A sanctuary nestled in the Florida woodlands
Coming around to thinking round
After five years of continual use, most members of Pilgrims United Church of Christ in Fruitland Park, Florida are just as enthusiastic about their two Monolithic Domes as they were at that deciding meeting when eighty-four of the eighty-nine present voted for their construction.
“We have no regrets,” said John Duesing, chairman of the building committee at Pilgrims. “It’s funny – and really kind of a miracle how it all fell into place,” he continued. "I didn’t know anything about Monolithic Domes when we first began talking construction. Another church member brought the domes to my attention.
“Frankly, my first impulse was to throw it all into the wastebasket, because it was so new, and everyone tries to tell you your job. But the more I got into it, the more sense it made.”
Duesing recalled that as construction talks continued and interest in Monolithic Domes grew, more and more members of this small congregation, then less than 200, began attending the building committee meetings.
“We had a model of the Monolithic Domes built so people could see what the structures would look like and how they would be placed, and we presented a lot of documentation,” Duesing said. Plans called for a 74′ × 29′ dome for the sanctuary, a 62′ × 24′ dome for a fellowship hall and a 40’ atrium connecting the two Monolithic Domes.
“That’s a big undertaking for a small church,” Duesing said. “But we compared costs. The domes were anywhere from a half to two-thirds less to construct than any other type of building of the same size. Then there was the advantage of the insulation and that cost savings. So we felt we could afford it – and we did! We made a very successful capital-raising campaign, and we began building a whole church!”
Love at first visit
The Rev. Dr. Henry Ackermann is a new comer to Pilgrims United Church of Christ. His pastorship began in November 1999. “I’m just like everybody else who comes here. They fall in love with it immediately. I did too. The sanctuary is beautiful. The domes are beautiful.”
Nestled among the stately oaks that Fruitland Park is famous for, on five acres of land surrounded by lakes, the Monolithic Domes help draw the interest of visitors and residents, and the church congregation, currently at 200, continues growing.
“We have lots of trees,” Ackermann said, “and when we built we only cut what we had to. The trees provide shade. That’s nice for parked cars.”
Maintenance and operation
But the trees and lakes create a problem as well: mildew. “The mildew affects all the structures – not just the domes,” Duesing said. “It’s really our only maintenance problem – if you can call it that. We repainted the Airform and that took care of the mildew.”
Pilgrims United Church of Christ has not, to date, experienced a tornado, but they are in a tornado-prone area. “For that reason,” Ackermann said, “we applied to the American Red Cross for certification as a designated shelter. They told us what kind of plywood to get for window coverings, and we did. Now we’re waiting for final approval.”
According to both Ackermann and Duesing the domes use little energy. Ackermann said, “Occasionally, we turn on the heat. When I arrived in November our morning outside temperatures usually were in the forties, so we’d turn the heat on just to get rid of that early morning chill. But now (March) they’re in the fifties and sixties, and it warms quickly. The domes usually stay between seventy and seventy-five degrees.”
As for air conditioning, both domes have it, but Ackermann said, “We don’t turn it on except on Sundays when it gets crowded with people.”
Duesing added, “The air conditioning people told us how much to put in. But the builder and I talked with David South, and following his advice, we about halved what the air conditioning folks recommended, and it all works just fine.”
In addition to the air conditioning units, Duesing insisted on installing built-in, fresh air vents so that ten percent of the air continually circulating within the domes is fresh.
At one time, sound reverberations proved bothersome in both domes. “We knew we would have a noise problem right from the start,” Duesing said. “And David South gave us solutions, but we couldn’t afford anything. So, we decided to just live with it until we could, and we did.”
Since then, Pilgrims eliminated the acoustical problem in their fellowship hall by installing sound-absorbing baffles. In the sanctuary, they carpeted the floor; installed soft, upholstered, moveable chairs rather than stationary, wooden benches; and hanged flowing banners. “All that fabric plus the human bodies there during services absorb the echoes very well. And we’re very comfortable,” said Ackermann. “The banners the church ladies made are really colorful and beautiful. They’re about five feet wide and seven feet long. Their designs reflect the different church seasons.”
Another feature that Duesing calls “a very churchy look” are Pilgrims’ Gothic windows set in handcrafted wood frames. “They’re a beautiful touch. People just gasp when they see the outside, then the inside of the domes. The sanctuary is breathtaking. All in all, it’s a beautiful and successful operation.”
Note: Reprinted from the Roundup Journal, Summer 2000