From the exterior, the iconic Sonora Dome still radiates light off its gleaming white doric columns and facade.
Inside, it creeps into disrepair, unused, but not forgotten.
The Sonora High School District will decide whether the dome and two adjacent buildings rented by the Tuolumne County Arts Alliance should be sold. An advisory committee set up by the school board recommended doing just that.
For now, groups and individuals are working to figure out how to save the Dome. Located between two residential neighborhoods, the property would likely have more value if the buildings were torn down.
Lisette Sweetland, who will take the helm of the Arts Alliance from longtime Executive Director Connie O’Connor beginning next year, said the prospect of the Dome being demolished would grieve her not just as the incoming executive director, but as a lifetime resident of Tuolumne County.
“I very much have an affection for this beautiful stately building,” she said. “In my perfect world that building would not be lost. I tend to view it as a gift to Sonora. That building is like a medallion shining in the sun.”
She, and O’Connor, say the the dome property should become a performing arts cultural center with a theater, a historical museum, a children's exploratorium, and even an atrium.
The challenge involves leadership and money.
Sonora High School Superintendent Pat Chabot said board members have not decided whether to follow the advisory committee’s recommendations. Instead, plans for a public workshop to invite ideas and questions from the public was in development, he said.
The workshop would not function as a decision-making group, but rather present information and inquiries “to have the board talk it over.”
According to the Self Insured Schools of California, the district’s insurance company, the dome structure is valued at $5,549,600, Chabot said. Chabot noted that because of the structural updates and construction needed, a sales price could end up being far less than the valuation.
O’Connor, an advisory committee member, said despite her reservations about the efficacy of the committee’s meetings and discussions, “the ball was in the court” of the board of trustees.
“We’ve sort of spoken,” she said. “It's a landmark and it should be showcased as that. It already has this built-in mystique and charm that needs to be capitalized on. It already makes a statement, but it could make more of a statement if it is developed correctly.”
Recognition of the past
The Dome Investigative Steering Committee (DISC), formed in 2000, determined in December 2002 that it would require $2,607,971 for a range of demolitions; structural repairs to the roof, floor, walls, foundation and dome; heating, ventilation and air conditioning installation; plumbing; an elevator, and electrical, fire and sprinkler updates.
The figure includes a 10 percent contingency, contractor and overhead charges and insurance.
The estimate does not include hazardous material removal, management costs, architectural engineering fees, building permit fees, planning department fees or lead-based paint and asbestos removal.
The additional costs, according to the estimate, could range from $453,000 to $718,000.
But those figures are 15 years old, O’Connor said.
Sweetland said, “There is a lot of money that needs to be spent on ADA upgrades… there's also some earthquake retrofitting that needs to happen.”
The most recent iteration of a group tasked with determining a future for the dome was the Sonora Dome and Wildcat Ranch Advisory Committee, which held the first of its five meetings in July.
The official advisory committee recommendation was that the Sonora Dome become an “arts cultural center under the proper organization,” and also added that the site should not be demolished “because of it’s historical and sentimental value to the community.”
Committee members were vocal about the need for a non-profit organization explicitly dedicated to the preservation of the dome. But the methodology and participation of the entities that would make up this “Save the Dome” organization are still in their developmental stages.
The development of a vision for the Sonora Dome “really and truly needs to be a partnership,” O’Connor said.
A combination of city and county government, corporate sponsorships, individual fundraising and an investigation into the National Trust for Historic Preservation would be required, she said.
She also said the district should also do its part by giving the Dome to the city.
“I refuse to just give up. I just think things like this are done all over the world so there's no reason in the world we can do this thing as well,” she said. “When people finally come to realize that they will come together as a force to do something worthwhile.”
Advisory committee member Ty Wivell, who attended elementary school at the Dome from kindergarten through eighth grade, said any organizations that take stewardship of the dome ought to “have the heart to care for it.”
“The right organization, involved with the heart as well the head, should be able to retain the Dome for the purpose that it should be retained for,” he said. “It revives memories of when I went to school there. I've had some of those people who are still alive call me about my comments about the dome, about saving it, using it as a cultural and arts center.”
Wivell, like O’Connor, said the district should donate the property to the city or to a non-profit entity, and noted that the school district does not have the funds or the wherewithal to properly maintain it.
“The idea is to have an organization that could,” he said. “We've talked to and had conversations with Chabot and so forth but they cannot maintain it. They are letting it go to ruins and fall apart.”
One proposition that could work, Wivell said, drawing a comparison to the Measure J bonds that led to the Sonora High School improvements, could to “float a bond issue to maintain and restore” the Dome.
O’Connor suggested the property be totally refurbished into a marketplace of artistic, cultural and historical ideas, all native and deferential to Tuolumne County.
O’Connor said she had been fostering this vision since 1998, envisioning a performing arts cultural center throughout district property, even including the site of Cassina High School, which was not included as a part of the advisory committee’s recommendation.
“That's always down the road. It's not anything that would happen immediately but maybe in time,” she said, which would include a small theater in the Cassina High School gym, expansive parking for featured events, and range of office and production spaces for area non-profits including local radio station KAAD-LP Sonora.
“This whole area could become a very viable arts district, which would become a great economic criteria through the arts,” she said.
Even in the two adjacent properties to the Dome rented by the TCAA, she said the organization “has done their fair share in trying to upgrade and perform some small miracles on the interior of these buildings,” including the installation of a dance floor in the former nursery building, and some cosmetic improvements to their exteriors.
A cultural center of any sort, even if just restricted to the Dome, Sweetland said, would be the perfect type of place to host events such as the Sonora Bach Festival. Both Sweetland and O’Connor also suggested that the property be modeled on the Haggin Museum in Stockton, utilizing an extensive catalogue of permanent art collections distributed throughout the county.
“It’s a place that people can go and view this collection of artwork, where classes are held, where concerts are held, where people can really take advantage of this beautiful historic thing,” Sweetland said.
For Wivell, the future of the dome would be a recognition of the past that his peers had persevered through and lived.
“You've got a historical building that has the capability of housing information and being able to hold meetings of people and organizations to show and embellish the history of our city and county,” he said.
A historical museum, developed from the transference of the collection at the Tuolumne County Museum on Bradford Street, would be the right place to start, he said.
The museum would “provide exhibits and not only pictures, but videos, or something of that nature, for people to be able to review and see the past happenings here,” he said.
Throughout the advisory committee meetings, Wivell was also one of the most vocal dissenters against the 1967 seismic study, which designated the site as earthquake unsafe.
His rationale, he said, was to just look around the entire city of Sonora.
“The buildings you're in, they probably wouldn't pass either,” he said. “But that doesn't mean we can’t use it. That's why they had the offices there up until a few years ago.”
The many parties interested in the protection and preservation of the dome are not working at cross-purposes, but are for the time being, working independently.
“Considerable amounts of people would like to see something done to this building and save it,” O’Connor said. “We all feel that it is a gift. That we've all been given a gift in the city and this county. It really needs to be saved.”