Essay: Living Outside the Box

(Originally in The Boston Globe)

I’ve lived in conventional houses all of my life, a parade of ranches, Capes, Colonials and, for the past six years, a solemn Greek Revival farmhouse north of Boston.  Every house had its quirks, its good points and bad, but they all shared one common feature: They were built with the peaked roofs and rectangular windows every child learns to draw in kindergarten.  Then, without planning or foresight, came this house.  We saw the realtor’s ad posted in a window and arranged to look at it on a whim.

It wasn’t love at first sight.  Yes, this house was twice the size of our old farmhouse, and the setting was paradise for our five children:  Centered on six acres of land, the house sat high on a knoll overlooking its own dell of oaks, maples and a pond perfect for frog catching.

Yet, there was one problem, a real show-stopper: The house was a geodesic dome, as round as an igloo and as brown as a muffin.  We had never seen anything like it, other than Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in Florida.
“I don’t know,” my husband fretted on the drive home after that first showing.  “What does it say about us if we live in a dome?”

Others expressed doubts as well.  “It looks like the cheese factory on Route 1,” scowled  the loan officer at the bank.  And, when I showed the listing sheet to a friend, she laughed outright and shook her head.  “Here’s E.T.’s mother ship, landed in the woods,” she said.

Despite our reservations, we bought the house, persuaded not only by its size and location, but by its practical construction.  As inventor and builder R. Buckminster Fuller discovered, a spherical structure is the strongest, most economical way to enclose space.  The reason we could afford to buy a 4300 sq. ft. house with six acres of land near the Massachusetts seacoast was because a half-sphere is cheap to build. (Not to mention the fact that weird houses cost less.)

With its hilltop setting, multiple skylights and enormous triangular windows, our new dome house also offers better natural lighting than most greenhouses.  In essence, it feels a lot like living in a tree house.  Even more important, though, the dome’s spherical shape and thick walls  guarantee that we save on fuel costs.

However, Dan was right:  Once we started living in a dome house, we had to learn to think like dome people.  It was a shock to realize how completely my previous homes had defined who I thought I was.  When we owned our classic Greek Revival, for instance, I jumped at the chance to paint the porch ceiling the traditional pale blue of old houses all over New England, and festooned the kitchen windows with classic yellow curtains patterned with flowers and pears. Outside, I planted tulip borders in straight rows along the brick walk and lined weathered wooden rocking chairs up on the porch like so many creaky, aging aunts.

I couldn’t do any of this in the dome.  After the movers left our belongings looking huddled and small under the 25' high ceiling of the living room, I started to panic.  Where do you stand your bookshelves, put your couch and connect your TV, when there just aren’t walls and corners enough to go around?  How do you sew curtains for 6' triangular windows?  And what color do you paint walls that loom the height of four men? 

Dan adapted quickly to the new shape of our dome life, since he grew up in an open- concept house designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s.  “I feel like I’ve really come home,” he decided, satisfied.

But I hated the cavernous ceiling, the echoing empty spaces and the unrelenting light through the windows.  I felt like I’d moved into City Hall.  I sorely missed our farmhouse, with its warm pine floors and manageably small, rectangular rooms.  I’d sold not only my home, it turns out, but part of my identity, too.  What could I do to make the dome my own?

“Think like The Jetsons,” one of my friends encouraged.  “You don’t have a flying car, but you should have, with this house.”

For starters, I had to forget everything I thought I knew about interior decoration and  experiment.  I created rooms by positioning chairs and tables in ways that suggested separate spaces within the dome’s main living area.  And, when it became clear that we didn’t own nearly enough pieces to fill the house, I went furniture shopping, quickly turning a cold shoulder towards the traditional styles I’d bought for the farmhouse.  Instead, I indulged in the stuff of fantasy, like a magenta velvet fainting couch to put beneath the enormous hexagonal window -- the perfect place to recline and gaze out at the treetops at sunrise, a cup of tea in hand.  For the living room, I bought end tables crafted like old barrels, admiring the way their circular shapes echoed the room, and a rhino-sized leather hassock that would have tyrannized any other living room.  The end result was a cross between European decadence and druid decor.

Emboldened by these small steps, I began fooling with colors as well.  There was nothing wrong with the dome’s white walls; in fact, the previous owner had gone to great lengths to render the house pristine.  But it was just a bit too much like living in an ice cave.  I studied the living room, where the ceiling height and bright light were wonderful for reading, but dwarfed intimate conversation.  What could I do?  Even if I could think of a color that I’d dare layer on the inside of this huge sphere, I couldn’t imagine how I’d manage to paint those arching walls without a trapeze.  So I opted for painting just the shortest wall a rich burgundy.  Behind the moss green sofa, the deep purple created an earthy retreat.  Downstairs, in the white guest room, I blazed tangerine around the windows overlooking our grape arbor.  And, in our bedroom, I transformed our dull, pale moonscape into something infinitely more interesting by painting the odd hexagonal end wall the soft teal of Provence at dusk, and tossing a tapestried gold bedspread from Belgium over our sleigh bed.

I didn’t stop with the house’s interior.  Although I actually liked the color of the dome - a nutmeg brown -- it made the dome look like a box turtle.  So I stained the deck and trellis a deep Bordeaux and asked my husband to spray silvery blue paint onto a few unfinished Adirondack chairs.  The effect was dazzling, especially when I added a Mexican chiminea and a statue of a meditating Buddha to the patio below it.

Do the colors flow through the house?  Are the furnishings just right?  Did I do the right thing by hanging that stone Celtic mask on the wall above our purple deck just because I liked his grin?  Who knows?

And who cares?  There’s something liberating about living in any new house, because it allows you to express who you are anew, and to even redefine who you want to become.  The beauty of my dome house, I’ve learned, is that it is not just a practical structure -- a fact that appeals to the Yankee in me.  The dome is also an alternative sort of house, and has taught me to literally think outside the box:  No color is off limits.  Windows don’t have to be rectangles.  The best furniture is furniture you love.  Put things in your yard that make you smile.  And let other people think what they will.  Your home is not just where your heart is, but where your body rests, your mind is free to wander, and, if you’re lucky, your spirit soars.