Saving Bucky's Dome
Carbondale's Buckminster Fuller aficionados close in on restoring the only geodesic dome he actually lived in
By Ted Cox
It springs up seemingly out of nowhere on a corner lot in a residential neighborhood in Carbondale: the only geodesic dome actually lived in as a home by its world-renowned designer, Buckminster Fuller.
"Oh, he was brilliant," said Jon Davey, a Southern Illinois University architecture professor and board member of a nonprofit set up in 2002 to restore the home, located at 407 S. Forest Ave. "If you actually try to define his philosophical position, he was a transcendentalist."
Fuller was no doubt a man ahead of his time — he was later to be labeled "the grandfather of the green movement" — and the geodesic dome was his great creation. "It's the least amount of materials for the greatest amount of strength," Davey said while guiding a short tour of the shuttered building Fuller lived in along with his wife, Anne, from 1960 to 1971.
A disaster brought Fuller to Carbondale. After patenting the geodesic dome in 1954, he suffered a fire in his New England home a few years later and lost the models and other materials he was working on. He had a friend in the design department at SIU, which also had a working relationship with the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he also taught, and the Bauhaus in Germany. Fuller visited the friend in a bid to get the models rebuilt and was recruited by SIU President Delyte Morris.
According to Davey, Morris "realized he was a signature person and gave him a research professorship on campus. He had to be here on campus two months a year, and the rest he could do anything he wanted. So he wore three watches for different time zones and traveled around the world."
Fuller built the dome home in 1960. He had a concrete foundation poured and got students to help construct it. "He was really good about delegating things and not doing stuff himself," Davey said.
Today it's still a marvel at a cozy 1,200 square feet. The ground floor circles from a comfortable living room with a sliding-door view of the yard into a kitchen (recently re-equipped with a stylish vintage General Electric refrigerator) and the bedroom. Slightly above is a so-called balcony library where Fuller kept his books and worked.
There was a fountain outside. Although Davey said the lot had always been fenced in to afford the Fullers some privacy, locals maintained it used to be a redwood fence and not the current chain-link fence.
"Bucky left in 1970-71," Davey said. "The university had a big fallout, as they always do. They tried to fire 104 tenured faculty members and part of that was Bucky's group. So Bucky left, took all his archives with him, and gave them to Stanford." He died in 1983 at the age of 87.
In the decades after Fuller left Carbondale, the house was bought and rented out as just a cool place for students to live in, and it fell into disrepair, as student housing will. "There's probably a lot of THC in these walls," Davey said. In 2001, however, it was bought by Bill Perk, an SIU colleague of Fuller's who had the foresight to invest in Apple stock, and he presented it to the RBF Dome nonprofit the following year.
The good news is the project obtained a $125,000 grant from the National Park Service's Save America's Treasures fund under the Obama administration, and another $75,000 gift more recently, which they're trying to match to complete the restoration. The roof has already been finished (white to symbolize sails above the blue sea of the lower frame), and now they're restoring the cork floors and the rest of the interior, to be followed by fine points of the exterior and the yard fountain. (For now, Davey has playfully put a kids' jungle gym with a geodesic pattern above the fountain basin.)
Davey said that, with the final $75,000, they could finish the project this fall, including restocking the balcony library with copies of the books he had, and open it to the public. "We'll have a docent living here," he added, who will guide tours when visitors drop by to see what amounts to a monument to Fuller's vision.
Fuller once said: "We are called to be the architects of the future, not its victims."
Davey said the dome home remains a symbol of sustainability in a town and a university campus devoted to the movement. Carbondale has committed itself to bikes, as well as other environmental initiatives, and the university has a new solar-powered fountain intended to control algae in Campus Lake. "There's a different consciousness down here," Davey said.
Much of that grows out of Fuller's tenure and his lasting influence.
Davey said he's presented architectural papers in Turkey, Indonesia, and other places around the world. "And the first thing people say about SIU is not Jenny McCarthy, not Jim Belushi, not Dick Gregory, it's Bucky Fuller," he said.
"I heard him speak one time," Davey added. "When I got out of the service after being drafted, I came to SIU, and he spoke for six hours at the Shyrock Auditorium. And he sounded like Mr. Magoo. He was extremely hard to understand."