Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. 233 pages. Black and white photos, endnotes, index. 5-1/2” x 8-1/2”. $19.95 paperback.
Nothing physical remains of Drop City, located in El Moro, north of Trinidad, Colorado—but for a brief time this utopia provided a haven for a handful of artists to live apart from the social and economic norms of the United States. Established in May 1965, this community gained fame for the dome-shaped architecture of its dwellings, constructed from scavenged materials. The community attempted to use art and architecture to build a cohesive and satisfying community. The brainchild of Eugene Victor Debs Bernofsky, his wife JoAnne, Clark Richert, and Richard Kallweit, Drop City began as the counter-cultural phenomenon and acquired prominence in the national media.
Misperceptions about Drop City began with its name. It actually originated with the habit of community founders, while students at the University of Kansas, of dropping objects from a height to see what artistic shapes they formed upon impact, but it quickly became associated with dropping acid, dropping out, or a social commentary on the times, as in animal droppings. Its geodesic domes reflected the group’s belief that fundamental shapes underlay the organization of physical space and the universe. This architecture was simply a means of reconnecting with it, while abandoning the rigid squares and rectangles, and missiles, of the military-industrial complex. Writer Tom Coraghessan Boyle’s Drop City (2003) added to the confusion by appropriating the name of the commune for a story set in California and Alaska.
Author Mark Matthews constructs his narrative around a series of interviews with Gene Bernofsky, whose wife declined to participate in the writing project, and Clark Richert. Matthews also uses Peter Douthit’s fictionalized account of Drop City, published in 1971, and FBI files on Bernofsky, as well as a vast secondary literature on the counterculture and the commune movement in the United States from its colonial beginnings to the present. Matthews constructs his own drop art-scholarship-commentary by weaving together a contextual collage of snippets from Time magazine from January 1965 through June 1967 between each narrative break (there are no chapters in the book). Time’s coverage not only made the counterculture popular, but may also have helped undermine it through overexposure.
From the perspective of its founders, Drop City began to deteriorate in the summer of 1967, as it became a way station for drug abusers and transients en route to other destinations. They used it as a free bed-and-breakfast, without attempting to become a part of the original community. Like much of the communal life of the counterculture, Drop City became populated by the types of people and values it was originally designed to escape. Personal tensions between Douthit, who lived there between 1966 and 1970, and Gene Bernofsky also weakened the communal bonds that animated the original founders.
The founders all reconnected with mainstream culture after their time in Drop City. Clark Richert became a painter, and Gene Bernofsky a mail carrier. Richert’s production nonrepresentational art and Bernofsky’s producing of alternative film, suggest that their reintegration was on terms of their own making. Douthit founded another experimental colony near Walsenburg, Colorado, before moving on to Taos, New Mexico. Architect Steven Baer, a supporter of Drop City, field-tested his Zomeworks concepts in Drop City, and his ongoing interest in using passive solar power and recycled materials attests to the impact of Drop City on the consciousness of many westerners who look for a more sustainable and humane existence.
Scorned by many conservatives, Drop City was one expression of a powerful nonconformist ethic that challenged conformity to racial segregation at home and wars of imperialism abroad, along with questioning the rituals and value of the capitalist system, while spawning a welter of alternative experiments in living from California’s Hog Farm to The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee.
Edward R. Crowther is a professor of history at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado. His is the author of Southern Evangelicals and the Coming of the Civil War (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000) and numerous articles and reviews.