Detroit: The Gillis Geodesic Domes

Though it’s only approaching its 20th birthday, one of Detroit’s most unique abandoned houses is steeped in urban legend and facing an uncertain future.

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Inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s iconic, highly functional 1948 design, the house is comprised of two geodesic domes that were crafted from a kit made by American Ingenuity, built around 1999 by musician Leo Gillis and a handful of volunteers among the remains and landscaping of a much older house.  Gillis belongs to a big family of talented Detroit musicians, among them his brother Jack White of the White Stripes and Third Man Records.

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The domes feature lively and colorful tilework, plenty of wide open, high-ceilinged space, and bright triangular skylights.  Perched on a sizable lawn in the shadow of Michigan Central Station (which was abandoned during the Gillis’ stay but is now cleaned out and strung with lights and security cameras) at the corner of Vernor Highway and Ste. Anne, the location is desirable.   Tamaleria Nuevo Leon, a local favorite since 1957, is right next door, and Honeybee Market‘s beloved guacamole is right up the street.  A quick walk through Roosevelt Park lands you at Corktown’s bars and restaurants along Michigan Ave.

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The domes were featured in a 2005 Metro Times article as a symbol of architectural strength while the country was still reeling from Hurricane Katrina.  The geodesic dome is not only cheap to build and maintain, it’s also highly durable and a good defense against unpredictable weather.  One was a 2.5 car garage, once used as a recording studio for Leo’s numerous musical projects.   The kitchen was said to have been fitted with Italian marble bought from scrappers out of the train station next door.  “We love this neighborhood, we’re from here and we wanted to make a statement that things are happening here, innovators live here,” Leo said in the article.

Urban legends, unsubstantiated by news articles as far as I can tell, describe a handful of violent incidents and a general history of bad luck.  After living there a few years, the Gillises divorced.  Supposedly, while one of the domes was rented out and used as a blind pig, a couple of bad guys attempting to rob the place during a party were met by an armed, off-duty Wayne County sheriff.  One died inside while the other was apprehended a little ways down the block, badly injured.  Realtors preemptively warned prospective buyers of the bloodstain in the carpet.  Another rumor claims that a Detroit police officer killed herself on the porch, but again, no articles.  The price dropped from $200,000 to $70,000.

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The domes were sold to Detroit/NYC landlord Scott Griffin in 2012 at what Curbed hints was much below asking price.  For a while, we kept hearing they were going to become a music venue. Though the carpet and all of its bad memories were finally removed, the renovation came to a screeching halt shortly after, and the property has remained abandoned and neglected for years.

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While the Gillis family was accommodating to the hundreds of requests to visit the domes (with proper notice), inquiries from true Fuller fans interested in buying or even just filming on the property go completely ignored by Scott Griffin, who appears to have left Detroit entirely.  No one is quite sure what happened.  The water damage and vandalism he acknowledged in the 2012 article worsten with each passing season.

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Today, Leo Gillis works as an archivist for the Bonisteel Library at Northern Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts.  “In 100 years, no matter what happens to this neighborhood, these domes will still be here,” he told Metro Times in 2005.

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Since that’s probably true, hopefully they somehow land in the hands of someone who, as Scott Griffin once suggested, “can really appreciate the unique design possibilities inherent in the structure.” 

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Sources:

Metro Times: Pimp My Dome

Curbed: Jack White’s Brother sells dome home to Bucky Fuller Fans

Curbed: Where’s that dome renovation we were promised?

Rumors:

DetroitYes: Domes on Vernor
(One of the DetroitYes posts here suggests that there was a thread on an older forum in which Leo Gillis answered questions and told the story of the domes…if anyone knows where to find that, I would really appreciate it.)

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