Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Mystery of the Lakeside Dome

By C.J. Hirschfield

Last week I came across the script that was used when Fairyland’s train used to roll through Lakeside Park. “The Lakeside Lark is now leaving from the gates of Fairyland on our magic track. Please sit back and relax. We hope you enjoy the trip,” it began. And later: “If you look off to your right, the geodesic dome stands. It was completed in 1957, the first to be installed in the States.”

The geodesic dome in Lakeside Park.

The 36-by-28-foot dome still stands, adjacent to the Rotary Nature Center, although it is empty and sad-looking, and its purpose is unclear.  As I started to learn more about the imposing structure, I discovered that a number of other things about it are unclear as well. 

For example:

Did the famous 20th-century futurist, architect, engineer, inventor and author R. Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) design it himself, as a plaque stated?

Was it really the first dome installed in the United States, as our script asserted?

Did industrialist Henry J. Kaiser himself direct that his aluminum be used on the project, as the son of the Rotary Center’s first naturalist has said?

And perhaps most important: Are there plans for the dome, which originally housed migrant birds (and later injured birds), but that now sits unoccupied?

Before I tell you about my conversations with two East Coast octogenarians who have many of the answers, let me give you some background on the dome.

Geodesic domes are self-supported, spherical structures composed of rigid triangles. They became popular during the 1960s and 1970s as the counterculture embraced their strength and durability, but in 1956 they were still a novelty. Buckminster Fuller didn’t invent them; the very first was built at a planetarium in Germany by Walther Bauersfeld, in 1926. It was Fuller who coined the term “geodesic dome” in the 1940s, as he was developing and popularizing the architectural design. If you question the relevance of geodesic domes today, just look at photos from the most recent Burning Man.

R. Buckminster Fuller with models of geodesic domes.

Although Fuller did not design Oakland’s dome, he did do the mathematical calculations that allowed it to be created, and he inspired the team that built it. This particular dome was designed by William Underhill, Gordon F. Tully, Dick Schubert, Dan Peterson and Marshall K. Malik, who were architecture students at U.C. Berkeley.  Gordon Tully and Bill Underhill now live in the eastern U.S., but both were happy to speak to me about how Lakeside Park’s dome came to be.

As Cal undergrads, the two men heard “Bucky” speak in 1955 when he was a visiting scholar for a week. Bill even manned the slide projector during his lectures.

“Bucky was a riveting speaker and a tremendous entertainer,” Gordon recalls. “He would bounce around, and could hold a room for hours.” Gordon says that they’d have to drag him off the stage for dinner.

Bill remembers Bucky’s “marathon” lectures as “amazing.”
Fuller and students at Black Mountain College, 1949,

After one such performance, students joined their professor for a gathering that included Don Richter, who at the time was an engineer at Kaiser Steel. A former associate of Fuller’s, he told the group that the Oakland Parks Department wanted to build a “flight cage” for birds migrating through the city. He was interested in how Kaiser’s aluminum would perform, and the prospect of unpaid student labor appealed to him. For their part, the students were excited to test their skills in a real-world application. Bucky himself was not actively involved, but he saw the dome at some point after its completion.

The five students determined to build the structure over the summer of 1956, with Don Richter providing much-needed help with design problems. “We were pretty inexperienced,” says Bill. The park department shops were not up to such a big task, so the help of a local metalworker was utilized.

The project was not without its challenges. Gordon recalls bolts that would “pop” as the dome was flexing. And the team hadn’t realized that their structure would be housing water fowl, not perching birds. “We didn’t really need a flight cage,” he says.

Before the dome was finished, Bill was drafted into the army and had to leave the project. “I knew it was in good hands,” he told me. After Bill completed his military service in Germany, he veered away from architecture and toward art school. He now lives in Rochester, New York, where he specializes in creating abstract metal bowls that he says are in many ways inspired by the geometric patterns he’s loved since his time at Cal.

Gordon Tully has said that his experience building the dome was one of the highlights of his career, which includes many decades as an architect in Connecticut. Bill claims that Oakland’s dome was the first permanent geodesic dome on the West Coast, but not the United States.

An official Kaiser publication asks: “But as a matter of historical record, who built the first civilian geodesic dome in the United States?” “It’s a double trick question – because Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation built two in 1957, one in Virginia and one in Hawaii – and the latter wouldn’t become a state until August 1959.”

So it appears that Bill is correct.

Which brings us to the present day.  The dome no longer houses injured wildlife, as it had as recently as the 1980s. Constance Taylor, who works at the Nature Center, says that it’s no longer considered good practice to house injured wild animals in public view if you plan on releasing them later.  She also says her organization lacks the funding to support any kind of regular wildlife rehab service.

The Lakeside Park dome, unoccupied ... for now.

But according to a sign posted at the dome, the East Oakland Beautification Council is actively seeking a way to bring the dome back to some sort of life. Lifelong Oaklander Ken Houston remembers the dome and its birds fondly, and his group has already started making some improvements to the landscaping around the dome.

Our 3,000-pound piece of architectural history deserves to be restored and repurposed. If a bird shelter isn’t its highest and best use, what is? For example, could the Oakland Pollinator Posse – also based in Lakeside Park – use it for butterflies?

The sign in front of the dome says “Please follow the transformation.”

We will. With great interest.
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.

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