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The End of the Domed Stadium

Is it curtains for non-retractable domed stadiums around the country?

After years of discussion, Minneapolis finally approved partial funding for a $1 billion project (likely to include a retractable roof).* In Atlanta, Falcons ownership has declared their 20-year old Georgia Dome obsolete for contemporary NFL luxury accommodations. And in St. Louis, Rams owners want a dramatic renovation to the Edward Jones Dome.

It wasn't always like this. The first domed stadiums were hailed as architectural marvels. In 1965, the first (Houston's Astrodome) was known as the "8th Wonder of the World."

It was such an important symbol that the main tenant, baseball's Astros, incorporated the stadium into their logo. They removed the dome from their look in 1994, a subtle statement that the Astrodome's allure was waning. The other main tenant, the NFL's Oilers, left town in 1997 unsatisfied with renovations made 10 years earlier. The Astros left for a new stadium in 2000.

But the dome's decline really started in 1976. That was when Montreal's Olympic Stadium debuted a retractable roof. Though it was a design disaster (it didn't work properly for 20 years), the idea captured builders' imaginations. 

Toronto's 1989 SkyDome was a great success. Its retractable roof, which opened and closed in 20 minutes, meant stadiums could now have weather when they felt like it.

Like the early days of the Astrodome, the SkyDome's opening was a cause of civic celebration, a new architectural symbol to show off to the rest of the world. That sentiment is best exemplified in the bizarre opening ceremony-cum-musical with lyrics written for the occasion:

Then there was the 2000 implosion of the Kingdome in Seattle, watched live by hundreds (and by thousands more on television). It was one of many stadiums (some less than 20 years old) that were demolished around that time, replaced by facilities with more comforts and better amenities.

Since then, it's been a slow march to the grave for the Kingdome's brethren. Many are facing drawn out, painful deaths like the Silverdome, lacking any significant tenant and sold in 2009 for $583,000 (it was built in 1975 for $55.7 million). The Metrodome in Minneapolis faced a more humiliating decline with an infamous roof collapse in 2010 the morning before a scheduled NFL game. That event helped force the issue of funding a new stadium with a retractable roof to be built where the Metrodome now stands.

Fans became accustomed to and then bored of the idea of a sporting event played in a dome. Enclosed stadiums forced predictability on events like football and baseball, born in the free-wheeling outdoors. While they amplified crowd noise, they failed to add much else to a game.

But the dome is not entirely dead yet. Ford Field is a rare example of a new stadium with a non-retractable roof. Since its opening in 2004, it has hosted a Super Bowl and a Final Four.

Still in use, the Louisiana Superdome (now the Mercedez-Benz Superdome) debuted 37 years ago. Never seeing substantial population growth or increases in wealth, New Orleans did not have the luxury of building a new stadium simply because an old dome had become passe. Although it mostly failed as a "shelter of last resort" for Katrina victims, renovations have brought it up to date and it will host next year's Super Bowl. The Edward Jones Dome fits snugly into St. Louis's downtown street grid, integrating itself well into its surroundings and sure to last longer than most domes after its next renovation.

While a few domes still thrive, updated and acceptable for current entertainment demands, the dome is rarely the sought after facility it once was. Below, a slideshow of some of the more prominent domes built in America. Many of them are still standing, but few have rosy futures:

*Author's note: A previous version of this article stated a new stadium for the Vikings would officially include a retractable roof. Ownership has not declared that yet.

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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