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Life under the dome* | Stories | Notre Dame Review

To Notre Dame students and employees in the early 1960s, it must have looked like an alien spacecraft had landed in the vacant fields east of the campus power plant.

The Stepan Center, its golden convex roof gleaming in the sun, opened its doors 60 years ago: May 11, 1962. The geodesic dome was unveiled in an evening ceremony during the Seniors’ Ball taking place at the inside the new facility.

Stepan Center was a space-age marvel when it was built, with an appearance closer to The Jetsons (which would be presented four months later) than a typical university building of the time.

With its brick base, gold anodized aluminum dome, and silver ceiling (reminiscent of a Jiffy Pop popcorn pan, invented in 1958), it was unlike anything seen before on campus or by most Americans. .

The $350,000 facility was a gift from Alfred C. Stepan Jr. and his wife, Mary Louise, of Winnetka, Illinois. Stepan, a 1931 Notre Dame graduate, was president of Stepan Chemical Company of Northfield, Illinois.

Over the years, Stepan has been the campus location for a long list of celebrity speakers and milestone events. It has hosted rock concerts, pep rallies, national political figures, the mock campus political conventions, the Sophomore Literary Festival, and the Collegiate Jazz Festival.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Stepan Center on October 18, 1963. Weeks later, it was the site of a solemn Requiem Mass honoring President John F. Kennedy. Thousands of people crowded its circular walls to hear a presidential campaign speech by Robert F. Kennedy in April 1968, two months before his assassination.

Stepan was the first building completed on what Notre Dame administrators called the new “East Campus”. Also under construction at this time: the new 14-story campus library, an on-campus computer science and math building, and the radiation research center.

“The East Campus appears like a college Disneyland,” said the Former student of Notre Dame declared in December 1962.

Stepan replaced Navy Drill Hall (built in 1943 for the V-7 Naval Program training Navy officers for service in World War II and used for large campus events), which was demolished to make way at the new library.

Like many 60-year-olds, Stepan’s golden crown of youth – his roof – has turned gray. However, its campus mission as a space for flexible use is still going strong.

Stepan Center was one of the first geodesic domes built in the United States. The dome, configured in the form of a geodesic polyhedron, is made of a lattice shell of triangular elements that distribute the structural stresses, allowing it to support very heavy loads.

The campus project was announced in November 1961 and completed six months later. Circular in shape and 160 feet in diameter, the new facility was designed with a seating capacity of 3,000.

Stepan’s dome consisted of 600 aluminum sections that were bolted together, allowing the 127-ton roof to be lifted into place as a unit, according to reports at the time.

The invention of the geodesic dome is often credited to American designer and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, who coined the name and popularized the shape.

However, the first such dome was designed a century ago by Walter Bauersfeld, a German engineer, for a planetarium in Jena, Germany. After a small dome was built, a larger one dubbed “The Wonder of Jena” opened in 1926. (It still stands.)

Fuller dabbled in dome design during experiments in the late 1940s at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and received a U.S. patent for the shape in 1954. The oldest dome built by Fuller, from from 1953, is located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. This long-vacant dome, a former restaurant, still exists and is part of a planned redevelopment project.

The architectural form burst onto the international scene when a geodesic dome designed by Fuller was erected for the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, during the Cold War. The exhibit showcased American art, fashion and technology in futuristic-looking pavilions.

Weather The magazine described the structure as resembling “a giant, golden armadillo shell.”

“Russians are particularly fascinated by the gold-anodized aluminum geodesic dome – 200 feet wide and 78 feet high – resembling a huge glowing umbrella,” read a newspaper report.

The advantages of the shape were touted: its strength, flexible interior space and low maintenance costs as aluminum does not rust and does not require painting. No center post or other interior beam is needed to support the roof.

Fuller also developed the Dymaxion House, a futuristic single-family home intended to be mass-produced and easily shipped anywhere in the world. Resembling a close relative of the Airstream Caravan, the Dymaxion was designed to be strong, light and economical. An example of the Dymaxion house is on permanent display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. (It’s worth the detour.)

Fuller was not directly involved in the design or construction of the Stepan Center. The architect credited was Minnesota-based Ellerbe Associates, the company that handled most of Notre Dame’s architectural projects at that time.

The list of those who addressed the crowds at Stepan reads like a “Who’s Who” of 20th century notables: William F. Buckley, Bill Clinton, Betty Shabazz, George HW Bush, Norman Mailer, Dick Gregory, Oliver Stone, George McGovern, Ralph Nader, Leonard Nimoy, Jimmy Carter and others.

Rock bands and other musicians who have performed there include: Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, The Supremes, Ray Charles, Neil Diamond, Herbie Hancock, Pure Prairie League, Indigo Girls, Wilco, Goo Goo Dolls and many others.

In 1984, a bust of Knute Rockne that had been stolen from the Rockne Memorial building mysteriously reappeared amid a noisy rally at Stepan Center, being handed over to head football coach Gerry Faust.

During his early decades, Stepan was often hired out to organizations in the South Bend area for community events such as home and garden shows, auto shows, scout dinners and science fairs. .

It’s rare these days. “We don’t rent Stepan out much to (non-ND) organizations because he’s used so often by student groups,” says Kat Van Vleet ’02, assistant director of student activities who runs the Stepan Center.

Stepan is now the scene of residence dances, lectures, departmental exams, concerts, robot football competitions, the annual Keenan review, on-campus flu shot clinics, and many other events. . A few weeks ago, flashing colored lights were tested indoors for an upcoming hip-hop dance competition.

During the 2021-2022 academic year, Stepan recorded approximately 480 reservations. (A reservation can mean an event, event setup, or repeat.)

The University has more requests to use Stepan than it can handle. “We’ve had people wanting to fly drones indoors, which we don’t allow. It’s too easy to damage the ceiling,” says Van Vleet.

The center’s mid-century modern aesthetic attracts enthusiasts. For several years, Stepan had his own good-natured Twitter account, @StepanNDmocking himself and other facilities on campus.

Over the decades, geodesic domes have proliferated for commercial and residential purposes. The Stepan Center has a virtual twin in the Gold Dome, a banking building built in 1958 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the geodesic dome resurfaced as small plastic igloos used as an outdoor dining space for restaurant patrons.

“Given all of its use, Stepan is in pretty good shape,” says Doug Marsh ’82, Notre Dame’s vice president for facility design and operations and a university architect.

In recent years, the University has invested in repairs and upgrades to Stepan, cleaning up the brickwork, sealing some roof leaks and replacing the original opaque windows with clear glass to provide natural light inside. The campus landmark is in good condition as it enters its seventh decade.

Stepan delivered on the geodesic dome’s original promise of a flexible and efficient activity space.

“It really costs very little to run it,” says Marsh.


Margaret Fosmoe is associate editor of this magazine.

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