by Tim Gilmore, 2/21/2020
1. The One
Here, Charles died in Drew’s arms. Here in the rotunda, at the bottom of the ocean, though Santa Monica demolished this amusement park the year I was born, it thrives. Its vision channeled Drew’s life. You’d mistake the house for a neatly descended flying saucer, but down at its heart, from windows atop the round central room, great storms have conducted symphonies they’ve brought across the ocean or dredged up from deep time.
You can’t paint yourself into a corner in a round house. You can “round the bend,” but you can’t “turn a corner.” And though the world does not, in fact, stand on “four corners,” the Beatles said its roundness turned them on.
Built in 1959, the house called Geodesica fits into the historical lineage of circular and geometric architectural crazes. Promoters of Victorian “Octagon Houses” had argued their designs made inhabitants healthier through specialized ventilation and interior sunlight. Then futurist architect Buckminster Fuller promoted his Geodesic Dome for the stability of its “omnitriangulated surface.”
Just after Christmas, 2015, roundhouses.wordpress.com, a blog devoted to spherical architecture the world over, most recently the bizarre and dilapidated Buzludsha Monument in former Soviet Bulgaria, announced, “A showy mid-century round house in Jacksonville, Florida was just put on the market.”
Now Geodesica is on the market again, but already under contract. Its first owners, the Felhandlers, lived here for 43 years. Then Drew Hunter, vice president of creative design at Jax-based Sally Corporation, which manufactures “dark rides” and animatronics for museums and amusement parks, called it home for 13. He lived here with the love of his life, and here, the love of his life died.
In 2002, Leon Felhandler, a Polish Cuban with a degree in Mathematics from the University of Havana, who’d raised two daughters here with his wife Sarah, was selling the house after all these years. He opened the front door and welcomed Drew and his friend Newel Hadley and partner Charles Edison Chapman inside. They knew. Right away. This was the one.
2. The Sunken City of POP
“I was eight years old,” Drew says. The amusement park was brand new, but it was built on the old Ocean Park Pier, border of Santa Monica and Venice Beach.
The family was visiting his paternal grandparents, 1958. He’d been to Disneyland the year before, just two years after it opened, but it was Pacific Ocean Park, whose vibe you might describe as 1950s’ “Space Age” with “sea themes,” that ignited his imagination. When he rose from Neptune’s Kingdom, he’d been born again.
In Drew’s mural, in the rotunda of the round house, up the hill from the river on Howalt Drive, the amusement park sinks to the ocean floor. The multi-armed structure at the center, bejeweled with bubbles and topped with seahorses, stands above the gateway to Pacific Ocean Park, the portal to Drew’s childhood discovery of creative purpose. It perches underwater like an extraterrestrial spider.
“Once inside the park,” Drew says, “you walked through Neptune’s Courtyard and then Neptune’s Kingdom, which was ‘dry for wet,’ meaning you felt like you were underwater, but you weren’t.” In the controlled excitement of Drew’s voice, I experience the park myself. “Then the sky ride took you out over the ocean in these bubbles to the volcano at the end of the pier.” You can see the chairlift bubbles moving over high wires toward the towering volcano at the left of the mural.
On Mystery Island, you “walked a rope bridge over a waterfall, then rode the Banana Train through lush tropical jungle. The train went up the side of the volcano, then into the volcano and through a vertigo tunnel.” Drew remembers how tightly his father held onto him when the spinning tunnel made them feel the train was about to flip.
Drew tells me this story as he’s driving to Shreveport, Louisiana, his hometown, to see his father, who turned 98 on Valentine’s Day. (My father, who died six months ago, would be 96 years old on the day I publish this story.) Drew’s mother, who’s 94, was born on Christmas. She barely missed giving birth to Drew on Halloween. Suffering from pneumonia and a heart attack, Drew’s father almost passed away on his 98th.
That myth-making day in 1958, Drew rode the rollercoaster at Pacific Ocean Park with his father. It appears in the mural too. It was Drew’s first rollercoaster and he refused to ride another one for 25 years. In the rotunda at the center of Geodesica, he painted a stylized blue and green whirlpool on the floor beneath the mural. Out back by the pool, blue tentacles undulate across the concrete from Drew’s painting of a giant squid.
