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A Short History of the World's First Retractable Stadium Roof

A Short History of the World's First Retractable Stadium Roof
Reuters

In June 1989, Toronto unveiled the SkyDome to much pomp and circumstance. It was the first stadium with a fully retractable roof, creating the best of both weather worlds for the CFL's Argonauts and MLB's Blue Jays.

The idea of building a domed stadium in Toronto was conceived after a notoriously wet 1982 Grey Cup (dubbed the "Rain Bowl") at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium. Bleak weather conditions forced thousands to watch from concession areas while bathrooms overflowed. It helped push local politicians to finally build a dome, one that would also make baseball games in the Toronto spring more tolerable.

An international design competition was launched in 1985. Robbie Young + Wright eventually won the right to design the dome, which took two years and cost $570 million ($913 million in today's dollars).
 
 
Its completion was seen a such an historic moment that it was even referenced in commercials for things like Oreo cookies:
 
 
It had its own opening ceremonies on June 3, hosted by Alan Thicke and broadcast on national television. 
 
 
Ironically, the ceremony's musical number "Open Up the Dome" was almost ruined by a downpour, with fans taking shelter along the concourse levels, as they did in the Rain Bowl.
 
 
The Blue Jays made their debut two days later:
 
 
But the stadium never quite lived up to the hype. The Argonauts annually post some of the poorest attendance numbers in the CFL, and its wide configuration and high walls along the playing field make it difficult to generate a lively atmosphere. That lack of excitement is noticeable even today, when the NFL's Buffalo Bills play their one Toronto game a year.
 
The stadium was funded mostly by the federal, provincial and city governments, and it eventually proved a public spending boondoggle. A government report in 1990 revealed that the indebted stadium would have to be booked 600 days a year to turn a profit.
 
The SkyDome corporation tried to make some of its money back by selling pieces of the material used on the dome, packaging it with a brochure and chocolate medallion to anyone interested:
 

The provincial party that oversaw SkyDome's funding lost its 1990 election. By 1993, the stadium was $400 million in debt; it filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and later renamed as the Rogers Centre.
 
The retractable roof is no longer a marvel; many other Major League parks possess shelters that open and close much faster. In our current era of amenity and charm-obsessed baseball stadiums, SkyDome is mostly forgettable. But the stadium's roof is an architectural icon, defining the west end of the city's skyline. And its construction pioneered a future of far better stadiums around North America.


Top image: With the retractable roof open, members of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team workout at Toronto's Skydome September 4, 1997 prior to their game against the Texas Rangers. Via Reuters

Keywords: Toronto, Baseball, Stadiums, Dome

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

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