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Issue #9 January 31, 2013 Jan 31, 2013 Jan 31
Issue #1 October 11, 2012 Oct 11, 2012 Oct 11
From Issue #21 July 18, 2013

A Beacon of Hope

A dying city glows with optimism over its plan for a giant lava lamp.

By John Patrick Pullen Twitter icon 

Dry Falls above Soap Lake.

Listen to an interview with the author.

The nighttime view from Brent Blake’s window offers a view straight through downtown Soap Lake, Washington, past the soft glow of the Masquers Theater marquee and the neon beer signs in the Del Red Pub, ending about a mile away where paved roads give way to sagebrush, high desert, and darkness. Situated at the corner of Main Street and Highway 17, which sports the town’s only stoplight, this view is all most people ever see of Soap Lake, as they blow through headed for anywhere else.

The locals, however — all 1,514 of them — see much more. They see the allure of a rugged, almost Martian landscape carved by the cataclysmal force of an Ice Age flood.1 They see the potential of a once-bustling wellness-centric resort town about 180 miles southeast of Seattle, where thousands of early 20th century vacationers spent summers soaking in the lake’s magical, healing waters. They see a home base from which hikers, hunters, and boaters have easy access to the outdoors.

And they see hope in a giant lava lamp standing in the middle of town, drawing curious passersby off the highway with a slow, hypnotic, goopy glow.

But 11 years into efforts to build the 60-foot-tall whimsical wonder, they’ve also seen the reasons no one has ever before constructed a six-story tower of lights, hot wax, and oil. Impractical, expensive, underfunded, and perhaps even technologically impossible, the Soap Lake Lava Lamp has proved more complicated to build than anyone had ever imagined. And as the concept became bigger than the city itself, they had no alternative but to build it. “The lava lamp will happen in Soap Lake,” says Wayne Hovde, the city’s former mayor. “When? I can’t tell you — but it will happen.”

This year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the iconic lamp’s invention, efforts have renewed to finish the infamous unbuilt public art installation. To date, the idea has undergone three different designs and endured two city mayors, and it may soon outlive its 72-year-old creator. Brent Blake was diagnosed with terminal acute myeloid leukemia last September. He was given two months to live.

Brent Blake and his electric chess set.

Meet Soap Blake

Blake first conceived of building the world’s largest lava lamp in May 2002, while staring out the window and thinking of ways to convince motorists to pull into town and spend money. “Ever-changing, never the same — it would draw people like crazy,” says Blake. “It would make it a great tourist attraction.”

And while the concept may sound bizarre, it seems perfectly reasonable in comparison to Blake’s full body of work. An architect, magazine publisher, and artist, the longhaired, gray-bearded impresario seems never to have heard the word “can’t.” A tour of his Soap Lake Art Museum begins with his electric chess set, made of sockets and light bulbs wired entirely by Blake himself. He mummifies everyday objects like tennis rackets and toaster ovens on commission. On a table sits a model of another proposed project, “Soaphenge,” that never got off the ground. A full-sized re-creation of Stonehenge using massive concrete bars of soap, Blake thinks this one is totally doable. “It would only cost around $100,000,” he says.

Nearby, at Dry Falls — a horseshoe-shaped chasm 20 miles north of Soap Lake that’s 10 times the height of Niagara Falls and is believed to have once been the world’s largest waterfall — Blake proposed building a self-perpetuating cascade. The National Park Service, however, politely declined. “If a dry falls is interesting,” Blake reasons, “a wet falls is spectacular.”

Yet the lamp concept caught on with townsfolk mostly because of the bizarre way Blake launched the project. Instead of drawing up architectural plans, looking for land, getting financial support, or even asking the city’s permission, he created posters, pulled together a Web site, and launched a two-year marketing campaign that made it seem like the lamp was already operational.

With Blake’s posters in nearly every business and lava lamps adorning the shops, the idea alone generated a buzz that had been absent from Soap Lake for decades. At the Visitors Information Center, tourists descended from as far away as South Korea and Eastern Europe, asking for directions to the lamp. Media outlets from the BBC to the Los Angeles Times also flocked to the city. But when they arrived, they found little more than a dozen closed shops on Main Street.

