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The Dome In Woods Hole; Buckminster Fuller’s Aging Futuristic Building

The Dome
Brian Tarcy
Written by Brian Tarcy

WOODS HOLE – It is as if the geodesic spaceship that landed in Woods Hole in 1953 has been abandoned, and now no one knows quite what to do with it.

The Dome, built in 1953 by the late visionary Buckminster Fuller, remains an incongruous piece of look-at-me futuristic architecture in this quaint New England village. Now there is a deserted, ’Planet Of The Apes’ overgrown feel to the building.

The future has gotten old. It has not been used for more than a decade.

The Dome, built in 1953 by the late visionary Buckminster Fuller, remains an incongruous piece of look-at-me futuristic architecture in this quaint New England village. Now there is a deserted, ’Planet Of The Apes’ overgrown feel to the building.

The Dome is considered by some to be an architectural treasure. Because of regulatory stipulations, it can’t be torn down. And because of that, a local group is hoping to find a way to work with the owner to get it renovated and then repurposed as an arts center.

There is a sale is pending on the 5-1/2 acre property that includes other structures that do not have to be saved – a restaurant expansion to the Dome building, and the Nautilus Motel, built in the 1950s.

Jim Fox, a real estate broker with Kinlin Grover told Cape Cod Wave, in an email that the Dome property is “under agreement. I represent both buyer and seller. No other comment at this time,” wrote Fox.

It is unclear what is planned for the property. But the Dome itself will apparently stay forever.

The Dome, Woods Hole

Inside the spaceship that landed in Woods Hole in 1953.

“It’s an albatross on the property,” said Nicole Goldman of the Dome itself. Because the Dome must remain, she said it is something of a hinderance to any future development of this prime piece of Woods Hole real estate.

Goldman lives near the Dome and is the project manager for a informal group hoping to restore and adaptively reuse the Dome as an interdisciplinary arts center.

Her general idea/hope, since the unusual building cannot be taken down, is to have a non-profit group use about a one-acre portion of the property for the arts center, while the developer would create a plan to build on the rest. “The whole project is in limbo until ownership of the property is sorted out,” she said.

Goldman is hoping the building can be repurposed for a public use. “It’s a very unusual structure with immense historical and architectural significance,” said Goldman.

It’s also in terrible shape.

Inside the Dome, water damage

Inside the Dome, water damage

While the long-closed Dome building still looks futuristic, it also shows the decay of a building whose time has long passed. A sprinkler malfunction has damaged the inside. The rubber paint used to seal leaks on the outside is cracking and faded.

Just prior to the recession of 2008, there was a plan to develop the property as 55+ housing. And then the crash happened and the development was never built.

The Cape Cod Commission had approved that plan with the stipulation that the Dome, as a unique piece of historical architecture, must be preserved.

The irony of nostalgically preserving the futurist’s decaying project is not lost on any of the three people Cape Cod Wave contacted who met Fuller.

 

WaveBucky

“Bucky and his wife came and lived at our house in Quissett for the summer of ’53 while they built The Dome, and he personally supervised the building of The Dome,” recalled Joel Peterson, whose father, architect E. Gunnar Peterson, hired Buckminster Fuller to build a new restaurant as a geodesic dome. At the time, Peterson was 12 years old.

“As a kid, I knew him,” said Peterson. “He was grandfatherly at the time. He spent a lot of time with me as a kid. He bought me my first camera and taught me how to use it.”

For the whole summer, Fuller supervised construction of the Dome while “students from MIT and other schools, but mostly MIT, built it,” said Peterson.

bucky-by-joel-peterson

Buckminster Fuller, taken by 12-year-old Joel Peterson with a camera Fuller game him.

“He was a dreamer,” said Peterson. “I don’t know that he made a lot of money at any time. He certainly lived modestly. Part of the deal was we had to put him up.”

Hap Klopp, who owned the iconic outdoor brand, The North Face and hired Fuller to make a geodesic tent, recalled Fuller as someone who “loved the Cape. He loved sailing,” said Klopp, who lives in Berkeley, California. (Klopp has co-authored three books with Brian Tarcy of Cape Cod Wave.)

“He claimed to have gotten kicked out of Harvard for spending too much time with party girls. So, he went to the beach on the Cape and planned to walk out into the ocean and end his life,” said Klopp.

“While there on the beaches he had an epiphany that his real calling was to actually change the world.  At that point he dedicated himself to doing so. He also dedicated himself to never worrying about money, knowing that good ideas would somehow get him funded,” said Klopp.

“I was very fortunate,” said Arne Grepstad, who started working at the dome in 1973, and continued there for decades, eventually buying restaurant, not the building, in 1987. “I actually got to meet Bucky Fuller,” he said.

“He used to come back to Falmouth,” said Grepstad. “He was involved in a project at the New Alchemy Institute, where he was trying to raise the most amount of food on one piece of land that he could.”

