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Raising the ROOF
Steve Wulf
June 12, 1989
The opening of Toronto's SkyDome, a $500 million sports arena complete with retractable roof, revealed a surprisingly intimate baseball park and gave a glimpse into the future
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June 12, 1989

Raising The Roof

The opening of Toronto's SkyDome, a $500 million sports arena complete with retractable roof, revealed a surprisingly intimate baseball park and gave a glimpse into the future

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Not just another opening, not just another show. At 9:26 last Saturday night, the roof of the world's largest convertible began to part, revealing a sheet of rain, the Toronto skyline and the shape of things to come.

Even as the rain washed more and more of the concrete floor at the new SkyDome, and soaked more and more of the opening night's performers, the beauty of the whole enterprise became more and more striking. SkyDome is a breathtaking arena that can keep out or let in the elements, and there was no better way to bring that home than by raising the roof in the rain. The new home of the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts is probably the future for a number of cities.

SkyDome sits, like the turtle it resembles, in downtown Toronto with its back to Lake Ontario. The dome's mascot, in fact, is Domer the Turtle. It might just as well have been the White Rabbit, watch in hand, because there was a great deal of suspense in Toronto last week as to whether SkyDome would open on time. Last Thursday local bookies were quoting 8-to-5 odds against, and it wasn't until that night that the Toronto City Council voted to grant an occupancy permit for the building, the final episode, it is hoped, in a long saga of political and bureaucratic entanglements. Final touches remain to be made on the arena. Alan Thicke, the host of Saturday night's pageant, hit the nail on the head when he said to the crowd of 50,000, "How do you describe SkyDome? Unbelievable. Unimaginable. Unfinished."

Almost as soon as the opening festivities ended, crews were busy trying to beat the clock again, in preparation for the Blue Jays' second home opening of the season, on Monday night against the Milwaukee Brewers. The new AstroTurf wasn't laid down and zipped up until early Monday morning, so the Jays, who were coming off the road, didn't get their first look at their new home until Monday afternoon. "Purty big," said relief pitcher Tom Henke. "Purty big." Said pitcher Mike Flanagan, "It's great, but I was kind of hoping they'd have retractable fences."

The Blue Jays were very impressed with their huge and futuristic clubhouse, which has its own health spa, weight complex and rec room. The dugouts have something new: stainless steel cuspidors, complete with running water. American League umpiring supervisor Marty Springstead toured the ballpark in the afternoon and gave his go-ahead. "There will be kinks to work out, but from what I can see, this is a magnificent facility." The Jays didn't even have time for batting practice, so their game with the Brewers Monday night became the stadium's real baptism—under dry skies and an open roof.

SkyDome has been in the works for some seven years, ever since the '82 Grey Cup, when William Davis, then Ontario's premier, sat in miserable weather to watch his beloved Argonauts lose to the Edmonton Eskimos. Davis soon appointed a committee to study the feasibility of a domed stadium in Toronto. In '84, a consortium of corporations was formed to help finance the project, and in January '85 a site next to the CN Tower was selected. In December of that year, Roderick Robbie, a dark-horse candidate, was selected as the architect of the arena, and in October '86, ground was broken.

The earliest prices discussed for the dome were around $150 million (Canadian dollars), but that was before anybody mentioned the words "retractable" or "hotel." By the time of completion, SkyDome will have cost close to $500 million. The roof alone ate up $75 million. In May '87, a contest was held to name the place, and SkyDome was the choice of some 2,000 entrants. The 2,000 names were entered in a lottery, and Kellie Watson of Wallaceburg, Ont., won the drawing—and two lifetime passes to every event held in SkyDome. Lloyd Moseby, the Jays' centerfielder, didn't much like the name, saying, "They should ban that person for life for coming up with SkyDome." Perhaps Moseby would have preferred one of these more inspired entries: Dome Perignon, Pierre Trudome, Home-T-Dome-T and the Michael J. Fox Dome.

Robbie, a Toronto resident since 1966, was a curious choice as architect partly because neither he nor Michael Allen, the designer of the retractable roof, had ever been to a baseball game. "It was better that way," says Paul Beeston, president of the Blue Jays. "They were more willing to listen to suggestions, and they had no preconceived ideas. I personally think they're geniuses." Robbie visited a great many ballparks, borrowing from both the new (especially Royals Stadium) and the old ( Tiger Stadium's sight lines and its steeply pitched upper deck). "It's like La Scala," said the architect, comparing SkyDome's upper deck to the higher circles of the Milan opera house. (Robbie, who suffers from vertigo, has checked out—and approved—the upper seats in SkyDome, and had to force himself to venture up to the roof level.) He also consulted with Alison Gordon, a former Blue Jay beat writer and the author of a recent mystery novel, The Dead Pull Hitter. Says Robbie, "Alison was particularly helpful in pointing out to me the need for intimacy in a ballpark." Indeed, there is hardly a bad seat in the house, and the foul territory behind home plate in SkyDome is the major league minimum.

As for the roof design, Allen hit upon the solution while doodling on his seat tray in an airplane. Basically the roof is in four sections (see diagram, page 50). Two large sections retract to open, and a smaller section swings around and tucks underneath the larger ones. The sections move on tracks; at present it takes 40 minutes for the roof to open. Once the roof goes fully automatic later this summer, it will take only 20 minutes—and cost about $500 worth of electricity each time.

The dome, when closed, is 31 stories high; the Astrodome comes in some 13 stories lower. Most of the construction was done when the roof was open, and it wasn't until recently that SkyDome was fully sealed. "I asked them to call me when they did finally close it, no matter the time," says Robbie. "I got the call at 4 a.m., and when I walked in, the place was absolutely quiet. I walked to the center of the stadium, looked up, and the tears just started streaming down." SkyDome is indeed magnificent to look at inside out.

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