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Davis, California

Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Domes celebrates 50th anniversary 

Generations of former and current ‘Domies’ gathered on Oct. 8 to celebrate the living-learning cooperative community 

By KAYA DO-KHANH — campus@theaggie.org

Located on the northwest edge of campus, the Domes is a living-learning cooperative community consisting of 14 fiberglass domes that 26 students call home. In the 1970s, the white, igloo-like community of domes was created as an experiment in affordable and communal student housing; it was only supposed to last seven years, but on Oct. 8, people gathered for the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Domes.

The public celebration included speeches from the Domes’  founders, the current president of the Domes, representatives from Sustainable Living and Learning Communities at UC Davis and the Solar Community Housing Association. 

There were tables of old photographs of the Domes, as well as journals with the original sketches of the Domes for people to flip through. Generations of ‘Domies’ (the nickname residents call themselves) attended, wearing name tags that had the dome number they lived in, and gathered around the tables looking at pieces of the past and sharing stories.

During the event, attendees were invited to explore the Domes landscape and take a tour of a dome that was undergoing renovation. After the public celebration, there was an after-party for Domies only. 

The current president of the Domes, sustainable agriculture and food systems major Dexter Hampton, gave a speech at the celebration, first taking a moment to remember the history of the land and recognize the Indigenous people who first occupied it.

“The sense of wonder and magic that this space offers never really goes away,” Hampton said. “There’s really nothing like it in Davis or really most other places for that matter. There’s such a strong sense of creativity and passion in this space and in these structures.”

Ben Pearl, a project manager for the Solar Community Housing Association who has been living and working with co-ops in Davis for 12 years, spoke to the audience about how challenging the pandemic was for the Domes. 

When the pandemic started, the community had just secured a long-term ground lease for the property through 2035. At the same time, the community could also apply for loan funding and was able to kick off long-awaited renovations of the Domes. 

“Every time that another entity has proposed putting something else in this space on the campus map, the community has come together to work together to save them,” Pearl said. 

He then proceeded to recognize Domies of different generations by having different groups, from the original Domies who built the community from 1972, up to the current generation of Domies, stand up. 

One of the founders of the Domes, Clay Brandow, was heavily involved in the building of the Domes and gave a detailed description of the process in a 2015 TEDx talk at the Mondavi Center. 

He said that the hardest thing about living in the Domes “was having faith, despite many setbacks, that we would actually complete the project. I think that is why I ended my TEDx talk with, ‘If you want to make an improbable project happen, you have to be patient, persevere and adapt.’”

Brandow said that the biggest change in the Domes since 1972 is that they used to be very isolated, because Highway 113 was just a two-lane country road at the time, and there was not much east of La Rue Road. 

Additionally, he shared that “the Domes used to be multi-colored, so everyone chose their own color. Mine was forest green, and there was one that was kind of psychedelic. Chris Gerrie […] had a whole bunch of different colors, and so he just splattered them like Jackson Pollock.”

Brandow spoke about meeting his wife, Brooke Brandow, at the Domes, and said that a conversation with one of his fellow founders, Jim Chiles, changed the trajectory of his life by swaying him toward further pursuit of a job. Brandow said that he would have lived a completely different life if not for the Domes and its community. 

“The Domes are great, but the friends that I made are the most precious thing,” Brandow said. 

He also mentioned that Ellery Sorkin, another founder of the Domes, was very instrumental in the planning process, stating that it would not have happened without him. 

Sorkin said that in the 1970s, he placed an advertisement for the Domes in The California Aggie, announcing a meeting for students interested in alternative housing. 

Sorkin, a law student at the time, said that he made sure everything was signed and dated as he engaged in sit-ins, proposing the Domes to then-Chancellor Jim Meyer’s office. He described the beginnings of the Domes and explained how everyone was able to design where they wanted the doors and windows personally. According to Sorkin, their contractor at the time did not have his own license and used his dad’s.  

“You can’t build housing for 30 kids with $110,000 — it just can’t be done, but we did it, because we did the work ourselves,” Sorkin said. “Ninety-five percent of the women and most of the guys had never held a hammer or a drill before, but they learned.”

Written by: Kaya Do-Khanh — campus@theaggie.org