Crumbling, Iconic, Haunted? Future Uncertain For Casa Grande Domes
About seven miles south of Casa Grande hulking mustard-colored domes rise up from the desert landscape like a scene from Star Wars’ Tatooine.
Built in 1982, they were meant to be the headquarters for an electronics manufacturer, but have since become a magnet for photographers, artists and hooligans.
“Virtually anyone who was raised in Casa Grande and went to high school or college here has partied out here,” said Dan Peer, the property’s owner.
The domes might not be an icon much longer.
Half of the largest dome collapsed last year. Pinal County asked the owner to have an engineer assess the domes' safety or block them from public access. When he did not, the domes were condemned as unsafe, said spokesman Joe Pyritz in an email.
The owner is appealing the county’s decision and will have a hearing with the Board of Supervisors at a future date.
Abandoned, Broken, Haunted?
Peer starts a tour of the domes with a disclaimer.
“First comment is, you enter the grounds at your own risk."
There’s a no trespassing sign, but the barbed wire fence has been trampled down.
“There are holes. There are unfinished foundations. There is rebar sticking up. There’s rocks, glass — you name it," Peer said. "Don’t trip. Don’t get hurt. ”
The first dome was the closest to ever being finished. You can see the tiles where the bathroom would have been inside. Unlike the other structures, made of connected orb shapes, it’s shaped more like a flying saucer.
Graffiti ranging from clumsy tags to elaborate images of faces and animals cover the walls.
“We have some good artists in the area, no doubt about that,” Peer said as he gazed up at the walls.
A group of pigeons fly out of the domes as the tour continues.
The Travel Channel show "Ghost Adventures" featured the domes in an episode last March.
“This may be one of the most unusual, yet sinister places we’ve ever investigated in America,” the host claimed.
There were rumors of satanic rituals practiced beneath the arching concrete ceilings.
“There were satanic signs they tell me, but I wouldn’t even recognize them,” Peer, who appeared in the show, said.
A man of God, Peer said when he purchased the property, they exorcised any otherworldly presence.
“It is not haunted and Satan is not welcome here anymore,” Peer said.
'A Unique Type Of Construction'
The domes were built in the 1980s as the headquarters for electronics manufacturer InterConn Technology.
Lonnie Mikkelsen was part of the construction crew and still lives in Casa Grande.
“I didn’t have a clue what they were doing,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, sign me on.’”
Maybe you’ve made a globe or piñata out of a balloon and papier-mâché. The process to build the domes was like that, but in reverse.
First a giant balloon-like tarp was attached at the foundation. Fans inflated the balloon and workers built the dome from the inside, first spraying the sides with polyurethane foam, then concrete reinforced with metal fibers and added rebar.
Interconn went under before the domes were completed and the property has sat vacant for years.
A protective white layer covering the foam has peeled away and the foam turns mustard yellow in the sun. The domes’ surface are pockmarked with handholds people use to climb to the top.
“I would have liked to see them make it just because it was a unique type of construction,” Mikkelsen said.
The company that built the domes on the other hand, still exists.
“So far we have constructed domes in every state in the union except one and in 52 foreign countries,” said Gary Clark, sales vice president at the Monolithic Dome Institute.
The tarp used to build the largest Casa Grande dome structure was re-configured and formed to shape for Monolithic’s manufacturing facility in Italy, Texas.
It’s called brucco, the Italian word for caterpillar.
Clark said before the recession in 2008, the company was creating more than 100 new domes a year for everything from schools, private residences and churches.
Monolithic touts the domes' weather resistance, insulation and ergonomics.
“It’s very simple to say they are iconic,” Clark said.
Decrepit And Real, 'It's Honest'
The Casa Grande domes may not be an icon for much longer. Peer pointed out cracks and holes in the domes as we walk through the cavernous space. Some are no wider than a hand, others you can walk through.
“Concrete does have a tendency to crack anyhow, but none of these cracks are really structural,” Peer said.
He believes vandals caused the destruction, including the collapse of the largest dome. The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office reported there have been about 26 calls about the property since 2012 — 76 percent for trespassing.
“Is it really worth the trouble?”
Peer said sometimes he wonders. The property is for sale and has been for years.
“It’s a million-dollar property in little better shape than it is now,” Peer said. “Maybe in quite a bit better shape than it is now."
For now, Peer occasionally rents the property to filmmakers and photographers, but many people still visit the domes without permission.
On the day of the tour with Peer, Patrick McPherson and his buddy from Phoenix are also exploring the domes.
He’s from South Carolina and read about the site online before visiting.
“There’s just something nice about, I don't know, how decrepit and real it is. It’s honest.” McPherson said. “It would be a shame to lose this, I think.”
An LA-based artist that goes by Boots stenciled her poetry on the domes walls. Boots became enamored with abandoned places after a break-up from an eight-year relationship.
“The domes, like other places I’ve explored, have their bad and good graffiti,” Boots said. “There’s artists you recognize and then kids tagging how much they hate their parents.”
Since she visited, several of her poems have been covered by spray paint.
“The domes are dreary, but have a sense of hope,” Boots said. “Their oddness alone is appealing: random domes in the middle of the desert that have become a tourist attraction.”