“This went everywhere in the world, and it’s a nonexistent project,” says Blake. “It’s just make-believe; it’s a poster and an idea. But because it was so weird, the media fell in love with it.”

And though the lamp has been Blake’s foremost project over the past decade, he seems barely wistful about the possibility of not seeing it built. That’s because for him, the art is in the effort, not the effect. “People are hesitant to experiment, try, or do — it’s a natural hindrance to expression,” says Blake when asked about his legacy. “I say push all that into the background, start throwing paint onto the canvas, and not be worried or afraid that it’s not going to turn out right.”

There’s something in the water

However outlandish the idea was, Blake rallied Soap Lake behind the lamp — an amazing feat considering the typical townsperson’s demeanor. Genuinely warm and relentlessly enthusiastic, the citizens of Soap Lake are proud of their home’s slow pace and relaxing atmosphere. They call the frenetic corridor of business from Seattle to Tacoma “the other side,” and they enjoy the city’s two bars and three restaurants. “The majority of people here, if they turn on the faucet and water comes out and flush the toilet and it goes away, they’re happy,” says Hovde.

Yet despite being one of Washington’s poorest cities, Soap Lake has completed an impressive array of projects in recent years, proving — it’s hoped — that they’ll be able to light the lamp. In 2003, volunteers raised funds for and opened a 200-seat, $810,000 state-of-the-art theater in the town center. In 2009, the Soap Lake Garden Club dedicated a $500,000 sculpture titled Calling the Healing Waters, which, at 45 feet wide, is the world’s largest human figure sundial.

Locals have also restored the RV park, repaired the visitors center, and landscaped a rough-terrain golf course. As part of an ongoing $1.5 million plan to redevelop Soap Lake’s Main Street with new pavement, wider sidewalks, and even LED lighting, the city hall was also remodeled, the city council chambers relocated, and the police station rebuilt.

The lava lamp may seem frivolous compared to these more practical (or at least achievable) projects, but the idea has a foundation of sound economics. For centuries, stretching back to when Native Americans roamed the Pacific Northwest, people have come to Soap Lake to relieve symptoms of arthritis, psoriasis, Buerger’s disease, and Raynaud’s syndrome by coating themselves with mud and lying in the sun. The lake is four times saltier than the ocean, has as much alkalinity as an oven cleaner, and is one of Earth’s most unusual bodies of water. The National Science Foundation funded a study to examine microbes found there, hoping that they could shed some light on Martian life forms. Researchers found a new genus of bacteria.

Though many scientific studies of the water have been conducted, there’s no clear reason why the lake is such an effective treatment for skin, muscle, and joint conditions. In the early 20th century, doctors prescribed long stays at Soap Lake’s many sanitariums to their patients. Hotels popped up on the hills surrounding the lake. And until World War II, the town was known worldwide as a booming health resort.

But with the advent of sulfa drugs and penicillin in the 1930s, fewer people came looking for a cure. Then, during World War II, personnel from nearby Moses Lake Air Force Base took over the housing, choking out vacationers. Finally, the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s swept road-trippers past the small town. Today, more than a million tourists annually drive 50 miles past Soap Lake to the Grand Coulee Dam, where a laser light show projected on the embankment coaxes visitors to spend the night.

Some still come for the waters, but even they may wind up disappointed. Since the dam was built, reducing inflows, the mineral content of the lake has declined. And the mineral-water pipeline that pumps lake water to the last two hotels that feature it as an amenity is out of date, and had to be shut down to repair cracks in 2012. It failed again in 2013. At this writing, its future is uncertain.

As times became increasingly hard for the city, it became clear that the lamp could light their future. “You need to find what your city has that no place else does, and just market it until the cows come home,” says Eileen Beckwith, who runs the Soap Lake for Locals site with her husband, Burr. “There are other communities that have mineral lakes, but nobody has a giant lava lamp.”

