Like in Jack Webb’s fictional Dragnet series, “the story you are about to read is real, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent” – or in this case, perhaps the not so innocent.
I had to smile when I saw this structure listed for sale this week. I vividly remember the cool Saturday afternoon in 1978 when the first pieces of this home’s framework were put into place. It was more like a mini-Woodstock than an old-fashioned community barn raising, although there were shades of both in the autumn air that day. Nick and I had been friends since adolescence, so it was natural that I should show up wearing my toolbelt, ready to help build one of the strangest structures that Redding had ever seen.
Buckminster Fuller is generally considered as the father of the modern geodesic dome. Made from a framework of simple triangles, its design makes the building incredibly strong. It’s able to withstand the high winds of hurricanes and come away relatively unscathed. It also fares well in areas where heavy winter snows can cause some structures to collapse.
Fuller promoted the fact that when the dome’s diameter is doubled it quadruples the square footage within, producing eight times its original volume. A dome encloses the largest volume of interior space with the least amount of exterior surface area, thus, in theory at least, saving on materials and cost. A dome’s structure also offers one of the most energy efficient interior spaces because the air within it flows without obstruction, enabling a greater use of natural heating and cooling.
Since Nick was a lover of all things unconventional, the design of the dome seemed perfect to him. After finding the right piece of property on which to construct it, the issue would be finding someone to design and build it for him.
Our friends, John and Blanche Bickerson, had recently purchased a 1745 house in Bethel from builder and developer Eustace Haney Jr. Mr. Haney, late of Hooterville, had purchased an oversized lot that contained both the Bickerson’s house and a large, dilapidated barn that sat dead smack in the middle of what could become three prime building lots. But before Mr. Haney could subdivide the property, the barn would need to go, and the town was hesitant to issue a demolition permit on such a historic building. There would need to be board meetings and much discussion. He was told the process could take two or three months.
Undeterred by a possible delay in building those houses, Haney had his crew show up on a Saturday morning and they demolished the barn and hauled it away while the town officials enjoyed their weekend off. On Monday morning, Haney appeared at the building department to submit his application for his three-lot subdivision. He was summarily denied because of the existence of that barn. Upon explaining that the barn no longer existed, the town had no choice but to accept his application and eventually approve his plans. He saved about three months of his time, built his three houses, and cheerfully paid the town the $500 fine they assessed him for demolishing the barn without a permit.
Haney also owned a very deep piece of land off Seventy Acres Road in Redding that was split down the middle by the right-of-way for the huge power transmission lines of the then Connecticut Light and Power Company. By installing a road that ran parallel to the power lines, he was able to subdivide the property into about twenty building lots.
Having met Haney at a party at the Bickersons, Nick was soon sold on buying one of Haney’s new lots on Indian Hill Road. The lot Nick choose was labeled D-10 on the subdivision plot plan. Nick would giggle that his lot was “D ten little Indians,” a play on words from the children’s song he remembered from his youth.
Haney was to be the general contractor. But a dome? He really didn’t want to build a dome. Especially when Nick began telling him everything he wanted. Like the copper clad cupola that would reach over 70-feet from the ground to the tip of the spire. Haney was fine with doing the excavation work, putting in a foundation, the septic and the well, but building the dome was going to take more time and effort than he was willing to give.
Enter Hans. Hans was basically an over-aged hippy who had built his own dome and therefore considered himself an absolute expert on dome construction. He wasn’t a contractor. He wasn’t even a carpenter. He was a cross-country truck driver who drove for United Van Lines. But Nick liked him. So, Hans would be in charge.
On the day of the dome raising, all the framing was pre-cut, stacked in neat piles, and marked with different colors on both ends that would correspond to the house plans. The idea was to erect the skeleton into the half-round dome that was based on Buckminster Fuller’s odd concept of an efficient use of space. Those of us with some knowledge of which end of the hammer you gripped in your hand arrived around 7:00 AM.
Nick was already there. Asleep in his teepee. Nick was taking this Indian Hill theme seriously. 7:00 AM was not a time that Nick would ever think to be awake and ready to go to work. For Nick, that hour would be more like 11:00 AM, but noon would have been better.
That was okay, Hans was there. He couldn’t remember where he and Nick had left the house plans the previous evening, but he knew the difference between green, blue, and red, and those were the colors on the ends of the 2X6’s that we would be making the triangular frame with.
