Near what remains of the once grand Michigan Central train depot in Detroit is a unique and unusual building onto itself.
A double geodesic dome house built by Parkii Helene Gillis, her husband Leo Gillis, and their friends, the playful structure brings to mind a giant igloo. It is also painted a bright blue and stands in a neighborhood where nothing else is modern. If you walk by you notice it.
Leo Gillis is also the brother of musician Jack White of the White Stripes, the Dead Weather, and the Raconteurs. The Gillis family home is famous around town in small part because of his brother’s work, but mostly because it’s hard to miss.
“The only dome house in Detroit, it may be one of the strongest structures in the city,” according to a Metro Times story that ran back in 2005. “Made of steel-reinforced concrete, domes are famous for Herculean attributes - able to withstand fires, earthquakes, and winds of 150 miles per hour (on a rounded surface, there’s simply nothing for the wind to catch) whether from hurricanes or tornadoes. Dome company literature says you could stack four cars on a dome with nary a dent.”
The Gillis family built the home from a kit purchased from American Ingenuity, and it took a fair share of actual ingenuity to build the structure. Parkii Helene Gillis along with Leo and friends had to dig trenches and footings, and operate heavy machinery to guide the triangles into place. Besides the technical challenges, there were also legal and political challenges for the building. Permissions and permits were required from various Detroit politicians not known for their fair and open dealings, and due to the fact the banks refused to give loans for a dome house, funding had to be rounded up from other sources; a process largely navigated by Parkii Helene Gillis.
The main dome is 45 feet in diameter, but it also includes a side dome that is 35 feet in diameter. Together, the two domes provide about 4,000 square feet of living space, built for less than $90,000 all told, and the dome is fairly cheap to maintain too. Plastic tubes pump hot water through the dome floor to keep the internal temperature high at a low cost.
After constructing the house in 2000, the Gillis’s gave tours to hundreds of neighbors and tourists who stopped by. He was happy to. “We love this neighborhood, we’re from here and we wanted to make a statement that things are happening here, innovators live here,” Gillis told the Metro Times.
The Gillis family sold the property in 2012, and it changed hands once again in 2018. The domes are no longer bright blue as of March 2019.
Know Before You Go
From Johnson Street, which starts near the houses, there is a great view of the Michigan Central.