Weird science

As the town embarked on building a 60-foot-tall lava lamp, it quickly became clear why the devices are rarely taller than two feet. In a tabletop model, a light bulb heats the mixture of oil and wax inside the lamp. The hotter fluids rise to the top, diffuse heat, and then sink.

To absorb and diffuse heat, a 60-foot lamp would need glass that is 12 inches thick at the base and tapers to four inches at the top — something that has never been manufactured, let alone transported.2 At that size, the lamp would hold 100,000 gallons of liquid, says Blake, and the precise mixture of oil and wax would depend on the size.3

The power required to heat “lava” that size would be immense, not to mention frivolous and environmentally neglectful. And then there are the catastrophic concerns of the disaster that would ensue if the lamp cracked. As the engineering proved to be unfeasible, enthusiasm in Soap Lake began to wane. “It looked good on the posters,” says Duane Nycz, a member of one of the city’s longest-residing families.

And then there’s the lamp’s association with drugs and hippies, an argument that goes two ways. “[Older] generations that lived through the ’70s automatically assume the only people who would want to come are looking to sit in front of it and drop acid and smoke dope,” says Burr Beckwith. “They’re not aware that there’s a whole other generation that doesn’t have that broad association with it.”4

Then in 2004, the town was cursed with a miracle. Target Corp. not only had a 50-foot mechanical iron-and-fiberglass lamp hanging in Times Square, but after a bit of finagling it was also willing to donate the $2 million display to the town and pay the $200,000 to ship it to Washington. The deal seemed too good to be true — and, in many ways, it was.

When the 48,000 pounds of iron and fiberglass were unloaded in Soap Lake, it was clear it had been taken apart to ship without any thought as to how it might be reassembled. No one in town could figure out how to put it back together. And the electronic “brain” that controlled the display’s lava flow motion was missing. It wasn’t freestanding, either; it was designed to be hung, requiring an even larger apparatus.

In order to get the Target lamp to work, the town would have had to ship the pieces back to the Minnesota-based company that originally made the display so they could repair it, create assembly instructions, disassemble it, and send it back to Soap Lake, where it could be built again — all for the bargain-basement price of $600,000. The cost was not only prohibitive, but the idea of paying for it bolstered growing feelings around town that the mechanical solution was kitschy and lackluster. Useless, the Target lamp pieces were tossed, uncovered, into a storage lot a stone’s throw from the city’s sewage treatment plant.

Meanwhile, in-town bickering over the lamp’s placement, funding, and design whittled away support for the project. “To me, it’s an idea whose time has come and gone,” Nycz says. From the barstools of the Businessmen’s Club, a private club that lets guests pay “dues” to enter, to the booths at the B&B Drive-In, where diners still place food orders from cars, many still wanted the lamp, but they wanted the real thing.

And while time proudly stands still in this community, patience was running out. “How long does an idea live?” asks local filmmaker and lamp-booster Kathy Kiefer. “Ultimately, that is the question.”

The lamp in a new light

In late 2010, Soap Lake architect Andrew Kovach came up with an ambitious new plan. The design called for scrapping the Target parts altogether and building an imitation lava lamp from scratch. The plans for the state-of-the-art installation proposed using interior solar-powered laser projectors to shoot lava-flow imagery onto an outer shell made of Tenara fabric. The uncannily authentic looking lamp would have landscaping that would make it look as if it had just sprouted from the ground, and it promised limited light pollution. Similar in concept to a light-up Santa lawn ornament — only much more sophisticated and serious — it also came with a $1 million price tag.

Kovach drafted full schematics and created a preview video, and as he showed them around town, the buzz came back. Blake immediately backed the plan, the mayor approved it, and people like Keifer and the Beckwiths became downright giddy. “It’s like when you have two shots of whiskey and you feel real good inside,” says Burr Beckwith. “That’s what happened instantly when I saw it.”

