When the United Nations officially came into existence on October 24, 1945, it was homeless. With Europe still terribly scarred from World War II, the United States soon emerged as the host country for the new international organization’s permanent headquarters. Dozens of American cities and towns lobbied intensely for the honor of becoming “capital of the world,” but no plan for the new United Nations headquarters was bolder than the one that sprouted from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
World War II came to Paul Bellamy’s doorstep in September 1944 when the Rapid City, South Dakota, businessman learned that his 22-year-old son, who piloted a B-17 Flying Fortress, had died in a midair collision over England days earlier. As the Spanish-American war veteran dealt with his loss and the guns continued to blaze in Europe and the Pacific, planning had already begun for a post-war security organization to lessen the chances of another global conflagration from ever happening again.
When Bellamy learned that the architects of the United Nations were searching for a place to build their new headquarters, the grieving father threw himself into the quest to make the remote Black Hills of South Dakota the political center of the world. Bellamy faced no shortage of competition. In her book “Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations,” Charlene Mires identifies 248 localities that vied in varying degrees to host the international organization’s headquarters. The suitors included major cities such as Chicago and San Francisco, remote locales such as Oklahoma’s Kiamichi Mountains and burgs from Miami to Niagara Falls to Hawaii.
Among the advantages that Bellamy touted for the Black Hills, which had just witnessed the construction of another improbable project at Mount Rushmore, was its central location on the North American continent, its abundance of high-quality building stone, its substantial sub-rock formations that could easily carry the load of “great and permanent buildings” and its distance from the American political capital of Washington, D.C. Promotional materials boasted of “cool lakes, gushing trout streams, and the eerie Badlands teeming with fossil treasures.” The sparsely populated region allowed for plenty of room for expansion plus one other advantage in the new atomic age—its distance from any major city that could become a military target and result in the destruction of the United Nations as collateral damage.
In November 1945, the Black Hills group released a plan for its proposed United Nations headquarters that looked as if an enormous extraterrestrial community had landed in the shadows of South Dakota’s craggy buttes. Indeed, the design drawn by architect Luvine Berg boasted that it was “so colossal a place that it my well accommodate the capital of Jupiter.”
At the heart of Berg’s ambitious plan was a massive capitol building that could have been ripped straight out of a superhero comic. The proposed headquarters structure featured 1 million square feet of office space, an auditorium that could seat 20,000 people and a soaring tower topped by a globe as a symbol of the organization’s international activities.
Fronting the capitol at the foot of the 170-foot-wide World Highway was an enormous forecourt a third of a mile long. Portals shaped like scrolls flanked the forecourt and contained offices for security personnel and the press. Office buildings for the United States, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and China were the closest to the capitol, and then located on a series of concentric roads were the embassies of the other nations, which were to be designed to reflect the unique architecture of each country. There was parking for 10,000 cars, hotels and a lakeside recreational spot. The surrounding mountains were to be used to build little village retreats for each nation.
Bellamy flew to war-torn London in December 1945 to make his case directly to the United Nations preparatory commission that was in charge of site selection. He presented Berg’s plan and South Dakota’s offer of 100 square miles of tax-free land. He touted the benefits of his location, the scenery of the surrounding Badlands, and even the unparalleled quality of the region’s steak dinners.
Within weeks, the commission decided that the United Nations would not make its home in South Dakota. It sought to establish its permanent headquarters in the eastern United States, with its relative proximity to Europe, preferably in a bedroom community around Boston or New York City. The site committee ruled out any urban locations because of the organization’s sizable land requirements and fearing that the United Nations would be an afterthought instead of a focal point in New York, they eliminated all sites within 10 miles of Manhattan. However, when millionaire philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. surprisingly offered a gift of six blocks of Manhattan real estate along the East River in December 1946, the committee reversed itself in a New York minute and found its new home.