don’t, what’s the point of punishment, except for leaning toward the primitive side of humanity?”

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April 17 2015 2:45 PM

The Ballad of the Traveling Man: The Story of Texas’ Giant Folktale Robot

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

Depending on which corner of Dallas' Deep Ellum neighborhood you find yourself in, you'll catch a different chapter of the story of giant robot known as the Traveling Man, be it his birth, his stroll, or his rest. 

The three large installations in the neighborhood are the work of artist Brad Oldham, who created the figures to replace a previous bunch of murals that were once seen as the welcome mat of the neighborhood. The murals had to be taken down due to construction of a light rail system, and The Traveling Man statues were born. Each of the figures is built of polished metal sheets held together with rivets, all meant to evoke the railway history of the neighborhood of Deep Ellum.  

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Moving from one statue to another, the story of the Traveling Man proceeds from birth to life. The first statue, called Awakening, features just a portion of the Traveling Man's head and one of his clamps emerging from a pit of gravel as one of his songbird pals looks on. According to the story devised by the planners of the robot mascot, the Traveling Man began life as a regular locomotive buried beneath an elm tree, but when a splash of gin was spilled on the roots of the tree, the weird folktale transformer emerged from the ground

Continuing down Good Latimer Street, you next find the huge robot reclining against a piece of debris salvaged from one of Deep Ellum's old rail tunnels. This time the Traveling Man is represented in full, with a smile and a guitar as he sits, his legs leisurely crossed, in a piece known as Waiting on the Train.

Finally the Traveling Man lives up to his name in the last, and tallest, piece of the three. In Walking Tall, the Traveling Man is seen taking a jaunty stroll with his avian sidekicks on his arm and around his feet. 

The Traveling Man, in all of his forms, is located not far from the Deep Ellum light rail station, making him the ambassador for the area. He reminds visitors and locals alike not only of the neighborhood's history with trains, but also its more recent history as a cradle for the arts.

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April 16 2015 9:15 AM

“Persecuted for Wearing the Beard”: The Hirsute Life and Death of Joseph Palmer 

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

Despite the perception that the past was a hairy wonderland of bearded outdoorsmen, bushy facial hair was long considered the mark of lunatics, or worse, heretics. Today there is a Massachusetts gravestone that remembers one man’s heroic fight against the forces of anti-hirsute vigilantes and a whole town’s persecution of his epic mane.   

A veteran of the War of 1812, Joseph Palmer began wearing a beard in the 1820s. In his day Palmer’s beard was considered by most all in his small town to be a sign of poor hygeine and ungodliness. He was even criticized by his local preacher for communing with the devil, famously responding to the accusation, “ ... if I remember correctly, Jesus wore a beard not unlike mine.”

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In May of 1830, Palmer was attacked by four men outside a hotel in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Armed with razors and scissors, the men attempted to forcibly shave Palmer’s face, but the bewhiskered man stabbed two of his attackers with a pocketknife and was subsequently arrested for assault. He could have avoided jail by paying a fine and court fees, but Palmer refused, maintaining his innocence, and more importantly his right to a glorious beard. He was subsequently jailed for 15 months, including time in solitary confinement.

Upon leaving prison, Palmer joined the Fruitlands utopian community in nearby Harvard, Massachusetts, after being influenced by his friendship with fellow Fruitlander Louisa May Alcott. The character Moses White from Alcott’s Transcendental Wild Oats would later be based on Palmer.

Palmer died in 1865 and his tombstone displays a portrait of him with a long beard, and as a final act of rebellion, the inscription “Persecuted for Wearing the Beard.”

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April 15 2015 9:15 AM

The Invisible Tribute to the Paris Meridian 

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

A series of bronze medallions dots the streets of Paris in a pattern that would seem random to those who do not know their origin, but in fact they follow what was once one of the most important lines in the world. 

In the early 19th century, astronomer François Arago, working off of centuries of prior calculations, solidified a global meridian line that ran right through Paris. As it had already been for hundreds of years in France, Arago’s meridian was widely accepted by many astronomers and researchers as the “Prime” or “Zero” dividing line of the globe.

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Unfortunately, his was not the only meridian in competition to be The One. At the 1884 International Meridian Conference, which was put together specifically to determine which line of longitude would become the one true king of global spacial measurement, it was decided that the meridian line running through Greenwich would become the prime. This unfortunately left Arago and the centuries-old Paris meridian out in the cold, to be largely forgotten by time and progress.

However, some reminders of the Paris dividing line still remain, the most recent of which is an “invisible” monument to Arago’s work. Created by Dutch artist Jan Dibbets, the sprawling monument consists of 135 bronze medallions that have been set into the Paris streets along the path of the Paris meridian from the northern tip of the city to the southern tip. Each 5-inch coin bears Arago's name and an N and S to mark the direction they are pointing. The entire trail stretches over five miles. 

Despite centuries of development and entire lives of work devoted to establishing the Paris meridian, it often seems that it has been completely forgotten. Thanks to the Arago Medallions, countless travelers each day can remember a time when Paris was the center of the world.

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April 13 2015 10:00 AM

Dare to Press the Mystery Button: Seattle’s Enigmatic Soda Machine

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

Seattle’s Mystery Soda Machine dispenses cans of sugary pop for just 75 cents, and while the identity of the person/s stocking this aging landmark is unknown, the real question is what it will spit out when the Mystery button is pressed.

