2006 Collectors Issue
An exploration of well-rounded shelters
by Mary Thill
Stones lose their edges as they tumble and scrape through time. Bird nests and animal dens have no corners. The Earth itself is spherical, as far as we know. “Everything tries to be round,” observed Black Elk, a famous Oglala Sioux medicine man. So why do most of us spend our lives in boxes? A few Adirondackers don’t. They’ve rejected right angles in favor of domes, octagons, silos, yurts and other circular dwellings. Curves are by no means a common theme in Adirondack architecture, despite the region’s reputation for buildings that imitate nature. But here and there, round houses dot the Adirondack massif, which is, after all, itself a dome of the geological sort.
Inventor, architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller devoted himself to using design to improve the lives of all human beings and protect the environment. After debuting his geodesic dome at the Milan Triennial, in 1954, the mushroom-cap structure gained worldwide attention.
Fuller was trying to create the most efficient house possible based on the principle “do more with less.” The dome “encloses the largest volume of interior space with the least amount of surface area, thus saving on materials and cost,” states the Buckminster Fuller Institute, a global network of design-science innovators. “The spherical structure of a dome is one of the most efficient interior atmospheres for human dwellings because air and energy are allowed to circulate without obstruction. This enables heating and cooling to occur naturally.” Interlocking triangles hold the building together by tension more than gravity.
Domes became a symbol of space-age and counterculture thinking in the 1960s and 1970s, but people facing cold North Country winters may have built them simply for their heat-holding properties. There are dome homes in Chazy, Keene Valley, Keeseville, Onchiota, Saranac Lake and Valcour, to name a few towns; most are discreetly tucked in the woods.
One of the most visible is the restaurant nicknamed “the Igloo” in St. Regis Falls. It began as the Eskimo Inn in the 1960s. Now called the Adirondack Café, the place still serves ice cream to campers but also offers homemade breakfasts, lunches and dinners ranging from burgers to Chinese, Mexican and Italian dishes.
Nostalgia brings some diners in, says Sharon Germann, who has owned the café with her husband, Joseph, since 2002. The building may be a throwback on the outside, but the inside is decorated in the rustic style more typical of the region. “It’s small,” Sharon says. “The tables are close, and people talk and laugh, and it’s one of the things that make it fun.” Contrary to the dome’s reputation for energy efficiency, she says this one is hard to heat; it was built for summer use and isn’t insulated. But the kitchen warms it up in winter.
A new mushroom-top popped up near Bloomingdale this year. The owner, who asked to remain anonymous because too many curious people have already waltzed onto the property uninvited, says, “Men stop and think it’s beautiful. Women say, ‘How does your furniture fit in there?’”
The thirty-eight-foot-diameter wood-frame-and-cement-board home is open on the main floor and divided into pie-shaped rooms upstairs. Built from a ten-sided kit (eight sides is more typical), the house is quite globelike. A four-root riser wall and below-grade foundation allowed the family, who constructed the home themselves, to use standard doors and windows rather than build out an entryway, as many domes and igloos require.
Octagon houses were the domes of their day, a century and a half ago. Their chief proponent was Orson Squire Fowler, the country’s leading phrenologist, the now-discredited Victorian science of divining a person’s character by the shape of his or her head.
The Greeks had been building eight-sided temples since B.C., and Thomas Jefferson, while he was president, designed an Italian-style country villa in that stop-sign shape. Still, octagons didn’t catch on in America until 1848, when Fowler wrote a book called Home for All, starting another fad. Eight-sided houses use less material, are easier to heat and cool (the volume-to-surface-area-ratio theory again), and receive more natural light than rectilinear homes, the book argued.
Fowler may have been a quack, but his architectural ideas have held up, attests Laura Kiely, of Factoryville, a little community just outside of Crown Point. She and her husband, Brian, have lived and raised a family in a two-story, clapboard 1850s octagon for eighteen years. “I love it,” Laura says. “I wouldn’t trade it. . . . When they built this house they put very little inside wall space against the outside wall,” she explains. The main interior rooms are square, “so we have huge, beautiful triangular closets in the corners. . . . I grew up in an old house, so I know that a lot of them don’t have good closet space.” In winter the closets stay cold enough that they could double as food coolers, she adds.
According to Robert Kline, a retired engineer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, four or five thousand octagonal houses were built during the Fowler period, mostly in the East and Midwest. About 850 houses that still stand are cataloged on his website, octagon.bobanna.com. The Factoryville house had fallen into disrepair, but the Kielys, both teachers at Ticonderoga Middle School, have spent their summers restoring it.
An eight-sided stairwell opening in the center of the ceiling allows natural light from a skylight on the roof to reach the first floor. Likewise the hole allows warmth from radiators and baseboards on the first story to rise to the second, which is otherwise unheated. In summer, the house catches breezes from all directions. “Fowler was ahead of his time in many ways,” Laura says.