There appeared to be enough scaffolding on site to build a replica of the Chrysler building in Manhattan. Since there would be nothing to put ladders against, scaffolds would be the only way to get the materials high enough to complete the framework. A fully assembled scaffold capable of reaching the center of a nearly 30-foot-high building was a daunting sight as it sat there alone in the middle of the deck that would become the main floor of the structure.
It wasn’t long – maybe ten minutes at best – before those of us who could tell a nail from a screw knew that Hans was going to useless. However, that didn’t stop Hans from telling us how much he knew about dome building. Ignoring the all the senseless blabbering, a couple of the volunteers who earned their living building real structures quietly took charge and we began to put that giant wooden erector set together.
It actually went quite smoothly for a while. It didn’t take a nuclear physicist to put together a bunch of color coordinated triangles, but once the first layer was attached to the decking, it became obvious that subsequent layers had to be attached so that they would all connect. That meant a loose assembly until the ends all met, and they could then be fastened securely. But it was most important that those connections were secure, as additional layers meant addition weight and additional stress.
By 10:00 AM the non-workers began trickling in. There were a lot of them. They outnumbered the worker bees about seven to one.
There was soon a large fire burning in a pit about halfway between the foundation and the pond. More than half of the 80 or so people who were there by early in the afternoon looked like refugees from Max Yasgur’s farm; none of them appearing willing or able to pitch in with those of us who were there to work. Most had the delusion of being some sort of a musician.
Their music was interesting, although seldom very good. Luckily, Nick’s was going to be the first house built on Indian Hill Road, so the noise was only bothersome to the squirrels, some of whom were seen scurrying away from the area carrying their acorns with them.
The smell of pot mixed in with the aroma of the wood burning in the fire pit. There were about ten of us capable of putting the framing in place and we toiled rather effortlessly until the rains came. The band from Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour played on in the same tradition as those musicians on the Titanic had. Those who couldn’t play their harmonica out-of-tune were tending to the large pig that was then roasting over the open fire.
With the land around the foundation quickly becoming a quagmire, some of the flower children were soon climbing up onto the large deck that was the main floor. The issue was plain to see for those of us sober enough to still see – we were building a dome. The structure was beginning to curve over those slackers strumming their guitars and banging their tambourines below us. They were in our way, and they had no intention of moving. Some were sitting directly underneath our scaffolding in an attempt to stay dry. Should we drop anything heavier than a joist hanger, we could end up killing someone.
By 5:00 PM the framing was about halfway to the top. That would mean a shorter day on Sunday since as the framing rose it curved inwards and each subsequent layer would cover a shorter diameter. With the rains still coming down, we called it a day.
Nick was planning a fireworks display after the crowd had completely devoured the pig and all the trimmings the natives had prepared. I was as wet as I wanted to be and headed home to a hot shower.
Upon returning on Sunday morning, I decided to park out on the road since I knew that the driveway closer to the dome was going to be a quagmire of epic proportions. I passed three racoons and a pair of deer heading away from the building site on my way in, so I figured the fireworks show the night before must have been a rousing success.
The first thing I saw that morning was Mr. Haney’s brandy new maroon Lincoln Town Car sunk to its frame in the mud. My guess is that he unwillingly spent the night with the stoner crowd. There were a couple of campfires burning and a few drying clothes propped up on tree branches nearby.
I soon discovered that things began to fall apart soon after I had left the night before. Literally began to fall apart… Remember the importance of properly securing those framing pieces? Well, evidently someone forgot to do that with one of the triangles about halfway up the skeleton we had built. With a loud pop and then some falling frame work, part of the superstructure had begun to collapse. Luckily, no one had been hit by the falling lumber, but it would take about half of the day to repair the damage before we could complete the rest of the framing.
Luckily, the remainder of the Grateful Dead groupies decided to depart early since all the free beer and food had been consumed on Saturday. It took an excavator to yank Haney’s Lincoln out of the mud and by noon, Hans was packing up since he was moving some poor family from New Jersey to Louisiana on Monday morning.
By late in the afternoon, the superstructure was securely in place and some poor little evergreen was tied to the top of the building signifying that the dome was now part of the land that surrounded it. Nick stood back and admired the place before thanking us and declaring that “There’s no place like Dome.”