But financially, the timing couldn’t have been worse. With a 34 percent decline in tax revenue over the past four years, the city has struggled. Infrastructure needs such as problematic sewers pulled Mayor Hovde’s attention from the project, and then an election season devoid of lava lamp talk (at the project developers’ request) brought in a new administration.

The new mayor, Raymond Gravelle, had been the project manager for the Calling the Healing Waters sculpture, which took 13 years to plan, fundraise, and build. He relocated to Soap Lake eight years ago after he and his wife passed through looking for the non-existent lava lamp on a motorcycle tour of the state. With the project in its eleventh year, Gravelle has a surprising time frame to get it built. “We hope to be completed before winter sets in,” he says.

One reason why it can progress so quickly is that Kovach has spent the recession clearing the runway. Legal documents have been drafted, the land has been set aside, trademark issues have been sorted through, and architectural plans have been refined. “We’ve gone through great pains to convince people this is the real deal,” says Kovach. “We’ve got hard-line construction numbers for everything right. We know exactly what it’s going to cost.”

But they don’t know where they will get the money. With a high number of Seattle’s tech millionaires based in the area, Kovach thinks the funding could likely come from just a few people. Gravelle, meanwhile, thinks one corporate sponsor could pay for it all in exchange for naming rights. One name that will be on the lamp, for sure, is Brent Blake’s. And though time is running out for the lamp’s mastermind, the mayor asked if he would say a few words at the dedication. “Brent immediately responded, ‘I’ll start writing the dedication speech right now,’” Gravelle says.

Yet true to the tale, it’s possible he still hasn’t finished. “Even when you’re told you’ve only got a couple of days, you still procrastinate,” says Blake. “We can’t take care of everything, so we do the best we can.” These days, that involves a regimen of antibiotics, dieting, and juicing. And since he’s survived six months longer than expected, it’s tantalizing to think he could live to be 92 years old, like both his mother and grandmother did, but that’s more outlandish than a 60-foot tower of molten wax and oil.

Meanwhile, the town Blake is leaving behind is doing its best to carry on his legacy. The project has clearly become Kovach’s charge, but the lamp itself seemingly belongs to everyone and no one at the same time.

“It will draw more attention to the wonders we have around here that a lot of people don’t really understand,” says Kovach. And in that respect, the Soap Lake Lava Lamp makes perfect sense.

Not everything that occurs in nature can be easily explained. Sometimes soaking in magic water can relieve decades of pain. Somehow a coating of mud can clean up old wounds. Dry falls can be every bit as majestic as roaring rapids, and the most amazing lakes can appear in the middle of rocky, dry terrain.

Then there’s that other truth, perhaps the most inexplicable of them all: “The lava lamp will pave every street in town,” says Hovde. “Nothing else will do that.”

Dry Falls via Wikimedia. Poster and electrical chess-set courtesy of Brent Blake. Architectural drawings courtesy of Andrew Kovach.

  1. Soap Lake was formed in the first burst of the Great Missoula Floods, an event that began when the ice dam at Montana’s Clark Fork River broke, flooding the Pacific Northwest with a 300-foot-tall wall of water some 14,000 years ago. The lake’s basin was carved by the initial impact of the flood, which gradually eroded land 20 miles northwest all the way to Dry Falls, creating a series of other mineral lakes along the way. 

  2. Blake claims to have contacted all the major glass manufacturers in the world, and says Corning was “just dumbfounded by the concept.” 

  3. According to Blake, the lava mixture is confidential, like the recipe for Coca-Cola, and differs based on the size of the lamp. “To think about the experimenting to make the giant lamp work, it would be endless,” he says. 

  4. Of course, in November 2012, Washington State decriminalized marijuana. So now people actually could, potentially, smoke pot while enjoying the lamp. 

John Patrick Pullen specializes in technology and travel, having covered everything from the world's fastest ice luge track to the toughest electronics on the market. A regular contributor to Entrepreneur and Fortune, his work has also appeared in Boston magazine, Men's Journal, and Wired. He is based in Portland, Oregon.

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