The Dome at the Lake

This article witten by CJ Hirschfield during her long tenure as the “Queen Fairy” (Executive Director) of Children’s Fairyland in Oakland

image: Oakland Wiki by Anders Sandberg

Last week I came across the script that was used when Fairyland’s train used to venture through Lakeside Park, before it was permanently brought inside of our gates. “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. At one point it says this: “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 36’ by 28’ dome is still standing, adjacent to the Rotary Nature Center, although it is empty and sad-looking, and its current purpose is unclear.  As I started trying to learn more about the imposing structure, I discovered that a number of other things relating to the dome are unclear as well.

Did the famous twentieth-century futurist, architect, engineer, inventor, and author R. Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) actually design it himself, as a plaque stated? Was it really the first dome installed in the United States, as was claimed in the script? Henry J. Kaiser himself actually direct that his aluminum be used on the project, as the son of the Center’s first naturalist has said? And perhaps most importantly, are there future plans for the dome, which originally housed migrant birds, and then those that had been injured, but that now sits unoccupied?

Before I tell you about my conversations with two East Coast octogenarians who have many of the answers, a brief explanation of the dome is required.   Geodesic domes are self-supported, spherical structures composed of rigid triangles. Domes became very popular during the 1960s and 1970s as the counterculture embraced their strength and durability, but in 1956 they were still a new thing. Fuller didn’t actually invent them; the very first was built at a planetarium in Germany, by Walther Bauersfeld in 1926, but it wasn’t called a geodesic dome. It was Fuller who coined that term in the forties, as he was developing and popularizing the architectural design. Burning Man? Tons of geodesic domes.

Buckminster Fuller did not design Oakland’s dome, but he did the math behind this type of dome, and he definitely 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 UC Berkeley.

Although both now live back East, Gordon Tully and Bill Underhill were happy to speak to me about how Lakeside Park’s dome came to be. As Cal undergrads,  the two 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 refers to Bucky’s “marathon” lectures as being “amazing.”

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 thought of using 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 apparently saw the dome at some point after its completion.

The five students committed themselves 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 metal worker was utilized. The project was not without its challenges; Gordon recalls bolts that would “pop” as the dome was flexing. And a big surprise was that the team did not realize that their work would be housing water birds, and not birds that needed perches. “We didn’t really need a flight cage,” he says.

Before the dome was finished, Bill was drafted, and had to leave the project.  “What could I do?” he says, “I knew it was in good hands.” After Bill served his country in Germany, his path took him away from architecture, and toward art school and art; in Rochester, New York he currently 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.

An official Kaiser publication asks the question:  “But as a matter of historical record, who built the first civilian geodesic dome in the United States?” It answers:

“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.

photo: Suzanne Long

Which leads us to the current day.  The dome is no longer used to house injured wildlife, as it was most recently (possibly up to the eighties).  Constance Taylor, who works at the Nature Center, says that nowadays, it’s not considered good practice to house injured wildlife in view of the public, if you plan on releasing them.  She also notes that the organization lacks the funding to support any kind of regular wildlife rehab service anyways.

But a sign at the dome indicates that a group is now actively trying to find 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 East Oakland Beautification Council has already started making some improvements to the landscaping around the dome.

But if birds aren’t the highest and best use, what is? Is there some way that the active Oakland Pollinator Posse could use it for butterflies?

Our 3,000 pound piece of architectural history deserves to be restored and repurposed. The sign in front of the dome says “Please follow the transformation.”

We will. With great interest.


CREDITS: you can find more of CJ Hirschfield’s excellent writing on film reviews here.









Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.