(I posted this for the first time last year on Dec. 23rd. There’s a lot of truth in it. Whatever else, it is a memory of my childhood: Christmas, my father, the Ford Rotunda and things that mattered and still do. I wish you a most wonderful holiday, filled with the magic and mystery of childhood. I wish for us all the quality of life that Buckminster Fuller envisioned.)
R. Buckminster Fuller was friends with Boston artist Pietro Pezzati, singer John Denver and also, my father. Even though my father was but half his age.
Bucky came into my life at Christmas time, in 1953. I was three years and three months old. Do I remember him? Yes, I do.
Although we lived in a Pete Seeger ticky-tacky post war house and not a Dymaxion House, he came to dinner one night in early December. And he pet our giant gray and white cat, Ike. As in, “I Like Ike.”
It was a Friday night and that was fortunate because on all the other nights of the week we ate tuna noodle casserole, spam with brown sugar and New England boiled dinner. On Fridays we dined on fish and chips from Suzie Q’s, located at the corner of Woodward and 8 Mile Rd. It came in yellow cardboard pie-plates stapled together to form a dome of sorts, although not geodesic. The fish was sole and there were crinkle cut french fries and a giant blueberry muffin. Food fit for a king and also Bucky.
My father and Buckminster had been working together on a project for Ford Motor Company for over a year and they were nearing the end of their joint effort, the Ford Rotunda. An architectural wonder originally built for the Century of Progress Exposition (aka, the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair), the building was moved to Dearborn, Michigan in 1936 and closed to the public during WWII. Described as “ultra-modern”, the Rotunda reopened as part of Ford’s 50th anniversary celebration on June 16, 1953. A radioactive wand (the tip contained a small amount of radium), said to be symbolic of the arrival of industry at the threshold of the atomic age, turned on golden floodlights and lighted 50 huge birthday candles around the rim of the Rotunda. The wand bombarded a Geiger tube with 44,890,832 gamma ray impulses in 15 seconds. The final impulse (the number signified the number of vehicles produced by Ford since 1903) was said to trigger the electrical system. But most people would come to associate the Rotunda with an annual Christmas display called the Christmas Fantasy, which first opened on Dec. 15, 1953. In the last two weeks of that December over 500,000 people would visit the Christmas Fantasy at the Rotunda.
Back at our ticky tacky little house my mother and father were in the kitchen unpacking Susie Q’s fish and chips. My brother was in the den, watching the 10 inch diameter black and white TV screen housed in the 38 inch console. It was Howdy Doody Time. Bucky sat on the sofa petting Ike and I sat on the floor staring up at him through 1/2 inch thick eyeglasses which didn’t really fit a 3 year old all that well. Blind in one eye, my world was blurry, to say the least. And then Bucky (Mr. Fuller, to me) said something quite odd.
“Listen, little billionaire, have you considered the benefits of polyphasic sleep? You may not remember when this was second nature to you, but you should practice this all throughout your life. You’ll get more done.” Then he said, “Excuse me momentarily” and he stretched out on the sofa, without removing his shoes, and instantly fell asleep. Ike and I watched him until my father came in about seven minutes later and announced that dinner was out of the bag. Bucky sat up, blinked and said, “Better now!” and we all went into the kitchen (for want of a dining room) and sat down to Susie Q’s.
I only saw R. Buckminster Fuller one more time and that was a couple weeks later when we went to the opening of A Christmas Fantasy. I was dressed in my best dress and leggings, patent leather shoes, a wool coat, matching hat, a rabbit fur muff and those ridiculous glasses.
I should take a moment to note that my father was not a distinguished architect, a man of radical philosophical beliefs or a great visionary. He was an Ohio farm boy who grew up, went to war, married young and formulated plans to sell Ford tractors. It’s true that he was exceptionally good at coming up with ideas to sell tractors. My father and Buckminster Fuller were an unlikely pair and yet in some fashion, they became a pair around the building and promotion of the Ford Rotunda.
And so, we were among the first in line. We arrived in the late afternoon while it was graying but still light and stood in a cluster of VIPs and their children. A red and white bow, far larger than I, was tied across the winged entrance and someone, while my feet grew colder and colder in those patent leather shoes, said some things about the wonders we would see and cut the bow with a flourish and a giant pair of scissors. We filed in and the magic began. It was snowing inside! Inside the biggest igloo of a building you could ever imagine- it was snowing! In the center of the igloo stood a Christmas tree 4 stories high with thousands upon thousands of lights and shiny ornaments.
I slipped my mother’s grasp. You can see that her attention is elsewhere; that’s little me, the smallest child, in the dark coat and cap (too bad you can’t see the disproportionately large eyeglasses). And I ran to the tree: I needed to touch it and smell it, to feel the bright hot colored lights, to brush snow from the limbs. I stood transfixed and then, from inside the branches of the tree, I heard a familiar voice.
“Ah, my little billionaire! What do you think of my tensegrity structure?”
“It’s very nice, Mr. Fuller.”
“Yes, in here, there is no sunsight or sunclipse, but only the endless recycling of sustainable snow. Oh, and be sure to stop by Santa’s workshop. The elves are building toy Ford tractors on the assembly line.”
My mother came then and reclaimed me. I’m certain she was unaware of Mr. Fuller sitting on a branch inside the tree. We moved on and saw all that there was to see.
