Buckminster Fuller’s Failed Tetron at Roper Mountain

Tetron structure under construction from the ground | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center
Tetron structure under construction from the ground | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center

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The year was 1970. Disney World was still a year from opening, roughly 240,000 folks lived in Greenville County (about half of today’s population), and South Carolina was celebrating its Tricentennial.

To ring in the big milestone, the Palmetto State commissioned architect Buckminster Fullerthe same guy who designed Epcot’s Spaceship Earth — to build a similar structure at Piedmont Exposition Park (aka present day Roper Mountain).

If you’re racking your brain trying to remember the last time you saw an Epcot-like structure around town, no, you’re not crazy — the building doesn’t exist anymore.

We recently learned about this fascinating, foregone structure, and want to share with you its brief history

Tetron structure under construction | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center
Tetron structure under construction | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center

In 1670, Charles Towne the first permanent settlement in the colony of SC was founded, and almost 300 years later, Gov. Robert McNair + a newly formed Tricentennial Commission decided to create 3 Tricentennial Exposition Parks across SC to celebrate the anniversary. 

The 3 different parks in the Lowcountry, Midlands, and Upstate would be designed to commemorate the dominant theme of each century of the state’s history. Only the park in Charleston still exists today.

  • Charles Towne Landing Exposition Park | Charleston | Represented colonial life during SC’s first 100 years
  • Midlands Exposition Park | Columbia | Represented SC’s second 100 years from the American Revolution to Reconstruction
  • Piedmont Exposition Park | Greenville | Highlighted manufacturing growth across the state in SC’s third 100 years
Renderings of SC’s 3 Tricentennial Exposition Parks, Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville left to right | Photos via Random Connections
Renderings of SC’s 3 Tricentennial Exposition Parks, Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville left to right | Photos via Random Connections

In 1968, Buckminster Fuller was called in to build a 5-story open-air museum enclosed by a giant cube (dubbed The Tetron) for Greenville’s park, and in 1969, construction began. And that’s where the optimism stops. The park was supposed to be completed by July 4, 1970, but was plagued by delays, cost overages, and design problems. You can read more about the different exhibits on each floor of the museum here

When the deadline rolled around, the Tetron cube still was not completed, leaving the museum completely exposed to the elements. At the preview day on July 3, there was an afternoon thunderstorm that soaked all the guests and caused extensive damage.  

Tetron structure on Opening Day in 1970 | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center
Tetron structure on Opening Day in 1970 | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center

The museum remained open for several weeks, but in 1971, Gov. John West stopped construction at the site, and shortly after, a feasibility study determined that the park was a complete failure, and the state pulled all the funding for the project.  

After the Greenville Zoo passed on the property, which was in the middle of nowhere at the time, Greenville County School District purchased it in 1974, and opened Roper Mountain Science Center in the 1980s.

The coolest part — according to the folks at Roper Mountain, an underground tunnel from the Tetron structure still exists and is almost like a time capsule for the 1970s. Before you can ask, the tunnel is structurally unsafe, and no visitors are allowed.

More photos

Tetron structure under construction (at a distance) | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center
Tetron structure under construction (at a distance) | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center
Tetron structure under construction | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center
Tetron structure under construction | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center
Tricentennial museum before it was demolished with Greenville Mall in the background | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center
Tricentennial museum before it was demolished with Greenville Mall in the background | Photo provided by Roper Mountain Science Center
Inside the Tricentennial Tetron on Opening Day in 1970 | Photo provided by Roper Mountain
Inside the Tricentennial Tetron on Opening Day in 1970 | Photo provided by Roper Mountain

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