- Press Release
- August 17, 2022
New home for the Dome?
By Kristan Hutchison, Antarctic Sun staff
After more than 30 years at the South Pole, the landmark aluminum dome may retire to Southern California.
The original plan was to recycle the dome, which is the equivalent of 2.6 million aluminum soda cans, but a veterans group is interested in using the structure in conjunction with the CEC/Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, Calif.
“I think it’s worth the effort from a number of perspectives,” said Bill Hilderbrand, president of the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation, keeping alive the history of the military construction battalion that built the dome. “Number one, to kind of recognize the Seabees who went down to Antarctica and what they did.”
The dome has to be removed anyway. Under the 1991 environmental protocols of the Antarctic Treaty, the U.S. Antarctic Program must remove any structures from the continent after they are no longer in use. Several large buildings at McMurdo Station have been torn down and shipped to the U.S. as trash in recent years, but the dome will be the largest ever removed from the South Pole.
Several of the modular buildings the dome sheltered were removed this winter. The functions they housed – including the kitchen and dining area, fire station, medical, and the greenhouse – have already moved into the new South Pole station, which is scheduled for completion in 2007. The weight room and fresh foods storage were taken out in Jan. 2004.
“The dome looks big and empty now,” said Brien Barnett, a winter prep cook at the Pole and former Sun staffer. “There’s this gigantic hole to your right.”
Beginning of the end of the Dome
By Brien Barnett
The decision to reduce the South Pole station footprint by dismantling the historic dome and the buildings beneath it has been made, so George Prehn’s crew of six carpenters and helpers have been moving quickly to make it happen.
But it hasn’t been without a little sentiment. Prehn, the demolition crew foreman saw to that, telling his crews about the history of the buildings and showing them – in reverse – how construction standards had changed over the years or were specially adapted to Pole as shown by the pieces they removed from the four buildings they took apart this year.
Before the demolition began, the dome was a crowded place, filled with three main buildings, several smaller buildings and many storage boxes and racks.
In late-February, the demolition crew went to work, starting with “90 South”, the old bar above the old dining hall. Prehn employed his standard demolition technique, taught to him at an early age by his father, a house remover.
The Seabees originally built the dome. The current plan is to salvage representative pieces of the buildings to be sent to the Seabee Museum at Port Hueneme, California. The interior of each building has been filmed to document the structure and floor plan for possible reconstruction.
Many of the sentimental pieces of the bar and dining hall were packaged and prepared for shipment to the museum. Once that was complete, the building came down quickly, leaving 260sqm of bare snow and ice where the dining hall had been. Slated for eight weeks, the crew was finished in six. “What was impressing for me was hearing how hollow it was in the dome when that building came down,” Prehn said.
The emptiness created a feeling that something was out of place for those walking past that point as they entered the dome. The space was quickly filled with stuff as storage is always at a premium on this station.
“I sent a couple pictures (of the spot with bare snow) to people who had been here before and they said they shed a few tears,” Prehn said. “I don’t get attached to things like that, but I understand it.”
After the old dining hall and bar, the crew focused on the greenhouse and the fire equipment shack. The gear for the firefighters was moved to the back of the old power plant and the fire shack was dismantled, adding to the space at the entrance to the dome. The greenhouse had been replaced by the new “growth chamber” inside the elevated station and was not needed. By removing the old greenhouse, the station was able to conserve power and water that were cycling through the greenhouse system for no use.
Once those small buildings were finished, the now-experienced crew turned on the old bio-med building under an arch next to the dome. Literally tons of things were removed as it had turned into a storage unit in the past few years. Many items were put into the open-air storage berms or were absorbed elsewhere.
The demolition is complete for this year, finishing several weeks ahead of schedule. Prehn and his crew are now helping complete the work list on the new elevated station. Most of the work done there so far this year has been in several berthing wings and the new communications area. All work scheduled for this winter on the new station is expected to be finished in time for summer.
While the dome no longer has a use at the South Pole, it still has a place in the memories of most people who have been to the Pole, particularly Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 71. This battalion of Seabees was formed in 1966 and assigned to build the dome a few years later. The dome replaced the original South Pole station erected on the snow surface during the austral summer of 1956-57. By 1970 the modular structures were buried under 6m of snow. The weight of snow from above was causing the buildings to crack.
