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Pulling the roof back on Auburn's historic 'Domes'

By: Michelle Miller-Carl, Journal News Editor
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Today, it’s where county leaders put forth a vision for the future of Placer County. But back in 1966, the structure itself was on the cusp of the future, putting Auburn on the map and drawing an architect to town many called a genius. The Placer County Administrative Center, colloquially referred to as “the Domes,” is an unusual sight for visitors to the Fulweiler Avenue offices. “People really notice the uniqueness of it,” said Placer County Supervisor Jim Holmes, just a stone’s throw from the hexagonal canopies that shade the entrance to the building. Holmes, who was elected District 3 supervisor in 2004, said the Domes were a bit of a conundrum at first. “It took me a couple of years to get used to the building and all the different ‘pods,’” he said. “I’d end up in places and couldn’t remember how I got there.” But back in 1966, it was impossible to get lost in the cramped supervisors chambers inside the Placer County Courthouse, which served as the official home of the board of supervisors for 115 years prior to the construction of the Domes. “Most all our staff was crammed into the Courthouse, and I shared a tiny second-floor office with the Board,” the late Placer County CEO Jim Williams said in a newsletter from 1999. “There was no thought of borrowing money — we just had to find a way to build something in a hurry that was affordable.” Lucky for the county, the ideals of noted architect, author and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller meshed with that vision. Fuller is credited with the invention of geodesic domes, which use a complex system of triangles to form a spherical shape. The most notable example of a geodesic dome is the Epcot center at Disney World in Florida. Fuller was given a patent for geodesic domes in 1954 and his design spurred a flurry of “space age” dome projects around the world. Fuller was concerned with sustainability and “doing more with less,” a concept that comes to life in geodesic domes because they allow more volume of space with a smaller surface area — i.e. less building material. They are also quick to assemble. County officials knew they wanted a dome and brought Fuller into the project. “It was different, we talked quite a bit about it at the time,” said William Briner, former Placer County District 5 supervisor from 1961-72. “But it gave us a good building at a reasonable price and that’s what we were looking for at the time.” Officials including Briner and Fuller himself helped turn dirt at the official groundbreaking ceremony in January 1966. “He was delightful,” Briner remembered of Fuller, who died in 1983. “He was very interesting to talk to. He had a lot of ideas and talked a lot about his ideas. We brought him in because we wanted something innovative and a little creative, and we thought that’d be good for Placer County.” Each dome at the county administrative building is constructed of anodized aluminum that’s only around 2 millimeters thick. The panels were riveted together like an airplane. While the Domes are lightweight, they are also extremely stable. They can reportedly withstand winds of 125 miles per hour. Production of the Domes was done by TEMCOR (Torrance Engineering and Manufacturing Corporation), which specialized in dome manufacturing. The domes were factory-produced in Torrance and shipped by rail to Auburn. Nimbus Construction of Fair Oaks was the general contractor for the building. A total of five domes were arranged in a “honeycomb” pattern for esthetic purposes, according to a county newsletter report from the day. The geodesic domes took anywhere from three weeks to three days to construct, according to previous county reports. The entire project cost $689,648, or about $25.20 per square foot. This compared to the market rate of $60 at the time. By November, the supervisors and other county agencies were moving into the unique building. The project came in under budget and on time, Briner said. Although there were some critics — a misunderstanding over whether the gold-painted roof was made out of real gold irked some taxpayers — Briner said the buildings were a source of pride for the county. “We did get a bit of criticism from the traditional building community,” he said. “But we knew this was going to be a one-of-a-kind building we’re all going to love. We were very proud of it.” Since then, the building has gone through many remodels and changes. It currently houses offices for the county executive, supervisors, public information and counsel. “With all that’s happened on the property since then, I think maybe we should have gone to a plain old block building with plans to add on,” said Briner, who’s now in his 80s. “But the Domes are special. Those will last forever.” The Journal’s Michelle Miller-Carl can be reached at michellem@goldcountrymedia.com.