There was ‘The Night Before Christmas’, an almost lifesize house with Rudolf snorting puffs of steam impatiently on the rooftop while Santa emptied his sack under the tree. Story Book Land came to life, with Hansel and Gretel, Little Boy Blue, Puss in Boots, Little Bo Peep and Humpty Dumpty animated by machines performing around a vast Santa Claus castle. The best was a 15,000-piece miniature circus with a parade, a 10-piece band on a wagon pulled by a 10-horse team, a steam calliope and 800 tiny animals, 30 tents, 435 performers and a full audience, all in a scale of 1/2 inch to the foot. In addition to the circus, we saw a rustic barn dance, a shopping center with a doll beauty shop, animated dolls representing children of all nations, and woodland creatures frolicking in the snow. The blur of partial blindness only enhanced the wondrous effect.
The Nativity included a life-size manger scene set in a lean-to built into the side of a hill, with a huge star glowing in the heavens. (In 1958 Ford would receive a commendation from the National Council of Churches for emphasizing the spirit of Christmas with what the Council determined was “the largest and finest Nativity scene in the United States.”)
In the end, all roads led to Santa, but I was tired and tiny and shy when it came time to sit on his lap. My father said, “Hop up, Tadpole” and so I did.
And here is what Santa said to me, speaking ever so softly and near enough to my ear that his beard tickled:
“And what would you like for Christmas, my little billionaire?”
I thought ‘how strange’, at least in the sense that a three year old can think ‘how strange’ but I answered, “Santa, a bride doll, please.”
And Santa responded, “Well, little B, you would be wiser to want an Operating Manual for the Spaceship Earth. It will teach you that through ephemeralization and synergetics we can waste not and want not and the worldaround will be populated by 4 billion billionaires, each able to enjoy Susie Q’s fish and chips whenever they wish. You will come to understand that less is more and cooperation is the optimal survival strategy. This manual explains how selfishness is unnecessary and irrational, and war is obsolete. It explains how we can recycle both our knowledge and our materials to live ever more fulfilling lives. Wouldn’t you rather have that for Christmas instead?”
I considered a minute, as much as a three year old can consider, and said, “Ummm, no thank you, Santa. I think my brother wants a spaceship but I would like a bride doll.”
And then my father was there and said, “Hop down, Tadpole.” And I did and we held hands and walked out of that fantastical place with the never-ending warm snow and I fell asleep in the car on the way home.
That Christmas Santa brought me precisely the bride doll I wished for. She was as tall as I was and had eyes that opened and closed and the most beautiful of bride’s dresses. Bruce got a model tractor rather than a spaceship.
I don’t recall what became of that bride doll after her hair tangled and I lost interest and now I often wish I had accepted the Operating Manual for the Spaceship Earth. But that is hindsight rather than foresight and hindsight is usually the path not taken, yes? (This is the end of my Christmas story)
Buckminster Fuller died at the age of 88, a decade before my father did. He was a guru of design, architecture, and ‘alternative’ communities. He was (hopelessly) optimistic that if we carefully, conscientiously and thoughtfully managed our resources there could be high quality life for all the creatures of the earth.
When his wife was comatose and dying of cancer he visited her in the hospital. At some point he exclaimed: “She is squeezing my hand!”. When he stood up, he suffered a massive heart attack and died within the hour. His wife died 36 hours later. John Denver wrote the song “What One Man Can Do” for Fuller. A new allotrope of carbon (fullerene) and a particular molecule of that allotrope (buckminsterfullerene or buckyballs) have been named after him.
If you want to know more about Fuller, Buckminster Fuller’s Universe, His Life and Work by Lloyd Sieden (ISBN 0738203793), explores Fuller’s personal life, his beliefs and important contributions to society.
Designed to be the showcase of the auto industry, the Ford Rotunda was opened to the public on May 14, 1936. The original steel framework was covered with Indiana limestone, forming a design representing a stack of gears, decreasing in size towards the top. Located on Schaefer Road, across from the Ford Administration building, the circular structure had an open courtyard 92 feet in diameter and a wing on either side.Huge murals on the walls depicted the manufacture of the Ford automobile. Exhibits were changed regularly, but Ford products always took center stage.
The grounds contained reproductions of 19 historic Roads of the World: the Appian Way from Italy, the Tokaido Road in Japan, the Grand Trunk Road in India, a Mayan road from the Yucatan, the Oregon Trail and a wooden plank section of Woodward Avenue from the earliest days of that thoroughfare.
Besides its own attractions, the Rotunda served as the gateway for tours of the Rouge Plant. In 1960, the Rotunda ranked behind only Niagara Falls, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Smithsonian Institution and the Lincoln Memorial as a national tourist destination. It was more popular than Yellowstone National Park, Mount Vernon, the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty.
The building was closed to the public during World War II, and following the war underwent a massive remodeling in 1952, in which the courtyard was covered with an 18,000 pound dome. The weight of a conventional dome, 320,000 pounds, would have crushed the structure, so Ford turned to R. Buckminster Fuller, who came up with the design, the first commercial application of his experimental geodesic dome. Later, Buckminster Fuller would perfect his concept of tensegrity to the degree that he could cover the same 92 foot diameter area with a permanent, secure dome weighing less than 3,000 pounds.
The preparations for the 1962 Christmas display were well under way when disaster struck on Nov. 9. While workers applied tar to the dome as weatherproofing, they kept it warm with an infrared heater. The tar caught fire. Shortly after 1 p.m., an employee saw flames on the ceiling of the main floor, and gave the alarm as workmen raced down from the roof. Sheets of flames shot 50 feet high. The black smoke was visible for miles.
In less than an hour the Rotunda lay in ruins. The Christmas Fantasy was completely lost to the flames. All that was saved were the Christmas tree, which had not been put in place, the 2,500 Goodfellow dolls shown yearly which had not been delivered, and the miniature circus, which had been packed into trunks and was ready to move in.
My father did, in fact, work with Buckminster Fuller on the geodesic dome aspect of the Rotunda and they became friends. A Christmas Fantasy was an integral part of the Christmases of my childhood.