Filmmakers revisit Drop City, Colorado's groundbreaking artists
commune in the '60s
By John Hendrickson
The Denver Post
In the spring of 1965, three former University of Kansas students
purchased a 6-acre plot of land a few miles north of Trinidad for $450.
Their dream was to create large works of art in which they would live.
"Our long-term vision was that Drop City would function as a 'seed'
for future communities that would sprout around the world," said
Clark Richert, one of Drop City's chief architects, now a professor
at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design in Lakewood. Drop City was
among the most well-known rural communes in the United States, though
all signs of human life had vanished from the property after less
than a decade. Forty-four years later, its impact as both an artistic
and social experiment is the subject of a documentary in progress.
"Drop City is the best example of the potential and perils of trying
to build an alternative culture in America that I've ever come
across," said documentarian Tom McCourt, associate professor of media
at Fordham University.
In their search for former "droppers," McCourt and filmmaker Joan
Grossman have embarked on a road trip across California, Montana,
Colorado and New Mexico. They will land in Trinidad on Sunday to
share old footage and photographs at "Drop!," an event produced by
History Colorado to honor the late community.
Drop City co-founders Richert and Gene Bernofsky pioneered "Drop Art"
in the early 1960s, dropping objects from the roof of a loft in
Lawrence, Kan., onto the street below as a means of conceptual
artwork. The idea for a "city" grew as a manifestation of this new
expression, and Drop City was established as one of the country's
After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1965, Bernofsky and
his wife, JoAnn, set out for Colorado to fetch Richert, who had
graduated two years earlier and was working toward a master's degree
in fine arts at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
"Heading north, we followed tips from townspeople and ranchers as to
where we might find land to purchase tips which eventually circled
us around south near Trinidad. You might say I 'dropped out' to
pursue the Drop City vision, but it is important to understand that
the 'Drop' in Drop City does not refer to 'dropping out,' " Richert
said in an e-mail interview.
Psychologist and psychedelic drug advocate Dr. Timothy Leary coined
the phrase "turn on, tune in, drop out" a few years later, which
became the unofficial mantra of those who embraced counterculture in
the late '60s.
Designed as a sustainable colony for artists and filmmakers, Drop
City began as a single quasi-geodesic dome constructed entirely from
lumber scraps and old car parts.
"We had already decided to start the community before I attended
lectures by Buckminster Fuller at the University of Colorado . . .
(but) after sitting in on a couple of his six-hour visionary
orations, I became convinced that we should 'take the leap' and build
geodesic domes," recalled Richert.
The innovative settlement, which is receiving renewed attention by
architectural historians, was included in 2001 in "The House Book," a
global survey of 500 past and present residential structures.
Richert, the Bernofskys and fourth founder Richard Kallweit had no
prior knowledge of geodesic geometry. Their first dome, held together
by bottle caps, tar paper and chicken wire, was built with no formal
As settlers poured in, more domed domiciles were constructed, and the
communal kitchen-dome nearly tripled in size.
"Drop City is built on the garbage dump of a dying town of 10,000
strung-out coal miners," wrote Peter Douthit in his 1971 book "Drop City."
Douthit, who adopted the name Peter Rabbit while on the commune, was
one of the "core 12" who lived on the property before national media
exposure and an influx of visitors led the original four to move out
in 1968. Richert returned to Boulder to complete his MFA and created
the artists cooperative "Criss-Cross" with fellow founding members.
"We defined ourselves as an artists community and did not consciously
see ourselves initially as a commune," recalled Richert, "but it is
true we shared ownership of the property, ate meals together and
agreed upon resolution of issues through consensus."
With their film, McCourt and Grossman are hoping to uncover the
deeper history of the settlement and its transformation from
groundbreaking experiment to distant memory.
Search for place
"I've always thought that geography is destiny," Grossman said in an
e-mail. 'Place' is always a highly significant factor in any story.
Consciously or not, we're emulating that search for place by
traveling through the West to make the film."
Ironically, the community's downfall was not necessarily the result
of its location in the desolate Colorado plains, but to overexposure
and a loss of consensus. Within two years, the population had grown
to more than 20 residents and temporary visitors, some of whom saw
Drop City as merely a novelty.
"The avant-garde has a long tradition of being co-opted by mainstream
culture. It happens to all of the important art movements," said
Richert. "It appears to be inevitable: Forms of idealism eventually
reach a large audience and become diluted and corrupted in the process."
After the last of the "core 12" moved away, the settlement remained
inhabited for several years, though the original ideologies of the
founders had all but disappeared.
Now, nearly half a century later, Grossman and McCourt are skeptical
about another Drop City springing up anytime soon.
"In the 1960s, the economy was strong, and no one worried about what
would happen if careers were put on hold or even dismissed for
another way of life," said Grossman. "There's the sense now and
I've seen it with young people when I've taught at universities
that practical decisions must be made very young."
However, as a college professor himself, Richert sees echoes of his
radical city in 2009.
"I feel the ideas that Drop City was based on ecology, creativity,
economy are relevant today and that Drop City may still be a model.
There are more obstacles today: more restrictive zoning, building
codes, less access to funding. But being a teacher in an art school,
I see among the young creative types a great interest in finding
alternative approaches to an artistic lifestyle."
Tom McCourt, on the other hand, likens the community's ideals to a
raw form of the American dream.
"There's a long chain of resistance to the established order in
America, and Drop City is a major link in that chain," said McCourt.
"Yet what could be more American than striking out for the West and
trying to build a civilization from scratch?"
John Hendrickson: 303-954-1211 or email@example.com
Drop! will feature rare flim footage, photographs and memories of
Drop City. Filmmakers Joan Grossman and Tom McCourt will be on hand
to discuss their upcoming documentary, as will co-founder Clark
Richert. 4-7 p.m. Sunday, Aultman Hall- Lucky Monkey, 137 W. Cedar
St., Trinidad. Free.
View a slide show of images from Drop City, Colorado's '60s'-era
groundbreaking artists commune.