The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new sign at Whitman High will celebrate its demolished dome

When Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School opened in 1962, it had one especially distinctive feature: a geodesic dome that served as the school's field house. (Montgomery History)
correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly said Walt Whitman High School's architect was John W. McLeod. It was Anthony Ferrara. This article has been corrected.

In the spring of 1962, a strange and wondrous structure began rising on Whittier Boulevard in Bethesda. It was a geodesic dome, the futuristic building popularized by R. Buckminster Fuller. Soon the building would echo with the sounds of Keds and Chucks squeaking on a varnished wooden floor. The massive dome enclosed the gymnasium of the brand-new Walt Whitman High School.

For 30 years, the dome was the symbol of the school, as recognizable in its way as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was a dark day for Barry Kemelhor, Whitman Class of 1970, when the dome was demolished in 1992.

“We thought it was the most modern — the greatest — thing in the whole world,” said Barry, 70. The Whitman dome — the first for any U.S. high school, apparently — garnered press coverage near and wide. A construction industry trade publication hailed its innovation and predicted it would last into the next century.

“It didn’t make it,” Barry said. “It lasted 30 years.”

In 2021, Barry’s class held a pandemic-delayed 50th reunion. As part of the event, attendees toured the current Whitman, where they encountered current students and current teachers.

“I went over to them and not a single person had ever heard of the dome,” he said. “That was kind of shocking to me.”

Future Whitmen and Whitwomen — or Vikings, as they’re known — will have no excuse for such ignorance. This Friday at 4 p.m., Barry and others from the Class of ’70 will gather at the school to dedicate a bronze plaque and an explanatory sign that tells the dome’s story. If you’re one of the 15,977 Whitman alums who matriculated “geodesically” — that is, during the time the dome stood — you’re invited to attend.

Buckminster Fuller favored the geodesic dome — an arrangement of triangular or polygonal panels — because it was lightweight and cost-effective. Montgomery County’s school board chose the innovative design based on research by the Educational Facilities Laboratories (EFL), which found the round footprint afforded more interior space at a cheaper price than a conventional gym.

“They basically saved money by literally cutting corners,” Barry said.

Whitman’s architect was Anthony Ferrara of McLeod & Ferrara. The school was built at a cost of $3.8 million. With a capacity of 2,500 for basketball games and 3,600 for stage programs, the dome was said to be the largest high school auditorium in the country.

The summer before Whitman opened, education officials from around the country visited the school, trying to decide if they should jump on the dome bandwagon. The junket was sponsored by the EFL, which encouraged officials to cast off old notions of school buildings.

Montgomery’s school board president, William R. Thomas III, said, “We’ve been concerned in recent years with the stereotyped nature of school architecture,” referring to the “brick and mortar straitjackets of education.”

Not everyone was convinced the future was geodesic. Across the state line, John Riecks of the District’s school board said one fault of Whitman’s dome was the slender pylons on which it rested. They provided easy access to the roof.

“County school officials have already reported teenage boys climbing up to the top of that dome, and they will have to devise some way of keeping them out,” Riecks told The Post.

Montgomery County’s director of school construction, James Sheldon, admitted they’d probably have to build fences around the pylons.

Over the years, the dome proved too tempting a target for some vandals. It was a canvas for graffiti — and more.

“They put a car up there,” said Barry. “They put a toilet on the top of the dome.”

Inside was lovely, though, he said, with a honeycomb ceiling. At a time before the Kennedy Center, Capital Centre and Merriweather Post Pavilion, the Whitman dome was the setting for concerts, including such acts as James Brown, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Hollies.

The dome worked its way into stories that weren’t even about the dome itself. A Washington Evening Star high school sports article from November 1963 noted: “The dome-shaped gymnasium has attracted most of the attention at the school. The dairy serving the cafeteria has compounded the geometric idea by packaging its product in wedge-shaped cartons.”

Those wedge-shaped cartons were Tetra Paks, invented not in homage to Whitman’s dome but by a Swedish entrepreneur named Ruben Rausing.

Barry — as loyal a Whitman booster as you’re likely to find — said the dome helped make the untested school distinctive at a time when many parents weren’t sure they wanted to send their kids there.

In 1992, the dome was torn down. Why?

“I’ve heard several reasons,” Barry said. “The first has to do with asbestos. Nobody cared about asbestos in 1961. The other was some [roof] leakage. It was too costly to fix it so they just got rid of it and replaced it with the most generic structure. It’s basic. It has no character.”

He hopes the new plaque and sign will rescue the dome from obscurity.

In the hospital

Did you work at Walter Reed before it relocated to Bethesda? Then you’re invited to a reunion on Oct. 16 from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the hospital’s old grounds between Georgia Avenue and 16th Street NW. For information, visit walterreedsociety.org.

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