Derelict Dome

This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

RM: It’s safe to say that Woods Hole is exactly what you picture when you think of a town on Cape Cod.

KK: Old houses covered in wood shingles.

RM: There are sailboats, Oceanside restaurants…

KK: Wealthy vacationers in the summertime. Super traditional, super East Coast. But just up the hill from the tiny downtown, there’s this huge dome. It looks like a three story tall golf ball. It’s this crazy looking white building totally out of place next to the old colonial houses.

RM: So reporter Katie Klocksin went to check it out. Katie brought some friends too; the back door was unlocked.

(friend): Like, it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before.

KK: Inside it smells musty. It’s creepy.

(friend): Look at this old wallpaper

KK: There’s a wall made entirely out of these interlocking triangle shaped windows. They cast a web of shadows on the floor. There’s an old kitchen, it looks like it might have been part of a restaurant.

(whispering): You found some? Yeah there’s a whole pile of old salt & pepper shakers. Okay, let’s go look.
It’s kind of spooky.

KK: When we left, I needed to know more.

RM: What Katie found was a geodesic dome, designed and built by the late Buckminster Fuller.

KK: Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Bucky… He did go by Bucky by the way. He was a big deal back in the ‘60s. A drawing of Bucky’s head made to look like one of his domes was on the cover of Time magazine in 1964.

RM: There’s a Bucky Fuller a postage stamp.

KK: He was even given the country’s highest civilian honor, a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

RM: Bucky Fuller is also responsible for the title of this radio show. He said, “99% of who you are is invisible and untouchable.” And he discussed the 99% invisible activity that is coalescing to shape our future. He’s a very quotable man. Here he is from the film, “Buckminster Fuller:
The Lost Interviews.”

(BF): I think we ought to be looking into what needs to be done to do more with less. So that you might sometimes do so much with so little you might be able to take care of everybody, and make all of politics invalid.”

KK: Jay Baldwin was one of Bucky’s students.

JB: He just wanted people to use less stuff. He said it was all going to run out. We’ve got to think big, and take care of everybody. He said, “As long as there’s one person starving, you’re going to have wars.”

KK: Fuller called himself a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.” He wanted to invent things that would make human life sustainable on this planet, decades before anyone else was even thinking about green buildings. And for that, people have called Bucky the Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century.

JB: Oh yes, they do that, but the Fuller Institute crew counters that Leonardo was the Bucky Fuller of medieval times.

KK: So here’s the deal with the Woods Hole dome. Bucky wanted to change the world, starting with buildings. So he started making these weird structures which he called “Geodesic Domes.”

RM: “Geodesic” refers to the geometry of curved surfaces.

KK: The golf ball building in Woods Hole is actually the oldest of Bucky’s domes that are still standing. The structure of the geodesic dome is based on a lot of complicated math. But in short, it’s built with a lot of triangles. A triangle is a very strong shape, and a dome made out of triangles is extra strong. That meant that domes could be made of lighter and cheaper materials than normal buildings, like plastic and aluminum instead of steel and concrete. Back in 1952 Bucky was just starting to build domes. They caught the attention of an architect an aspiring restaurateur, a man named Gunnar Peterson.

JP: And in the early ‘50s, 1953 he bought some property in Woods Hole and decided to build a hotel and a restaurant.

KK: Joel Peterson is Gunnar’s son.

JP: He did make a deal with Bucky Fuller. I don’t remember how Dad met him, he maybe called him up, I don’t… you know? I mean, he tracked him down. Anyway, and Bucky and his wife came and lived at our house. They decided they’d build the dome restaurant.

RM: A geodesic dome as a way of standing out but in Cape Cod, It really stands out.

KK: And that upset some people.

JP: Well, it’s no shingled Cape Cod cottage that’s for darn sure. And the feeling is, this is going to change life as we know it, you know? This is, you know, we’ll never be the same again. You know? this is just horrible. One building. There was stuff that happened, there was things stolen, and you know, I mean there was paint poured on things. There was just lots of stuff.

RM: “Stuff” here meaning…

KK: People didn’t want to talk about this on tape. But I just have this mental image of a really ugly mob up in arms about this dome. That’s probably an exaggeration but you get the idea.
Despite the unrest the dome restaurant opened in June of 1954. And according to Joel it was the place to go.

JP: The dome was the most elegant place around. I mean, at that time. Certainly when you went out to eat in the ‘50s on Cape Cod, in a place like the dome, you wore a tie and the women were all spiffed up. It was a festive occasion.

KK: And they had a live musician. She played the zither.

JP: I don’t know if you’ve ever had dinner with zither music, it’s rather pleasant!

KK: The restaurant is right on the ocean, and you’re far away from cities, so you can just look up at the ceiling and you’re looking at the stars.

KK: Sally Brady was 14 years old when the dome restaurant opened by her house.

SB: Those early ‘50s were really quite an amazing moment because everybody could buy cars.
People who survived the war, all those men were home. There were jobs, and people were making the American dream come true. And I think that the dome was a symbol of the American dream, in a way.

KK: It felt like a prosperous, optimistic time. It made sense that the dome represented the future for some people.

RM: It turned out that there were some real structural problems with the dome.

KK: First, the structure acted like an acoustic amplifier. So all that zither music got blasted across the neighborhood. And a building with that much glass worked like a greenhouse. So it got hot inside. After the first season, they covered the dome in white fiberglass to block out the sun. That meant diners couldn’t see the stars anymore.

RM: Geodesic domes don’t have any support beams.

