Monolithic Dome homes are built to last; sometimes, they outlast their creators. The Shell House, designed in the Catskills by architect Seymour (Sy) Rutkin, began 25 years ago as a light-filled sanctuary and as his dream come true. Since then, it’s become a place of incubation and inspiration for dozens of other dreamers. The Shell House still resonates with sparkling life.
“Intended as an organic form, it grows like a plant or tree, with its leaves turned to the sun, transforming that energy into nourishment and its foundation roots wide and firm enough to support its size, part built in the earth, which also feeds and nourishes it,” Rutkin said.
Rutkin and his wife, Anne Teicher, delighted in their all-new abode. He shared his ideas at conferences throughout the world. Teicher was CEO of the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, which has the motto, “Helping New Yorkers Find Their Way Home,” and with Shell House, the couple had found their way home. When Rutkin passed away, Teicher wanted Shell House to find a new owner who would understand and appreciate the unique aesthetic.
Shell House soon found its next incarnation with a new generation. Lydia White and Ian Fleming are a creative couple who were looking to connect with nature. They fell in love with Shell House at first sight.
“We felt like it had been waiting for us,” White said.
Rutkin collaborated with Monolithic and George Paul of Thermospheric Structures (who built Eye of the Storm) to see his vision come to fruition. Rutkin’s design cut the dome in half to create a place of beauty that embraces the natural flow of the Catskills, leaving it tall with an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that stretched 85 feet in length and 24 feet at the tallest point. Since building codes stopped him from the entire wall of glass he’d envisioned, he added some porcelain-finished panels. He chose round windows for other parts of the dome and found a great deal on them from a ship supply company.
Rutkin was a disciple of modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who asserted, “What finally is beauty? Certainly, nothing that can be calculated or measured. It is always something imponderable, something that lies between things.”
White, an interdisciplinary designer, shares Rutkin’s love for nature and earth-centered design. She’s working to bring ideas from ecology to design software that addresses climate change. The aesthetic and experience of living in Shell House have reinforced her determination.
“Staying in the space is incredibly calming, and it is an ideal place to commune with friends or connect with creative work,” White said. “It’s the perfect opportunity to finally have a space for some of the ideas I’ve dreamed of for years.”
She and Fleming had challenges – cleaning and recoating the exterior, heating the space, dealing with moisture and condensation. They sought an interior to suit themselves and enlisted the help of friends at DAAM, an architecture and design firm based in Chicago. They combined forces with Engels Cabinet Shop and Whritner Builders to create the beautiful new interior. DAAM described the home as “a unique oblate-ellipsoid shotcrete dome structure and passive solar strategies such as a Trombe wall and an expansive south-facing glass window wall to daylight the home and take in views of the verdant hills and valley.” Locals have called it The Moon or The Egg House.
They renovated the kitchen, the entry, and the HVAC system. The renovation emphasized the waves and curves of the dome itself, focusing on a feeling of flow. The kitchen island and cabinets were designed to respect the open interior, custom-fit to the dome’s unique shape.
The renovation received a 2020 AIA Chicago Small Projects Awards Citation of Merit and a 2021 Dwell Design Awards nomination. The 2400-square-foot Shell House had been featured in Architectural Record in 2004, and the renovations merited a new feature there in June 2021. Articles about Shell House have appeared in All Over Albany in 2015 and Chicago Architect in 2020, as well as in Dwell, Dezeen, and Archello.
Some of the changes have been quite fortuitous. When they redesigned the portico, with help from friends at Tangible Space and Chiaozza, the dome needed recoating, so they were able to make the new portico blend seamlessly with the existing dome.
With the physical transformation came an intentional, intuitive metamorphosis. White initiated Shell House Arts, a retreat center designed to facilitate and deepen creativity. Shell House became a creative community hub and a place of peace for experimental artists. Just as Rutkin had visualized something all new with the creation of Shell House, so did Shell House become the inspiration for artistic innovation in the next generation. A home created to be a place of beauty became the incubator for artists who, in turn, created new forms of beauty individually and together.
“My aim was to bring together a mix of interesting people at different stages in their careers and working across different mediums—sound, visual arts, painting, architecture, installation, technology, food—to exchange ideas, practices, and community,” White said.
After five stimulating sessions, COVID grounded the arts program to a halt. During the difficult days of the pandemic, Shell House became a protective, light-filled bunker where White and Fleming took refuge with their new baby. For White, it brought a constant interconnectedness to nature and a sense of belonging to a larger universe.
“The night view of the sky is unobstructed by trees and incredibly wide,” White said.
A well-maintained Monolithic Dome will remain part of a landscape for generations following its construction. Lydia and Ian have decided to share Shell House in new ways during this phase of their evolving lives.
“We’re open to hosting creative or ecological workshops and retreats,” White said. “It’s also available on Airbnb for anyone to rent! We’ve had many creatives stay and add to the stories and experiences.”
Like Rutkin, White strongly believes in innovating excellence and preserving beauty in a world that will continue after all the footsteps heard today have gone away.
“We’re happy to be stewards of the Shell House for the next generation,” White said. “I like having a playground for interior design and a space to showcase the ideas and works that were created there by others.”