Joel Peterson, who owned the Dome

Joel Peterson, who owned the Dome. He was 12 when his father hired Buckminster Fuller to build it.

“Whenever he came back to Falmouth, he would go back to Woods Hole because, as he said, he wanted to look in on his baby,” said Grepstad. “He would come back and we would walk around. One time, he said, ‘As an old man, I realize the Dome actually worked.’”

“He had thoughts of enclosing a complete town in a dome,” said Grepstad. “He was forward thinking, eccentric.”

“My father thought he was a genius,” said Peterson of Fuller. “He was a renaissance man… He was very much out of the box before anyone knew they were in the box.”

 

WaveThe Dome

Peterson said his father, E. Gunnar Peterson, was an architect who had a dream of owning an inn and a restaurant on Cape Cod. Peterson said his father contacted Fuller because “domes in 1953 were unique.”

Prior to the Woods Hole Dome, Fuller had only built one other geodesic dome, at the iconic Ford Rotunda in Deerborn, Michigan. The Ford Rotunda burned down in 1962, leaving the building in Woods Hole is Fuller’s oldest surviving geodesic dome.

maybe-dome-opening-night

Inside the Dome, perhaps opening night. Photo taken by 12-year-old Joel Peterson in the early 1950s

“I’ve always said it’s probably the most historic building on Cape Cod,” said Peterson. “It’s the oldest Bucky Fuller geodesic dome in the world.”

Fuller arrived in Woods Hole having just completed work on one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Midwest. Building the dome at the Ford Rotunda was, apparently, a big deal.

In Woods Hole, the Dome “was built in sections,” said Peterson. “The top section was dropped in by helicopter. Not because they had to, but because it was newsworthy.”

When it was first built, “everybody hated The Dome,” said Peterson. “There was vandalism. It was bad, sort of like hating Trump now. Everybody was against it. This was awful. It was going to ruin the town as we know it. It was too modern.”

And then, as Grepstad said, “Fifty years does a lot of funny things.”

By the time the restaurant closed in 2002, Grepstad recalled that some of the same people who he had always heard opposed its opening in 1953  wanted the Dome preserved.

“I don’t want to go out and use any names, but a husband and wife who were very much against it when it was built then said, ’Oh my God, you can’t take it away,’” recalled Grepstad.

And Peterson added, “It’s ironic. The grandchildren of the people who were opposing it are not only in favor of it, but hampering the sale.”

Arne Grepstad, former owner of the Dome Restaurant

Arne Grepstad, former owner of the Dome Restaurant

In fact, it’s the restrictions on the building that Peterson called the most historic on the Cape, that certainly pose a giant financial obstacle to development.

“I feel bad for the owners,” said Peterson. “It doesn’t have an incredible amount of uses as it stands. If I wanted to preserve it, I wouldn’t have sold it. I respect the owners right to do whatever the hell they want, much like I would have done.”

Peterson said he was pushed for years to put the Dome on the National Historic Register. “I didn’t want to go to Washington if I wanted to paint the front door different,” he said. “You have to get an act of Congress to do anything. It was just another hoop to jump through that I had no interest in.”

WaveIt’s Alive, The Futurist’s Aging Dream

“The building moves,” said Peterson. “Bucky made up the word, ‘geodesic.’ There are no pillars. One section is pushing on the other. If you are in there and it’s quiet, it’s moving all the time. It’s like the building is alive.”

But Peterson said those swaying pieces, put together “like a jungle gym,” caused a problem that Peterson’s parents, Peterson, Grepstad, and subsequent owners until it closed all dealt with: the building leaked.

In fact, the building underwent a number of changes, starting with the original mylar shell, which let too much sun in and blew off in the hurricane of 1958, said Grepstad.

Dome mylar

The Dome with its original mylar covering.

The mylar was replaced with fiberglass, and then much of the top of the outside of the Dome had to be painted with a rubber paint to stop the leaking. “Instead of cracking, it would stretch as the Dome moved. It helped, but it did not eliminate the leaking.

“One of the biggest problems was that it always leaked,” said Grepstad. “One Saturday night we were filled to the gills with people when it started leaking and someone at table 11, with four people, opened an umbrella to complete applause in the restaurant.”

“There is no question I am sad to see the condition of the building,” said Grepstad. “But whether it should be saved, saying this building has to be saved, I’m not on that side.”

He said maybe it could be relocated to MIT.

Peterson also wondered about the wisdom of saving the building. “If the town thinks it should be preserved, they should damn well buy it and preserve it. To say the owner has to preserve it, that’s not fair,” said Peterson.

Meanwhile, Goldman is hoping that if the sale goes through the new owner will work with her group to find a public use for the building that must be preserved. What it is used for will be up to the owner.

She said she has approached various non-profits and historical groups that have expressed an interest in helping find funding to take over some sort of renovation and repurposing.

The Dome

The Dome

But, she acknowledged, for that to happen there would have to be an agreement with the owner, whoever it ends up being.