Eight-sided rooms are an enduring element in Adirondack camp architecture, which took off on a grand scale at the end of the Fowler period, around 1865. Octagons have also been adapted for the odd stand-alone cottage and for many open pavilions in yards and public spaces.
Predating Fowler, the octagon schoolhouse in Boquet, on Route 22 west of Essex, opened in 1826 and continued to hold classes until 1952. Eight-sided schools may have been introduced to America by Dutch immigrants and were not unusual in the Hudson Valley. Some say the good acoustics in octagonal Dutch churches inspired use of the design for classroom space. The restored Boquet schoolhouse is owned by the Town of Essex and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building is kept closed, but visitors are welcome to look in the windows. Another octagonal schoolhouse in Essex, at the Harmon Noble house, is privately owned. Visitors arriving by ferry can see the mid-nineteenth-century clapboard structure and its bright red teardrop roof from Lake Champlain, says Adirondack Architectural Heritage president David Hislop.
The green set comes to the Adirondacks from around the world to learn how to build round houses from Rob and Jaki Roy. Founders of Earthwood Building School, in West Chazy, the Roys have been teaching alternative building for twenty-five years.
The main component of Earthwood homes is, essentially, firewood. The logs are stacked with insulation and mortared inside and out. The one-to-two-foot-thick walls are effective in holding in heat, which is also usually provided by wood.
The cobbled-looking dwellings come in all shapes, but Rob believes that circles make the most sense. “Birds, bees and beavers all build round because they want to have a comfortable house constructed with the least amount of material,” he says.
Minimizing the surface area that encloses a space minimizes heat loss, Rob explains. “This is the oldest form of building. The structures of indigenous people all around the world are round. . . . I don’t think Jaki and I would live in anything else. It’s a very back-to-the-womb sort of thing, a very comfortable feeling.”
Billed as “mortgage-free housing,” cordwood homes are sought out by people who want to use local materials, conserve energy and build inexpensively. They cost about twenty dollars a square foot to construct, Rob estimates, “a little less for people who are good scroungers.” Rob and Jaki get electricity from wind and solar power. Keeping with the natural theme, several of the buildings at their Earthwood compound have sod roofs that add insulation and reduce runoff. More pictures of the buildings can be seen at their website, cordwoodmasonry.com.
Then there are some weird retrofits. Thomas Creek Campground, in Stony Creek, offers a place to park your camper in summer, but it also has one accommodation “for those looking for something a little different,” says Wendy Thomas, proprietor with her husband, John.
John’s great-grandparents had farmed the property until a developer from New York City bought it with the intention of becoming a gentleman farmer and raising cattle. He built a big barn and silo, John says, “but it didn’t work out.”
Christian Scientists acquired the site and converted it into Rainbow Valley Ranch, a residence for physically and mentally challenged young adults. To make more room for staff, they converted the silo into an apartment.
The property came back into the family three years ago when John and Wendy bought it to open a campground. The sixteen-foot-diameter wooden silo will now be available as a summer vacation rental. It has three stories finished inside with knotty pine. A living/kitchen area has three windows. Up a ladder-type stairway is a bedroom with two windows, and downstairs is a bathroom.
A farm-country silo of a different sort—an eighteen-story-deep missile chute in Redford—is for sale for two million dollars. It is connected by a tunnel to a two-story subterranean “launch control center,” which was staffed around the clock during the Cold War by soldiers awaiting the order to send an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) toward the Soviet Union.
Three-foot-thick walls protect the tubes, which were built to withstand the impact of a direct nuclear hit. The launch control center is newly furnished with a dining and entertainment area, two bedroom suites and a Jacuzzi, according to co-owner Bruce Francisco. “Natural sunlight rendition backlighting” keeps things bright, states his website, silohome.com, but in case living like a mole gets old, an escape hatch leads to a more conventional “surface home” above.
The Army envisioned the escape hatch leading downward, away from nuclear doom, in 1961, when this silo and eleven others were built in the orbit of the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Ten ICBMs in New York’s North Country and two in Vermont were on alert for only three years. Since deactivation, most silos fell into neglect or were raided for metal and souvenirs, and all of them flooded, according to a June 2006 inventory of the arms-race remnants by Seven Days, a Burlington, Vermont, weekly.
Quonset huts stood above all of the holes. Some town highway departments now use them for storage, but two of the arched metal buildings have been converted into homes. One in Willsboro serves as an art gallery.
The hippest pad by far is in Lewis, where Alexander Michael, an architect from Sydney, Australia, has been restoring a missile-silo-cum-second-home for the past ten years. “Who wouldn’t want an ICBM silo? The cool factor is HUGE,” Michael writes in an e-mail.
He was lucky to find the launch control center still mostly intact, red button and all, when he bought the property for $160,000 in 1996 (the button has since disappeared). The Australian visits the Adirondacks twice a year and has created a retreat that maintains the silo’s institutional style, which he calls “post-military-industrial chic.” Michael kept many of the original fixtures but substituted a black, orange and red palette for surplus green.