Santa Monica demolished the amusement park in 1974, though teens had “legend tripped” and wandered the grounds and derelict buildings for seven years since the park had closed. Here in the rotunda at Geodesica, Pacific Ocean Park lives, having fallen beneath the waves. The mural’s name is The Sunken City of POP. Roy Lichtenstein would dig it.
Even apart from the mural, the rotunda, measuring 20 feet in diameter at the ceiling, forms a natural theater. At the top, 13 clerestory windows admit sunlight from above the roofline of the rest of the house. From outside, the house looks like a spaceship disguised as “midcentury modern” architecture. “Throughout the day,” Drew says, “the light in that room changed so dramatically, and at night, during a thunderstorm, it was just gorgeous.”
Once, some friends, including the musician Gina Martinelli, played live music here. A guitar. A didgeridoo. The deep breathy bass of that ancient indigenous instrument resonating in that room—just thinking about it, even now, takes Drew’s breath away. “I could hear it for a month after that night. It’s one of the most powerful and beautiful things I’ve ever heard.”
3. Home for All
Gilbert Spindel, an Atlanta attorney, drew up his “Roundhouse” blueprints and promoted them in newspapers across the country in 1956 as “Homes for Americans.” Circular and spiral forms in nature fascinated him. Spirals cut in the Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci Sequence of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc. built blooms and seed cones and snail shells. The greatest destructive forces unleashed on earth ballooned upward in twisting curves.
Spindel had participated in testing those forces. Archive copies of Operation Upshot-Knothole at the Nevada Proving Grounds, March to June 1953, credit Spindel, of the Federal Civil Defense Administration under President Harry Truman, in testing the effects of atomic blasts on “typical two-story and basement wood-frame houses,” for “design[ing] and prepar[ing] the plans and specifications.”
Unsurprisingly, the tests found “heavy fall-out of radioactive material in the area surrounding both houses,” broken and split joists, shattered roof rafters, and “all exterior woodwork” charred. Spindel had furnished the houses with “department-store mannequins” located “in the dining and living rooms.”
The FCDA reported, “Mannequins were generally broken and trapped in the debris. The blast demolished this house. The first story disintegrated, allowing the badly damaged second story to settle down on the first floor.” The report continued, “Damage to mannequins indicates that human beings without shelter in the same locations would [be] either killed or seriously injured.”
A century before Spindel’s circular home blueprints, amateur historian and architect Orson Squire Fowler had popularized phrenology, the pseudo-scientific system of reading the bumps and contours of a person’s head to determine character traits and life possibilities, had undertaken to print the unpublishable Leaves of Grass of that radical psychogeographical poet Walt Whitman, then published his own book A Home for All in 1850, calling for the building of Octagon Houses for the psychological welfare of all who might build and inhabit them.
Then, in 1948 and ’49, in that legendary cross-experimental landscape in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the Southern Appalachians, at the short-lived Black Mountain College, architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller developed the circular architectonics supported by tumorous triangles, the Geodesic Dome, imagining this new structure housing governmental offices and private homes. Though Spaceship Earth, built in 1982 at Disney World’s Epcot Center outside Orlando, may be the world’s most famous geodesic dome, the 1970s brought purchase kits for building one’s own. The Jewish feminist eco-anarchist Bonnie Abbzug lived in one in Edward Abbey’s 1975 eco-terrorist novel The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Unlike Abbzug, Spindel saw the “round house” as “ideal for a light-hearted atmosphere.” Drew Hunter has heard that as many as 25 Spindel round houses exist around the country. In 1973, and 1987, and 1998, here on this hill above the river, Sarah Felhandler watched the heavens turn, the lights alter and the storms direct their symphonies, from the central room of her house. The buoyancy in her heart, as Hurricane Dora raged against the house in 1964, both humbled her and rose her to some surreal apex of creation, from which she surveyed, peacefully, the great impersonal wrath of natural violence.