Goldman said her group has big pie-in-the-sky plans for an innovative contemporary art center with “a small permanent display describing Buckminster Fuller and his work.”

Neither Peterson nor Grepstad think that Fuller would have been interested in saving the Dome for its historic value.

Klopp said, “Bucky was not nostalgic, he was someone who embraced the changing world we live in and was more flexible than people of his age… I tend to think Bucky wouldn’t have been nostalgic about things but rather would have seen the need for evolution. That being said, the people who may need it are those other futurists who need to be stimulated in their thinking.”

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SEE ALSO…

An Inside Look At The Woods Hole Dome – VIDEO Tour

About the author

Brian Tarcy

Brian Tarcy

Brian Tarcy is co-founder of Cape Cod Wave. He is a longtime journalist who has written for the Boston Globe, Boston magazine, the Cape Cod Times and several other publications. He is also the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including books with celebrity athletes Cam Neely, Tom Glavine and Joe Theisman. His most recent book is, "ALMOST: 12 Electric Months Chasing A Silicon Valley Dream" with Hap Klopp,who created the iconic brand, The North Face. For more information see Briantarcy.com, Almostbook.com, and Whatzgonnahappen.com (NFL Picks).

3 Comments

  • Dear Mr Tracy, I am Bucky Fuller’s daughter, if fact his only child, but more so as they lost their first child in 1922 five years before I was born. It was in 1927 five years after my sister’s death, and only months after a business that my father had been developing with his father-in-law, my father stood on the edge of Lake Michigan and contemplated suicide. What stopped him was the realization that any individual, through his accumulated experience, had unique things to offer and he began to re-examine his life. “In 1927, I resolved to do my own thinking, and see what the individual starting without any money or credit– in fact, with considerable discredit, but with a whole lot of experience– to see what the individual, with a wife and new-born child, could produce on behalf of his fellow men… I committed myself .. to undertaking the solution of problems which were not being attended to by others which experience taught me would, if effectively solved, greatly advantage society. “ Synergetics Dictionary Vol. 2 pg. 85

    The above is the correct history rather than the one Mr. Klopp stated and you quote —— “He claimed to have gotten kicked out of Harvard for spending too much time with party girls. So, he went to the beach on the Cape and planned to walk out into the ocean and end his life,” said Klopp.

    “While there on the beaches he had an epiphany that his real calling was to actually change the world. At that point he dedicated himself to doing so. He also dedicated himself to never worrying about money, knowing that good ideas would somehow get him funded,” said Klopp.——–

    He was, however, very deeply a New Englanded—The Fullers having arrived on this continent, in Massachusetts, in the mid-1600s.

  • Please consider looking at the Carbondale, Illinois project, at this website. They have seen modest attainment of ambitious goals, with obvious successes.

    http://fullerdomehome.org

    From the mission statement: “RBF Dome NFP was formed in 2002 by a small group of local volunteers who believed that the Fuller Dome Home in Carbondale, Illinois was an extremely important historic artifact which should be preserved for the appreciation and education of future generations.”

  • Well, how wonderful to hear from Allegra Fuller Snyder. I worked for Bucky (1973-1979) shortly after he relocated his office and archives from the Design Department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale to the University City Science Center in Philadelphia where he accepted an appointment as its World Fellow in Residence.

    One of my duties was to keep the still photographs in Bucky’s archive (over 5000 images) organized and documented. Photos of the dome built in Woods Hole are in the archives. My favorite photo is Bucky swinging like Tarzan on a rope suspended from the top of the dome. I went to the Dome restaurant in the 1970s with a friend whose mother lived in Falmouth. Several years ago I purchased two bar glasses depicting the dome structure and the words “dome Cape Cod” printed on the glass.

    Historic preservation can be problematic. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright who created 400 architectural works in the United States has had six of them demolished, which seems inconceivable today.

    Bucky never seemed to be someone who was terribly concerned with what happened to the domes he designed. He was more concerned with developing systems for enclosing space that were economical and efficient in their design and their use of energy and materials.

    I think he achieved his objective with the development of his Fly’s Eye Dome. Bucky seemed particularly pleased with its design and its execution at scale. But even the components for this structure had to be “rescued” from the scrap heap and restored so we can see it today.

    The Fuller Carbondale dome residence was itself a mass-produced Pease dome structure, but its preservation was an appropriate undertaking because Mr. and Mrs. Fuller lived there from 1959 to 1972, before moving to Philadelphia.

    The Dome restaurant was a work for hire, and it served a commercial purpose for decades. The fact that it is standing at all is something of a miracle after 64 years. As the story makes clear, preservation of this dome will be expensive and time-consuming and the longer it remains exposed to the elements the more dilapidated it will become. It seems a shame just to let it fall apart where it is standing. I feel pretty confident that Bucky would not be too sentimental about it, but maybe a case can be made to raise funds to dismantle it and store it in a warehouse until the matter can be fully reviewed.

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