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Cold War bunker built to protect president now holds explosion-prone, historic films

The Nuclear Bunker Preserving Movie History
The building nestled in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains may have been designed to protect the president and $4 billion dollars in gold in the event of a nuclear fallout during the Cold War, but now the bunker is safeguarding some really old films that could very well start an explosion of their own. Great Big Story released a video earlier this week exploring the former bunker that’s now the Library of Congress Packard Campus, which stores 6.3 million pieces of cinematic history from Frankenstein to Adam Sandler movies.

As the Library of Congress’s film headquarters, the former bunker contains 124 vaults containing movies made on nitrate film. The oldest film base for moving pictures, nitrate film is based on the same chemical compounds as gun powder — which makes it highly flammable and dangerous to work with. The nitrate films are stored in their thick-walled vaults to protect the building — and other nearby nitrate films — from going up in flames. Walking among the nitrate vaults is akin to walking down a prison corridor.

George Willeman’s job is to work with the most volatile films in the storage facility, including the nitrate-based films, Willeman describes a nitrate fire as being similar to a controlled explosion or a rocket taking off. Willeman works with more than 140,000 films.

The center also has a room dedicated to preserving old films found in a variety of conditions around the country, including some discovered in barns, attics, and basements. Some of the films are more than 100 years old. Many of them have no monetary value, but Willeman says their historical value is pretty significant. The facility even includes a 206 seat theater for viewing the films.

The goal of the Packard Campus is to preserve the movies, TV, and sound that help to illustrate a large part of what life was like at different time periods throughout history, as well as how technology for recording changed over the years — and the former Cold War bunker has some historical significance within its walls as well.

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