Monday, August 11, 2008

Roam home to a dome

Back in 1982 Jay Baldwin and I picked up Bucky Fuller at Boston's Logan Airport and drove him to the New Alchemy Institute in Falmouth for the dedication of the Institute's 'Pillow Dome' that was designed by Jay and constructed under his guidance. As we approached Cape Cod, Bucky reminisced about the geodesic dome he constructed in Woods Hole back in 1953.

He recalled that it had a number of problems (leaks, overheating). One thing even he didn't anticipate was that the structure covered with tightly stretched Mylar would act light a giant amplifier when bands played inside.

WOODS HOLE — It's hidden behind trees and its rubberized skin is faded and worn. It doesn't look like something designed and built by a renowned designer.

But the geodesic dome set on a hill overlooking Woods Hole Harbor is believed to be one of the first designed and built for commercial use by R. Buckminster Fuller, now considered a 20th century visionary. By most accounts, it's one of the few — and oldest — Buckminster domes that remain.

And now, it just may have a new lease on life.

The geodesic dome was built as a restaurant to go along with the Nautilus Motor Inn in 1954. The Dome was once a place to go for special occasions — Falmouth High students would go there before their proms and it had hosted family weddings. But in recent years it had fallen into disrepair and closed in 2002.

Chris Wise of Chatham-based Wise Living, which has developed a half-dozen senior housing complexes across the Cape, is planning a 43-unit facility that will topple the motel, but is working closely with the Cape Cod Commission and the Massachusetts Historic Commission to preserve the dome.

Wise hired architect Deacon Marvel, a grandnephew of Fuller, to guide the restoration.

"Speaking on behalf of his direct descendants, we're thrilled it's being preserved," Marvel said. "He was personally involved in the design and construction."

The dome, once restored, will be open to the public on a limited basis, Wise said. It will likely be a common, multipurpose room for the senior housing facility, he said.

Like the dome, Fuller is also enjoying a bit of a resurgence. His works are currently on display at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, his inventions and innovations were featured in a June New Yorker piece and his vast collection of writings — he kept every scrap of paper, Marvel said — is being published next year.

His fame is extending well beyond his "15 minutes," even though he died 25 years ago.

"I think it's a case of people recognizing him and taking a second look at what he did. He was looked at as a quirky oddball," Marvel said. "He was regarded as someone outside of the mainstream. There's a lot more to Bucky than the later part of his life. He was creative and a true innovator of his time, I think."

Wise knew the significance of the dome and explored several options — including moving the dome to Milton Academy, where Fuller graduated — before settling on restoration.

"(Restoration) is absolutely the right thing to do," Wise said.

Neither Wise nor Marvel would estimate how much the repairs to the dome will cost. It needs a new sheathing, leaky and scratched windows need to be replaced and a structural analysis still needs to be done.

"I wouldn't even want to hazard a guess," Marvel said of the price tag.

Wise said he's leaving it to Marvel and historic experts to tell him what needs to be done.

Restoration work is expected to begin when permitting is complete and the project is under way. A Cape Cod Commission hearing on the project is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Gus Canty Center in Falmouth.

In November 2007, town meeting members agreed to rezone the 5.41 acres where the Nautilus Motor Inn and the former Dome Restaurant are.


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