4. Walls Could Talk?
The lockbox on the front door hangs open, the key gone, and she’s frustrated. Star Williams has worked foreclosures for 15 years, but this is a first. She checks for a key to the back gate, knowing the sliding glass doors by the pool will be unlocked.
We joke about neighbors calling the cops if I hop the back fence. She’s the agent representing the house, however, and for this moment, she’s queen of this strange domain. So Star’s husband Reggie and I each try a pair of sliding glass doors. His works. I follow him inside.
For four decades, Leon and Sarah Felhandler hosted legendary parties at Geodesica. When Leon’s business partner, Lonnie Wurn, developed Fort Caroline Club Estates, having cleared out and filled in wetlands and cemeteries for old black settlements and ancient burial grounds for Timucuan Indians, the Felhandlers opened their Spindel Geodesica to the public as “exhibit house” for the 1959 “Parade of Homes.” In old photos, men in black suits and ties stand wooden and formal outside. Men in high waisted-pants, women in flannel dresses, their pocketbooks draped from the crooks of their arms, move from and toward the house like tides, weather patterns, ghosts.
One day, half a century later, Drew decided to clean out the “undercrofts,” the dirt-floored rooms for storage and plumbing access under the house, behind the changing rooms for the pool. “I was cleaning out old lumber and such when, from just beneath the dirt, I pulled out a 3’ x 4’ piece of unpainted plyboard,” he says. “I turned it over and saw the hand-painted sign,” the same sign that appears in those old photos, announcing, “1959 Parade of Homes Exhibit House.” It was in such good shape that he cleaned it and hung it in the hallway.
Though seeming bespoke, custom designed, for this strange place, Drew’s furniture, beneath his mural, had immigrated here. When Drew was creative director at the Dallas Wax Museum, his partner Charles made these couches and other furniture with a faux-stone cast. An exterior that appears to weigh either a mountain or a marshmallow is, in fact, distressed foam sprayed with shotcrete.
Drew and Charles loved this house together and loved each other here. Charles designed the white foam stone for black carpeting in their house in Dallas, but the couches fit perfectly the underwater extraterrestrial Sunken City ambiance of Geodesica. Never, however, will Drew be able to separate his love for this house from his love for Charles, Charles who died right here, in this house, in Drew’s arms, the ninth of February, 2007.
Drew threw great parties. He’d spent $50k on the pool, encumbered in blue tile, hosted cast-and-crew parties for Jacksonville’s Coming Out Monologues and V.I.P. parties for Jax “midcentury modern” architecture tours. He even met the owner of another Geodesica, from Lake Charles, Louisiana, who’d driven to Jacksonville with her mother and father.
At “Geodesica Saturday Night Esoteric Cinema Sensation” parties, he showed an old cornball L’il Abner musical, David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead, Ken Russell films Women in Love and The Devils, and the 1953 Technicolor musical fantasy The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., for which Dr. Seuss wrote the story, the screenplay and the lyrics.
At Drew’s Halloween parties, a friend dressed up as the drag queen Divine from the 1972 John Waters film Pink Flamingos, and Drew transformed himself into “Ooozo, the World’s Most Rotten Clown.” The pinnacle / nadir of Ooozo’s performance was filling his big red rubber clown nose with spicy guacamole dip. When Ooozo, a good bit inebriated, told a guest, in a menacing nasal voice, “Ooozo’s got a cold!” and attempted to sneeze out the guac, Drew laughed so hard he snorted the spicy paste back into his sinuses.
So when you stand in a house that you know has been well loved and well lived, and you ask yourself, “If these walls could talk…”
Star Williams says that in all her real estate experience, she’s never seen a house like this one.
Meantime, Ooozo has moved with Drew to an old two story house in Springfield. The 1959 exhibit sign awaits Geodesica’s new owner, and if that new owner paints over The Sunken City of POP, well, I got to see it. And tell you about it.
And in case you never realized that the story of any address in any neighborhood contains a stranger history that ever you’d imagined, now you know. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio…” Indeed, there are more things, Horatio, wherever people have made themselves a home.