“You knew that it was beginning to creep in on you. In fact, out in the passageway you could see the walls were actually kind of bulging in because of the weight of the snow,” said John Perry, the officer in charge of the battalion shoring up the old station as plans were being made to build the dome. He then spent two years overseeing the dome construction from Washington, D.C.
“It was a unique project and a unique structure that we took down there and that was constructed,” Perry said. “Those of us that had been involved in the program certainly felt that we just kinda didn’t want to see it dissembled and thrown for scrap. We thought it would be nice if we could bring that back and put it on display somewhere where people could see it.”
But scrap was the most likely fate of the dome several years ago when Larry Anderson heard a presentation about the new station at an engineering conference in Seattle. Anderson, who had been involved with the Dome construction as a Naval Civil Engineer Corps officer with NMCB71, asked the presenter what was to be done with the dome he’d helped build. The answer was kind of a shrug.
“I said golly, wouldn’t it be cool if they were able to get this really important significant part of the history of both the Naval Civil Engineer Corp, the Seabees and the National Science Foundation preserved,” Anderson said. “To me it’s really kind of an iconic kind of thing. When you opened National Geographic for a long time that was what you’d see about the Antarctic – the dome.”
Anderson had known for a couple of years that the Seabees were planning to rebuild their Port Hueneme museum and he suggested they include the dome. Hilderbrand and the other Seabees liked the idea. After negotiations, the NSF agreed to it in concept.
In February, a representative from the Seabees and an engineer involved in the original construction of the dome visited the South Pole to assess whether the dome could be reassembled in California. “This was like the ultimate, going back to see a structure that I had worked on over 30 years ago, and it’s still functioning, it’s still performing,” said Lee Mattis, who was last at the South Pole in 1973 as a 28-year old engineer for Temcor. “The dome itself is in pretty good shape.”
Two decades later, Mattis still has the original color-coded schematics for putting together the dome. He said the disassembly, shipment and reassembly of the dome should not be a problem.
“It’s an erector set,” Mattis said. “All the parts, they have color codes on them and they’re also metal stamped, so there’s really no problem with identifying the parts or having to worry about it.” To take apart the dome, workers will start from the top down, taking off the panels and the structural members. The dome has 1448 I-beam struts with 84 bolts at each of 490 connection points, Mattis said. The triangular openings created by the strut framework are covered by 904 thin panels.
“There’s a fair amount of labor involved in doing that” said Mattis, who estimates it will take a month of work depending on the number of people and equipment. There’s talk of having a Seabee team help take down the dome, possibly as early as the 2007-2008 season.
Many of the retired Seabees who put up the dome would like to help take it down, or reassemble it in California. The men have strong memories of their months at the South Pole more than 30 years ago. “When I look back on it, I’m real proud,” said Jim Heckman, a Seabee steelworker on the Dome for three seasons. “A lot of people are interested in the Antarctic and you hear a lot of people talk about things they’ve seen on TV or articles they’ve read. It’s just kind of neat to be able to tell them, yeah, I helped build it.”
When he arrived at the South Pole in 1971, the temperature was -61C. The cold and elevation made it difficult to work, and every half-hour the men had to retreat into a hut to warm up. They worked 12-hour shifts, with a half-day off on Sunday. Lumber would break because the moisture inside it froze. They couldn’t pick up a wrench or any other metal object barehanded or it would freeze to their flesh. The hydraulic riveting equipment, called Huck machines, stalled at -10C, Perry said.
The temperature never rose above freezing, but there were days in December when the wind paused and the sun reflected off the aluminum, allowing the Seabees working on the outside of the dome to take off their jackets. Inside, the dome got darker and darker as the triangular panels were put in place, said Bill Slayman, another ex-Seabee. Their breath condensed on the inside of the dome and snowed down.
“So much of what went on down in Antarctic was so different, the kinds of challenges you face down there,” Hilderbrand said. “There are so many things that are different, your nails freeze and when you try to drive them they shatter.”
They were more isolated than workers at the Pole today. The only way to communicate with people back home was over the ham radio, said Heckman, who became a ham radio operator because of his time at the Pole. Anderson recalls courting the woman who is now his wife through ham radio phone patches.
