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Doomed Dome: The Future That Never Was

In the bright and shiny future, we all live in green, gleaming communities, monorailed shuttles at the ready, climate-controlled at all times — a sort of Logan’s Run, but without the forced euthanasia. It almost happened in, of all places, an old mill town in northern Vermont.

Winooski and its 7,000 people lie just north of Burlington, Vermont and next to Lake Champlain. The name means “wild onion” in the language of the Abenaki Indians, for the plants that grew along the river of the same name, whose rapids powered the mills that sustained the town for decades. But by the 1960s the mills had lost to modern technologies, and Winooski became a kind of poor and overshadowed cousin to its progressive (some said socialist) neighbor.

Vermont, the saying goes, is nine months of winter and three months of bad skiing. Winooski’s January lows are -20 Fahrenheit or lower, and winters see 75 or more inches of snow. Residents shovel the stuff for months, and then unshovel it in the spring, spreading the high piles across their driveways to encourage melting. Getting from your car to the store can at times feel like the Iditarod.

In the late 1970s the U.S was in its second energy crisis of the decade and roiled by double-digit inflation. Oil was at a then-shocking $38 a barrel ($107 in today’s dollars), having risen eightfold in the previous ten years, and Jimmy Carter went on television in a Cardigan sweater to urge Americans to turn down their thermostats. Few towns were hurting more than frigid Winooski, whose residents spent about $4 million a year to stay thawed.

One night in 1979 a group of its creative young city planners went to dinner and Mark Tigan, then the city’s 32-year-old director of community development and planning, decided that not enough attention was being paid to energy conservation. Then, in the way that only a few glasses of wine can facilitate brainstorming, someone said, half tongue-in-cheek, they should put a dome over the city.

 

The next morning it still seemed like a good idea — or, at least, not necessarily completely absurd.

At the time, Winooski was second in the amount of federal money received per capita, and was favored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a place to pilot new ideas. Tigan had his staff prepare a white paper on the dome. They wrote that a one square mile dome would reduce resident’s heating bills by up to 90 percent. Tigan presented the idea to the city council.

Winooski Dome Exterior. Designer John Anderson

Clem Bissonette, then on Winnoski’s city council and now its ex-mayor, asked Tigan, “Are you nuts?” But when Tigan explained it could mean millions in HUD money, Bissonette and the rest of the city council quickly signed on, and a young reporter named Jodie Peck who was covering the meeting wrote about it for the next day’s Burlington paper.

The following morning, Tigan recalls, three satellite trucks were parked in front of city hall, and within days the town was receiving 20 bags of mail a day from enthusiasts all around the world. Companies were calling, wanting to build the Winooski Dome.

The city’s request for $55,000 for a feasibility study went to Washington, and enthusiasts pushed it up through channels. A deputy assistant secretary at HUD named Bob Embrey said he would fund it.

“I didn’t hear one organized voice against it,” said Tigan. “The Woodchucks loved it,” he said, referring to the city’s long-time French-Canadian residents, “since it meant that they’d never have to shovel snow again. They thought of it as their little piece of Tampa Bay.”

Naturally the media was full of questions, and Tigan and his staff had few real answers. Basically, he says, they made it up on the fly. “They asked how high it would be, and we said 250 feet, so it wouldn’t block planes but clear the town’s highest building (eleven stories). Would it be clear or opaque? ‘Of course you’ll be able to see through it,’ we said. What about automobile exhaust? ‘Oh, we’ll have electric cars or monorails inside.’ By the time the media was done constructing it, we had a picture in place.”

Naturally, the media was full of questions, and Tigan had few real answers. Basically, he says, they made it up on the fly.

Tigan contracted with John Anderson, a Vermont conceptual architect, to produce drawings of the Dome. Anderson’s vision was not a hemispheric shape, but more like the top half of a hamburger bun. He colored it whiteish yellow and eschewed any inside support structures.

Anderson’s picture was the first tangible view of the Dome. Thinking ahead, he envisioned a vinyl-like material attached over a network of metal cables, ranging from transparent (on the southern side, to allow in sunlight) to opaque on the northern side. Air would be brought inside by large fans and heated or cooled as necessary. The Dome would be held up by air pressure just slightly above atmospheric pressure. Entrances and exits would consist of double doors, akin to an airlock. The homes inside would require no individual heating or cooling — “you could grow tomatoes all year-round” he said. If the Dome were punctured it would come down slowly, allowing for ample warning. Anderson now recalls it as a “totally fun” project, though he did occasionally get insulted in restaurants by some local residents. “What will happen to our children?” they asked.

Enthusiasts organized an International Dome Symposium, held in March 1980. Buckminster Fuller, then busy assisting in Brasilia, the planned capital city in Brazil that had been hacked out wholesale from the Amazonian jungle, flew in to express his enthusiasm. Fuller (naturally) proposed a structure of multiple geodesic domes, but in any case declared the engineering “not terribly difficult,” and pointed to already existing structures like large airport terminals in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Fuller had built the “US Pavilion” at Expo Montreal in 1976 — three-fourths of a sphere consisting of 1900 molded, transparent Plexiglas panels, 200 feet high and 250 feet in diameter, covering 1.1 acres. Winooski’s dome would cover nearly the entire town, 800 times that area. He stressed that the biggest challenge was not keeping the dome up, but holding it down against the force of rising warm air.

Winooski Dome Interior. Designer John Anderson

Tigan and his staff waded deeper into the idea. Someone calculated that it would make economic sense if heating oil rose above $1.25 a gallon — it was then at $0.99 per gallon. (Today it sells for about twice that, in current dollars.) And then there was the money saved on snowplowing. They applied for HUD money, not so much to study the feasibility of the engineering, but to learn how people might react to such a unique living situation, and to refine the economics and the environment.

Everyone had an opinion. The New York Times editorialized against the Dome, saying it would ruin the view. The financial pages of Saudi Arabian newspapers feared it for the precedent it might set. Tigan appeared on the Letterman show, McNeil and Lehrer, and others. Then, Senator William Proxmire from Wisconsin, famous (and some said, short-sighted) for his “Golden Fleece Awards,” given monthly to a project he deemed a waste of federal funds, got wind of the idea. President Carter, struggling for reelection in a terrible economy with Americans being held hostage in Iran, personally called up Embrey — the project backer at HUD. In May, 1980, HUD turned down Winooski’s request for funds.

After Ronald Reagan won the autumn election, money for such projects dried up very quickly. Peck, the reporter who broke the story and who is now a realtor in Vermont, called it “wonderful publicity for the town, but it was a great idea that would never work.”

Tigan, now an associate professor of Community Development at the Clark University, disagrees. “Economically it’s a slam dunk,” he said. The biggest issue, he believes, would be the public taking of land via eminent domain to secure the area around the edges, illustrated by the 2005 controversial Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs. City of New London. Such issues, Tigan expects, will become more common in the future as environmental sustainability and even survival become economic issues.

“You could have had year-round fly-fishing,” he says with a bit of a sigh. “If I had stayed in Winooski, it would be under a dome now.”

David Appell is a freelance science journalist living in St. Helens, Oregon.