KK: Those triangular window frames do all the work. Each frame rests on the one next to it.

RM: Which can be a problem if the building materials are flexible and move in the wind

KK: Here’s Arnie Grepstad, he worked at the restaurant.

AG: Saturday night, horrible weather outside. And this particular night, there was a party of four, the Scalleys, that were there having dinner. They were regular customers, local people. Around 7:30 with a chock full restaurant, all of a sudden it starts dripping at table 113. And I can remember seeing them sit there, and Jane took her umbrella out, opened it to a huge applause from everyone in the restaurant. It was just funny!

JB: But that fact is, the geodesic domes most of them leak like sieves.

KK: Again, Jay Baldwin, Bucky’s former student.

JB: I have a photograph of Bucky inside his dome, in Carbondale, with an umbrella in one hand, a book in the other and a flashlight in his mouth, reading the book. The umbrella is needed (laughs). I told Bucky, “I’m going to find out why domes leak.” And he said, “Domes leak because they’re made by amateurs, and they’re built it with holes in them. You wouldn’t build a boat with holes in it would you? Or a car?” And I said, “I don’t think they’re leaking because they made em with a hole in it.” I said, “I think they’re leaking geodesicly.”

KK: The owner, Joel Peterson, says he patched a lot of leaks. Eventually Joel wanted to retire from the restaurant business. He sold the property in 2002. It’s been sitting vacant ever since. I asked Joel & Arnie to give me a tour. I can’t bring myself to tell them I have actually been here before. We have to push aside branches to get to the front door.

JB: It’s been a few years since I’ve been here. And to tell you the truth, I never really wanted to come because, I mean, it is incredibly overgrown…. I mean, it’s just sad. Oh Gosh, this is awful.

JP: Isn’t this amazing! An actual… Well. I’’l tell you what, this is not a pretty sight.

AG: I told you about Ruth playing the zither; this is where she played.

JP: Now if you want take a look at the kitchen. There’s a walk-in cooler there, and the prep room in the back. This really has been my in my working life. I certainly I wouldn’t mind seeing it restored, on the other hand I think it’s going to be a tremendous expense to put this back. So it’s with two opposite emotions that you look at it. But, you have to be realistic and understand that things change here in life.

RM: In 2006, a real estate development company planned to build condos on the side.

KK: And for a while it looked like the dome might be torn down. But then a funny thing happened. There was a public outcry to keep the dome.

RM: This is the same building that residents fought against tooth and nail back when it was being constructed in the ‘50s.

KK: Now in order to build on the site, the developer has to restore the dome. And that’s going to be expensive. So the whole thing is in limbo until more condos are pre-sold, and real estate transactions are not moving quickly these days. If the developer can’t pre-sell enough condos to justify the cost of restoring the dome, then the whole deal could fall apart. If that happened, the dome would stay as it is now continuing to decay. Waiting for the next out of towners to come poking around with a flashlight. The person who seems least sentimental about this is Joel Peterson.

JP: If I were doing the project that they talk about doing? I’d tear it down, to be honest with you. It’s a building, It was…. yeah, it was part of my life… it’s a building.

KK: Sally Brady, who grew up next to the dome feels differently.

SB: Maybe it will be reborn in a different way, it will be better. Why not? Maybe it will be a beautiful, transparent place, and people will go there and do fantastic, energizing work that will help humanity.

KK: What do you think we would lose if if it was torn down?

SB: What would we lose? Well, it’s a very good example of a post-war ‘50s boom, when anything was possible.

KK: Yeah, I sort of agree. And then, and then what does it mean now that it’s just in such disrepair?

SB: Well, I think it means that we we’ve moved on. And and that dream, went bust sort. Yeah, I think it’s kind of broken dream right now. That’s sort of depressing, isn’t it? Maybe a finished dream is a little kinder.

RM: Buckminster Fuller claimed that his ideas were 50 years ahead of his time. And now it’s been over 50 years but domes have not replaced traditional buildings.

KK: But you know what? I’m rooting for the dome. I think it represents Bucky’s optimism that we could solve the world’s problems with good design. And even if you couldn’t, you could still star gaze through triangular windows, looking out over the sea.

Comments (10)

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  1. Sid from New Jersey

    I believe that Mr. Fuller is the namesake of Buckminsterfullerenes, an allotrope of carbon, which consists of 60- to 70- atoms arranged in a geodesic format, in a spherical shape.
    Just a thought for Science Boy Mars.

  2. ted c

    In trivia contests… the correct answer is almost always B. Fuller or Ben Franklin…. the two of them did just about everything!

  3. Ryan B

    I had to laugh when you mentioned how quotable Bucky is, because I opened my masters of architecture thesis with a Bucky quote, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    1. RR Fiske

      That is a great line.. and yet, (ahem!) .. it just does sting a little to see these dome buildings that are probably just still a bit too ODD for our essentially square culture to know what to do with them.. I’d love to look at where they have had engineering and weatherizing issues.. surely there are solutions to that, if they weren’t so stingy on decent places to put paintings up and couches against!

  4. Jack Armstrong

    There are a number of dome homes in Wisconsin. I’m an electrician and three years ago I wired a dome home. It was an interesting project. The only glitch I noticed was the framing was made from 2×6 lumber. That severely limited the insulation and thus the energy efficiency of the home. If it were mine, I would have asked for another non structural dome inside, offset, and adding thickness,

  5. Carolina

    Have you guys ever checked the Biosphere in Montreal?
    It was designed by Bucky for the expo 67.
    It burned down, restored and now its a museum!!

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