Winooski’s Doomed Dome

There are many schemes a community could brainstorm to cut back on it’s energy bills. In the 1970s, Winooski’s solution was to build a giant dome over town, which of course led this blogger to ask a lot of questions.

Shaped by the cotton mills that lined the river banks and influenced by the loads of immigrants that moved into the neighborhoods rising up the steel hill across it’s titular river from more affluent Burlington, the onion city thrived on industry and ingenuity for over half a century. Hell, they were doing so well from themselves, they said goodbye to the town of Colchester, and formed their own city in 1922. That was until the mid 50s when the mills all shuttered, sending the city into a period of decline and wounded pride while reincarnating their riverfront as an abandoned industrial area.

In the 1970s, the downtown district remained vacant and hardscrabble, and city planners were trying to envision ways to rejuvenate the community. But apart from the poor economy, another factor was at work, something that Vermonters are all too familiar with; Winter.

The winters were grueling, and a crippling energy crisis and rising oil prices inflated Oil prices to a shocking $38 a barrel. Winooski-ites were spending about $4 million a year just to stay warm, and they were hurting.

Things seemed sort of dismal for Winooski, until one night in 1979, when members of Winooski’s city planners, lead by 32 year old Mike Tigan, were suggesting more attention should be paid to energy conservation in town, to try to relive an already tight budget. Several glasses of wine had been imbibed previous to this point, and most likely under the influence of the stuff, someone suggested, with tongue-in-cheek, that they should just build a dome over the city.

But something happened. In a rare occasion where drinking actually benefits political decisions, the idea was actually remembered, and Tigan and the rest of the city planners actually adjoined the following morning to discuss it. Clem Bissonette, who was on Winnoski’s city council and now its ex-mayor, pretty much asked Tigan if he was crazy. But Tigan had some pretty convincing research done. As luck would have it, Winooski had a special position that worked to it’s benefit. Because of the city’s large amount of low income residents, it was favored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a place to pilot new ideas, and city planners soon realized that if this idea was ever going to take shape, then Winooski had a better chance of actually going through with it than any other city who wanted a dome or other fun urban planning project. When Bissonette found out the city was eligible for millions in HUD funding, he was on board.  I mean, if cold winters insist on permeating over your town over and over, and you find yourself in a unique position to receive support to solve the problem, might as well take advantage of it.

More research was done, and the results were surprising. Instead of considering the idea a picture of absurdity, they concluded that a dome as large as one square mile, the size of the city, could actually work, and would reduce resident’s heating bills by up to 90 percent! As if that wasn’t persuading enough, they found out that Winooski could be granted millions in HUD money because of it. Now it seems a crazy idea might actually be a good idea. Jodie Peck, a reporter who was covering the meeting, wrote about it and put it in the Burlington paper by the next morning, and the story unfurled.

Winooski soon became a national subject of conversation. The city received thousands of letters from previously unfamiliar demographics. Now, scores of professionals all wanted to be the ones chosen to build the Winooski Dome. Eventually, the story became so popular that it interested a deputy assistant secretary at HUD named Bob Embrey, and he agreed to fund the project, so the city wrote them and requested $55,000 for a feasibility study.

Not surprisingly, the media was hungry for more, and had lots of questions. Was this a marketing stunt perpetuated by a desperate community, or was Winooski about to be a trendsetter?

The problem was that the city council had few answers to give. The project was just barely proposed, and went viral so unpredictably, no further research had been put into it yet. They weren’t even sure if they were actually going to go through with it, until they saw how much the media was capitalizing off of it.

As the questions piled up and pressure was mounting, city hall decided to give the public some much anticipated answers, and made stuff up on the spot. The basics began with the dome itself. Basically. The height of the dome was planned to rise to 250 feet, large enough to go over the tallest building in the city and so planes approaching the Burlington International Airport could safely pass overhead.

But if you’re going to undertake a project of this caliber, you have to look at the other side of the coin. If you could build it, What would life be like for the denizens inside the dome? The idea was to make the area inside the dome an automobile free zone – using monorails and electric cars as transportation instead, things that wouldn’t produce emissions . Now, they actually had a picture in place.

The first tangible sketches of the Winooski dome was drawn up by John Anderson, a Vermont conceptual architect, and now, people had an idea to what their future city could look like.

The sketches made the dome look like what was described as “the top half of a hamburger bun”, covered in a vinyl like material held up by a skeleton made of metal cables. He even envisioned a strike feature on the dome itself – transparent on the southern side to let sunlight in, and opaque on the northern side, fading gradually as the two zones met together in the middle. Air would be brought in by large fans, and heated or cooled if needed. Atmospheric pressure could be kept inside by using air locked double doors at the entrances and exits. He stressed that the biggest challenge was not keeping the dome up, but holding it down against the force of rising warm air.

But what if the dome was punctured, or ripped? Anderson said that wouldn’t be something to worry about, the dome was designed to come down at a slow rate, giving residents enough time to notice the problem and evacuate. Well, that’s good news.

But there were still concerns about the project. Could people adapt to living inside such a structure? Some argued that it would alter and ruin the environment and interrupt nature. What about the animals that lived in the city? How would they adapt? And others voiced their concerns about the dome ruining the view, calling it ugly and unsightly. And what about pollution that might arise from cooking fumes, auto emissions, and fires inside? If you were going to commit to something this big, it had to be masterful, or everyone would have to live with the consequences. Everyone had an opinion.

But the project would never see reality, and research was put to a halt. The 1980s rolled in and the economy was changing. Now, the government under the Reagan administration deemed the dome as a waste of federal funds, and the project was turned down, making this grandiose project a memory, and forever creating an extraordinary layer in Winooski’s storied profile.

SourceDoomed Dome: The Future That Never Was by Bucky Fuller

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2 Comments on “Winooski’s Doomed Dome

  1. Love learning more about this proposal, thanks for digging up all you did. Rather outlandish to even think about today when many towns can barely keep their roads maintained but such an idea keeps the imagination going.

    Just found your website and very much enjoy the variety of places you have explored!

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