The architect likes curved walls but doesn’t often get to work with them. “Our natural inclination is to build round or curvaceous spaces that are restful and at peace with the eye,” he says. “As a designer, I know I would be tripling the cost of anything I design if I added a curve to it, so the fact that the silo is round is a real bonus.” (Octagons and domes are cheaper because they are constructed from straight elements or kits, Michael explains, and cordwood is an inexpensive material, but, “generally, any product that is not off the shelf, not mass-produced, is more expensive.”) He admits he gets confused, however, as to which way is north when he’s below ground.
A few years after buying the silo, Michael drove a busload of friends visiting from New York, Australia and Italy from JFK airport, in Queens, to Lewis for a weekend party. The highlight was a drag show by the performer Pencil Vania that began with an interpretation of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Her stilettos left dents in the launch console. It was “the best weekend of my life,” Michael writes in an account of the party on his website, siloboy.com.
Michael pumped years’ worth of snowmelt and rainwater out of the missile chute and is now pondering what to do with that space. “I thought a dance party venue would be doable, and it might even cover the cost of doing it,” he muses. “Building a glass roof over the silo would not only keep the weather out but would also allow the sun in.”
Much of Lake Placid’s architecture came from the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games. Some examples are obvious, like the ski jumps. Less evident is how a flying-saucer-shaped structure landed on Saranac Avenue.
It traveled by boat, shipped by the Austrian team from their home country. Local builder Jack Levitt reassembled the wooden building under the guidance of an Austrian engineer. It served as the country’s hospitality pavilion for the two-week-long 1980 games. “It was certainly one of the most popular spots to party and socialize,” Levitt says. After the Olympics it housed High Peaks Cyclery, then Aroma Round coffee shop. Today it sits well-kept but unused.
Probably the largest circular building in the Adirondacks was a round barn built in the late 1800s in Newcomb. Part of the former John J. Anderson farm on Pine Tree Lane (just west of and across Route 28N from the road to Great Camp Santanoni), it once stabled eighty-five horses.
When Newcomb town historian Virginia Hall was a girl in the early 1940s, the barn had fallen out of use, and local children would play in the two-story structure. “It was a magical world for the small fry to wander through,” she recalls. Anderson was a lumberman, so Hall surmises that he kept horses for hauling logs. The structure burned down in 1943.
Round barns were never common, but many were built around the turn of the last century, especially for dairy cows in the Midwest. “The essential advantages of the round barn are convenience, strength, and cheapness [requiring less building material than other shapes],” stated the Kansas State Board of Agriculture’s 1911–12 report. “Either a wooden, brick, or concrete silo is constructed in the center of the barn, as in this position it is of material importance as a support to the roof and in addition its central location minimizes the labor involved in feeding the succulent silage to the dairy matrons.”
Yurts also evolved from a need to care for livestock. For hundreds of years the round, wood-frame tents have sheltered nomadic people who herd yaks, sheep and other grazing animals on the plains of Central Asia. Modern versions are now enjoying some vogue in the Adirondacks for very different reasons.
Whiteface Mountain Ski Area, in Wilmington, uses two yurts as warming huts for young skiers and snowboarders. St. Lawrence University erected a solar-powered “yurt village” for students in its Adirondack Semester outdoor studies program at Massawepie Lake. The Adirondack Park Agency gets occasional applications to put up yurts as single-family homes or tourist accommodations.
On the Mongolian steppe, the ground is the floor, but Americanized versions sit atop wooden platforms, and vinyl and canvas walls take the place of wool felt. The sturdy tents have grown in popularity as not-quite-camping and not-quite-cabin lodging for those who love tenting but aren’t the hard-core backpackers they once were. Falls Brook Yurts, in Minerva (www.fallsbrookyurts.com), rents twenty dwellings that can house up to eight people each. Guests must hike two-thirds of a mile to reach them.
“You hear the nature sounds in the morning, but you don’t have to get up and build a fire to make your coffee or worry about your stove getting wet,” says Lynn Cameron, who has a yurt near her camp on Upper St. Regis Lake.
“We didn’t want the expense of putting up another building, and we needed the extra space for our expanding family to stay,” Cameron says. She also rents the yurt to visitors in summer (see www.adkguideboat.com). It takes a boat ride to get there.
A clear plexiglass dome covers the top, allowing extra light and views of the stars. An accordionlike wood frame of interlocking Xs supports the spokes of the ceiling, on which the heavy vinyl fabric rests.
Cameron initially thought of partitioning the interior, but as she stayed in the tent she found that she liked the feeling of the round room. “Invariably someone comments that they really like the space. They don’t know what it is, though,” she says. “The body loves it—whatever it is—and responds to it on a level that is not intellectual. It’s an emotional experience.”