“Contact was always kind of sketchy,” Anderson said. “The ëI love you; over’ was out there for all the world to see.”
The challenges and isolation developed a strong camaraderie among the young men. They used packing crates to build a hangout – the Last Chance Saloon. With a false front and a hitching post, it looked like a stop on the Pony Express. The sign for the saloon now hangs in the Seabee Museum at Port Hueneme, along with a piece of plywood with the names of all the Seabees who helped build the dome.
On their Sunday afternoons off the Seabees played ping-pong, watched movies (Star Trek and Mission Impossible), and occasionally played football, using bottled oxygen to help them overcome the thinner atmosphere. Bob Clancy remembers another Seabee bringing down golf clubs and a golf ball painted orange so he could tee off at the South Pole. They even had a dance on Sadie Hawkins Day.
“Half the guys were guys and half the guys were gals,” Clancy said. “They drew it out of a hat. My date was Frank. I remember him, about 300 pounds and a mean-looking Italian with a mophead.”
In 1974 the dome was finished. The Seabees all wrote their names and address on the last piece with permanent marker.
“Probably it’s been wore off, with the sun and weather,” said Bill Slayman. “We thought, well, nobody else will see them.”
None of them thought then the dome would someday be taken down.
Reassembling the dome will be easier in Port Hueneme, where the average temperature ranges from 13 to 24C. They will also be able to assemble the dome in the standard manner, hanging it from a central tower as the pieces are added from the top down. When the dome was originally set up at the South Pole, the tower couldn’t be used because it was too large to ship in an LC130. Instead, a smaller tower was used to build the top half of the dome, while the bottom half was built from the bottom up. Then the tower was broken down into 10 stanchions, which were used to lift the top half and mate it with the bottom.
Mattis designed the assembly system, and said an error in his calculations almost halted the dome construction. As they were lifting the top section with hand winches they discovered it couldn’t fit through the base.
“That was a hairy time,” Mattis said.
The Seabees solved the problem by using cable hand winches to temporarily pull the base open wider, allowing the top to slip through.
“The Seabees are quite good at stuff like that, working with things that all of a sudden didn’t go according to plan,” Mattis said.
At the time, Mattis and the Seabees assumed the dome they were building would stay at the South Pole forever, even though its expected useful life was only 15 years. Most previous stations, including the one they were replacing, were eventually buried under snow and left there. Even with regular efforts to excavate it, the bottom 5m of the dome are covered with snow.
“The assumption was it will be there forever, but now they have to take it out anyway, so there’s no added cost to the NSF.”
The dome would have been shipped to Port Hueneme anyway, because all waste from the South Pole and McMurdo Station goes there. When the dome arrives it will probably be stored until it can be reassembled as part of the museum, Hilderbrand said. There are still many issues to work out, including where to put the dome and how much of it to assemble.
“We don’t know if the Navy will give enough space to put up the entire dome,” Hilderbrand said. “In the meantime, let’s work on getting the dome out and make sure it’s stored and everything in such a fashion that we know how to reassemble it.”
Though the dome is structurally sound, it’s not watertight. Since there’s no precipitation at the South Pole, it didn’t need to be. However, being built completely of aluminum with stainless steel fasteners, it won’t corrode.
“We’re not going to try to use it to make it weather-tight or anything like that,” Hilderbrand said. “That would be a horrendous expense. The thing wasn’t designed to be weather-tight.” Some of the exterior panels will be left off to let in natural light, but the panels covering at least the bottom 3m will be installed to keep kids from climbing on it.
“If you put up just the frame, you have the world’s largest jungle gym,” Hilderbrand said. The 1,860-square-meter space under the dome will be large enough to display bulldozers and other heavy equipment the Seabees frequently used.
“Just the sheer size of it is going to impress a lot of people,” Hilderbrand said.
The existing Seabee museum is two Quonset huts 180m inside the Naval Base. It used to have 25,000 to 30,000 visitors a year before heightened security made it difficult for most people to access. When the new museum is built outside the naval base, 75,000 to 100,000 visitors are expected each year. For the dome, that will be more visitors every year than have visited the Pole in three decades. “I’m glad they’re going to do something with it,” Slayman said. “Especially if it’s going to come back to the states. It’ll be something maybe I can go see again. I didn’t think I’d ever probably see it again.”