(from The Boston Globe)
I’ve lived in ordinary houses all of my life, a parade of ranches, Capes, Colonials and, until this year, a solemn Greek Revival farmhouse. Every house had its quirks, its good points and bad, but they all shared one common feature: They were built with the peaked roofs and rectangular windows every child learns to draw in kindergarten.
And then, without planning or foresight, came this house. We saw the realtor’s ad posted in a window and arranged to look at it on a whim. We weren’t house shopping, but we had been planning to renovate, and the prospect of living through months of dust, hammering and plastic sheeting set our teeth on edge.
It wasn’t love at first sight. This house was almost twice the size of the one we owned, and was definitely in a better neighborhood. The setting was perfect, too: Centered on six acres of land, the house sat high on a knoll overlooking its own dell of oaks, maples, pine trees and a pond perfect for frog catching. “No doubt about it, this place is Kid Paradise,” my husband and I readily agreed.
Yet, there was one problem, a real show-stopper: The house was a geodesic dome, as round as an igloo and as brown as a muffin. We had never seen anything like it, other than Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in Florida.
“I don’t know,” my husband fretted on the drive home after that first showing. “Are we dome people? Can I really learn to say `Welcome to our dome, sweet dome?’ with a straight face?”
Others expressed doubts as well. “It looks like the cheese factory on Route 1,” scowled the loan officer at the bank. And, when I showed the listing sheet to a friend, she laughed outright and shook her head. “Here’s the Star Ship Enterprise, landed in the woods,” she said.
Despite our reservations, we bought the house, persuaded not only by its size and location, but by its practical construction as well. The first geodesic dome was invented and built in 1922 by Walter Bauersfeld of Jena, Germany as a rooftop planetarium. Then, after World War II, inventor and builder R. Buckminster Fuller tinkered with the dome design, determined to prove that spherical structures are the strongest way to enclose space. He was the first to propose that dome homes might be the answer to humanity’s future housing shortage. As Fuller discovered, the reason we could afford to buy a 4300 sq. ft. house on six acres of land in a tony neighborhood was because a half-sphere is economical to build, requiring the least amount of material to enclose any given volume of space. (Not to mention the fact that weird houses cost less.) By contrast, the contemporary McMansions in our neck of the woods — with their vaulted ceilings, hotel foyers and Volkswagon-sized chandeliers — are among the least efficiently built homes technically possible.
As an added plus, with our hilltop setting, multiple skylights and enormous triangular windows, our dome house offered better natural lighting than most greenhouses. It’s even possible for us to track the changing night skies from almost every room; in essence, it feels a lot like living in a tree house. Even more important, though, the dome’s spherical shape, 21″ thick walls, and natural air circulation through the dome shell guarantee that we save on fuel costs.
However, Dan was right: Once we lived in a dome, we had to learn to think like dome people. It was a shock to realize how completely my previous homes had defined who I thought I was. When we owned our classic Greek Revival farmhouse, for instance, I jumped at the chance to paint the porch ceiling the traditional pale blue of old houses all over New England, and festooned the kitchen windows with classic yellow curtains patterned with flowers and pears. Outside, I planted tulip borders in straight rows along the brick walk and lined weathered wooden rocking chairs up on the porch like so many creaky, aging aunts.
I couldn’t enjoy any of this in the dome. As Dan observed while the movers trucked furniture into the house and left our belongings looking huddled and small under the 25′ high ceiling of the living room, “It’s kind of like living under the sky. The challenge is to build a home inside our house.”
At that point, I started to panic. Where do you stand your bookshelves, line up your couch and connect your TV, when there just aren’t walls and corners enough to go around? And how do you decide what color to paint a room, when the walls loom the height of four men?
Dan adapted quickly to the new shape of our dome life, since he grew up in an open- concept house designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright’. “I feel like I’ve really come home,” he decided, satisfied.
But I hated the cavernous feel of our new dome house, the echoing empty spaces and the unrelenting light through the windows. I felt like I’d moved into the town hall. I sorely missed our farmhouse, with its warm, knotty pine floors and manageably small, rectangular rooms. I’d sold not only my home, it turns out, but part of my identity. When it comes to self-expression, our choices in hairstyles, clothing and cars all speak volumes, but it is the home we live in that sings the final exit line. What could I do to make the dome my own?
“Think like The Jetsons,” one of my friends encouraged, referring to the space age cartoon we’d both watched as kids. “You don’t have a flying car, but you should have, with this house.”
For starters, I had to forget everything I thought I knew about interior decoration and begin to experiment. I created rooms by positioning chairs and tables in ways that suggested separate spaces within the dome’s main living area. And, when it became clear that we didn’t own nearly enough pieces to fill the house, I went furniture shopping, quickly turning a cold shoulder towards the traditional styles I’d bought for the farmhouse. Instead, I indulged in the stuff of fantasy, like a velvet fainting couch to put beneath the enormous hexagonal window — the perfect place to recline and gaze out at the treetops at sunrise, a cup of tea in hand. For the living room, I bought end tables crafted from old barrels, admiring the way their circular shapes echoed the room, and a rhino-sized leather hassock that would have tyrannized any other living room. The end result was a cross between European elegance and druid decor.
Emboldened by these small steps, I began fooling with colors as well. There was nothing wrong with the dome’s white walls; in fact, the previous owner had gone to great lengths to render the house pristine. But it was just a bit too much like living in an ice cave. I studied the living room, where the ceiling height and bright light were wonderful for reading, but dwarfed intimate conversation. What could I do? Even if I could think of a color that I’d dare layer on the inside of this huge sphere, I couldn’t imagine how I’d manage to paint those arching walls without a trapeze. So I opted for painting just the shortest back wall beneath the loft a deep burgundy. Behind the moss green sofa, the deep purple created an earthy retreat. Downstairs, in the white guest room, I blazed tangerine on the wall looking out on our grape arbor. And, in our bedroom, I transformed our dull, pale surroundings into something infinitely more interesting by painting the odd hexagonal end wall the soft teal of Provence at dusk and tossing a tapestried gold bedspread from Belgium over our sleigh bed.
I didn’t stop with the house’s interior. Although I actually liked the color of the dome – a nutmeg brown — it made the dome look like a squatting mouse. So I stained the deck and trellis a deep Bordeaux and asked my husband to spray silvery blue paint onto a few unfinished Adirondack chairs. The effect was dazzling, especially when I added a Mexican chiminea and a statue of a meditating Buddha to the patio below it.
Do the colors flow through the house? Are the furnishings just right? Should I have hung that stone Celtic mask on the wall of our dome house above our purple deck just because I liked his grin? Who knows?
And who cares? There’s something liberating about living in any new house, because it allows you to express who you are anew, and to even redefine who you want to become. The beauty of my dome house, I’ve learned, is that it is not just a practical, economic structure — a fact that appeals to the Yankee in me. The dome is also an alternative sort of house, and has taught me to literally think outside the box: No color is off limits. The best furniture is furniture you love. Put things in your yard that make you smile. And let other people think what they will. Your home is not just where your heart is, but where your body rests, your mind is free to wander, and, if your lucky, your spirit soars.