GRAND MEADOW, MINNESOTA—Riding out of the wrinkled Mississippi River watershed we rolled west into the Minnesota prairie on State Road 16. More than a century ago, agricultural Mondrians had plowed a vast ocean of grass into geometric segments of corn and soy beans.
Small towns appeared on the horizon with whistle-stop predictability: Rushford, Lanesboro, Preston, and Spring Valley. Some were bigger than others, but in passing through each of them fields of beans and corn gave way to houses, which led to a main street lined with brick and board boxes. Some were home to businesses with commercial hearts still beating. Others were orphans hoping for a better future.
Like a prairie tout setting up a mark with predictable wins, these small towns set me for a surprise in Grand Meadow. On the farm field shoreline rose five white domes, like huge ping pong balls buried in the backyards of the houses at the edge of town. There was a sign out front, but opposite traveling traffic blocked my readable view. As we refueled in town, Ed mentioned alien space craft; I guessed school.
Riding back to the domes proved this true. Many small towns put grades K through 12 under one roof, but five domes? What was it about Grand Meadow’s 1,139 residents that led them to this futuristic educational edifice? There were some cars in the parking lot on this warm August 1, 2014, but no one responded when I circled the domes, rattling locked doors, hoping to find someone with answers. No Joy. And the attendant at the convenience store, where I reunited with Ed to continue our journey, could only confirm what I already knew. That’s where she went to school.
Being unusual, Grand Meadow’s monolithic domes are well documented on the Internet. The need seems clear: the previous school, a three-story structure, needed a roof and better handicap accessibility. As it was built in 1916, there was little a remodel could do to lower its utility bill. An unnamed resident urged the school board to look at concrete monolithic domes, which are energy and space efficient and impervious to tornados (they are the community’s disaster shelter).
Residents were at first skeptical, but support grew with their understanding. They passed an $8 million bond issue in 1998, and the state doubled its innovation grant to $3 million. They broke ground in 2001 and 400 students and 30 teachers moved into the windowless domes the following year. With its geothermal energy system, the district’s monthly utility bill is a fifth of the bill for the old school.
The domes cover 81,000 square feet. Alphabetically identified, A is the junior and high school, B is the admin office and media center, C is home to pre-K to 6th grade, D is the gym and related training and locker rooms, and E is home to the band and art rooms, and the cafeteria.
What a difference a decade makes. My news search for reports of the resident’s attitude on its domed school also turned up a February 5, 2014 article in the Austin Daily Herald, “More Space at the Dome?” As is happening everywhere small towns are commuteably close to cities, Grand Meadow, 25 miles south of Rochester, is becoming a bedroom community.
That means the K-12 student population could hit 450 or more in two years, said the article, and there would be no room at the domes. To prepare, the district is seeking a $13.7 million referendum for an additional 71,200 square feet. A committee looked at more domes, but the district decided on “traditional buildings in order to maximize useable space.” They will be energy efficient thanks to the geothermal energy system.
While the community’s taste in architecture has changed, its community spirit seems robust. If the addition comes to pass, it will include a “physical education complex containing a full-sized indoor court, walking/running track, aerobic and weight rooms, and more. District officials say there are plans to open the physical education complex to the community. The indoor court and other areas would only be used by students during the school day, but community members could use the facility for a nominal fee at other times if the referendum passes.”