On the corner of John Street and 10th Avenue East, in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, lies the world’s most mysterious soda vending machine. The true history of the rusting machine, which looks like it was spat straight out of the ’70s, is shrouded in secrecy, but locals continue to plunk down their change and the machine never seems to run out of stock. Who first installed the outdoor machine, who stocks it, and who collects the money are all mysteries. 

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The modern antique offers a comparatively limited selection of drinks with yellowed plastic buttons offering Coke, Mountain Dew, Pepsi, and Barq’s, but the intriguing button marked Mystery generally produces none of these. According to a March 2014 report by Vice, spending three dollars in change on the mystery button yields a variety of drinks ranging from a raspberry Nestea to a Hawaiian Punch, none of which had their own button on the machine.

Given the air of the unknown that surrounds the vending relic, many locals have tried to divine the origins of the machine and its endless wellspring of name-brand soda, but so far few answers have been forthcoming, no matter how many times the Mystery button is pressed.

On a side note, should you want to tell the machine how much you like it, it does have its own Facebook page.

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April 10 2015 1:30 PM

Harvington Hall: A Great Place to Hide Your Priest

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

Harvington Hall is a strangely fortified English manor house whose name all but demands to be pronounced in a cartoonish British accent. It also holds a number of secret compartments built by the patron saint of illusionists to hide Catholic priests. 

Originally built in the 1580s by an undoubtedly British, and devoutly Catholic man named Humphrey Pakington, Harvington Hall quickly began to serve as a hideaway for Catholic priests, secretly worshipping during a time when practicing Catholicism was punishable by imprisonment or death. The manor house was uniquely suited to concealing the priests as it is surrounded on two sides by moats, and a lake bordering the third, making intense inspection of the property difficult.

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In the late 16th century, when the home became part of a loose network of houses dedicated to hiding Catholic priests, Jesuit builder Nicholas Owen was sent to the building to install a number of secret spots where they could be concealed, should the Queen's men come calling.

Owen built little cubbies hidden behind false attic walls that could be accessed through a fake chimney; a beam that could flip up on an access point revealing a chamber in the walls (which was only discovered 300 years later by some children who were playing in the house); and, most elaborately, a secret room hidden behind another hidden compartment under a false stair. Smaller compartments to hide the priests' tools were also built into the floors. 

Owen's skill at building hidden rooms was so great that no priest taking refuge in one of his creations was ever found out. Unfortunately, Owen himself was captured by the Crown while distracting soldiers from a hiding priest. He was taken to the Tower of London, where he was tortured to death, never uttering a word on any of his hidden charges. He was later canonized and is now considered the patron saint of illusionists and escapists.

Harvington House still stands, and is the best preserved example of priest-holes still extant in Britain. In addition to the historic holes, a number of Elizabethan wall-paintings were uncovered in the residence. The house is now owned and maintained by the Catholic church that it worked so hard to preserve.

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April 9 2015 9:15 AM

The Null Stern Hotel Provided a Deliberate Minimum of Comfort

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 Null Stern Hotel (read: No Star Hotel) was opened in a stark concrete nuclear bunker beneath an otherwise unremarkable Swiss apartment block. True to its name, the lodging provided nothing to write home about. On purpose.

The work of artist twin brothers Frank and Patrik Riklin, the spartan hotel was advertised as a space where “The Only Star Is You.” Despite the brightly clever tag line, the institutional conditions of the hotel belied what seemed like a much crueler joke. Visitors to the hotel would enter through a thick blast door behind the apartments above, where they would then be checked in at a tiny reception kiosk before being led to one of two large rooms where the beds were placed in rows with no dividers. The washrooms were also communal.

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All in all, the hotel held six single beds and four double beds, potentially sleeping a total of 14 unlucky souls. The stark concrete walls and floors of the purpose-built bunker remained unchanged, but the no-star hotel did offer amenities such as a single old television called “the virtual window,” hot water bottles for anyone who got a chill in the cold underground rooms, and, most hilariously, a fancy butler who delivered complimentary morning beverages for some reason.

For their part, the owners of the hotel seem sincere about the project, touting it as an experiment in minimalist reuse of space that would otherwise be left empty, also serving as a pointed alternative to increasingly opulent hotel culture. Yet the prankish air of the endeavor lingers.

The Null Stern operated for only a year, between 2009 and 2010, before the space was converted to a museum devoted to itself, as the owners pledged to branch out and open Null Stern Hotels all over the world. None has yet to appear, but the museum will still lead interested visitors through the old space. Alternatively, anyone craving the full experience could simply sleep in a construction site.

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April 7 2015 10:15 AM

Turkmenistan’s Giant Disco Ball Wedding Venue

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 white marble city of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, is packed to the borders with strange architecture and puzzling statues. One of the most surreal sights in the city is a government building known as the Wedding Palace, which is topped by a massive, geometrically caged disco ball.

Built in 2011, the Wedding Palace is a civil building, but it looks as though it was created by a wealthy eccentric. The lower floors of the white and gold structure are star-shaped and stacked in a staggered fashion so that their points don't overlap. Atop the initial floors is a huge globe that features gold maps of Turkmenistan. The oversized disco ball is enclosed by a frame of eight-sided Turkmen stars.    

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Inside, the building delivers essentially what its name would suggest, acting as both the office where newlyweds can legally register their union as well as a venue in which to hold the ceremony. There are 11 floors in the complex, all devoted to getting people hitched. The grandest hall in the structure, known as the Shamchyrag, is located smack in the middle of the giant globe.

Unique to the Wedding Palace, couples who wish to tie the knot in the opulent castle must have their photo taken in front of a portrait of the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Who better to feature in the pictures of your special day? 

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