Meet the Flintstones
You’ve seen it from the road… now learn the history of the infamous Flintstone house.
By Virginia Gardiner
During a quiet drive north on Highway 280, something always breaks the silence while everyone stares blankly out the car windows at the blue sky and light mist on the greezn hills over Crystal Springs reservoir. Any observant veteran of this quintessential California experience remembers “The Flintstone House” – also known as “the dome house,” “the marshmallow house,” and in select circles, “the Gumby house” – even if at 80 miles per hour (280’s requisite speed for pleasure), you can only catch a glimpse and say, “Check that out.”
Like many 1970s experiments, the Flintstone House looks exactly like, well, a 1970s experiment. The tactic of spraying concrete – which when sprayed is called “gunite” – made leaps in the 1960s, when a new type of rotary spray gun was invented. When the ‘70s hit, the decade’s many organic enthusiasts were keen on curvaceous walls, and spraying gunite onto a metal frame seemed like an easy way to build them. In the spirit of the era, such buildings (being excellently insulated) would also be energy-efficient . William Nicholson, the architect who designed the Flintstone House in 1976, pioneered the idea of forming houses with gunite on giant, inflated aeronautical balloons.
“He started out by building a wire mesh over the balloons, and spraying gunite over them,” explains Wayne Da San Martino, the San Francisco builder who managed the project. “But we got a heavy rain, and the whole thing just collapsed. So we lathed a frame of more sturdy half-inch rebar, put a coat of cement on that, and then shot the gunite all over. On the underside, we applied a plaster putty coat.” The result was an assembly of rooms in which every surface is rounded.
Da San Martino takes credit for the house’s unique interior features. “Nicholson designed the basic form, then he pretty much gave us free reign. [We built] a huge conversation pit, with the window cut at a level to hide the freeway, but show the reservoir. The upstairs bedroom, in the tallest dome, had a spiral staircase inspired by a sugar-cone; the diameter increases to equal that of the floor above. And in the master bathroom, a mixture of big round rocks took the place of tiles.”
In the mid-1980s, due in part to neglect from its unnamed owners, the house fell on hard times. Water runoff on its steep hillside site caused it to sink, and the walls developed deep, prolific cracks that filled with fuzzy mold. B.H. “Danny” Daniller, an Australian architect specializing in waterproof coatings, spearheaded the repair job, sandblasting the cracked surfaces and applying a plastic Andex coating. He also set up a French drain, to divert water from the site. “Many of the neighbors thought it was an eyesore,” Daniller remembers, “I think they were disappointed when I repaired it and it got sold again.”
Indeed, the house had been cause for a now-deceased member of its Hillsborough neighborhood to found an architectural review board to keep more experimental architecture out of the vicinity. “They thought the architect was a stoner,” says Da San Martino, “The design was too aggressively new for such a conservative community. I don’t think they’ll ever build something like this again in Hillsborough.”
In 1987, fresh from its repair job, the house was acquired by Tom and Dorothy Petika. “It was a fun house,” says the latter. Shortly after they moved in, Tom got a call from a local reporter, who asked how he felt about moving into a house that some of his neighbors hated. “I pointed out that I’d just bought the house because I liked it. The house was available for anyone to buy and bulldoze if they wanted to. But we thought it was great. I had a friend who would always start phone conversations with, ‘Yabba dabba doo!’ That sort of thing made us really happy.”
Chronic movers, the Petikas put the Flintstone House on the market in 1996 for $800,000. There were rumors that OJ Simpson (fresh out of court) made an offer, but another buyer eventually closed the deal. Now nearing its 30th birthday, the house is still standing… and continues to be an unofficial Northern California landmark.