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The Louisiana Purchase
J.D. Reed
July 22, 1974
What hath sport wrought? What has the state bought? Rising the heart of New Orleans, the Superdome may be a megastructure in the shape of the future or a monument to an era that soon might be past
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July 22, 1974

The Louisiana Purchase

What hath sport wrought? What has the state bought? Rising the heart of New Orleans, the Superdome may be a megastructure in the shape of the future or a monument to an era that soon might be past

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The NASA-like planning seems to have provided for almost everything except those suffering from acrophobia. Walking up ramps to the highest seat will require the fortitude of a stunt man—the top row is 168 vertical feet from the playing surface—and walking back down will require an act of faith. The highest tier of seats is pitched at a breathtaking 34�. This was necessary for the best football viewing. The seats have straight backs and sturdy arms for a "maximum security profile." The television camera may pick up row upon row of white knuckles and pale faces when it scans what in times past would be the bleachers. Such normal activities as holding a GO SAINTS! sign with both hands would be foolhardy. But demonstrations of fervor may be unnecessary with four 90-foot scoreboards ringing the Dome with exploding matrix-lighting side effects. Those who savor the notion of human error will be pleased to hear it was discovered recently that some 2,500 spectators in the Dome—among them guests in the box suites—can see no scoreboard whatsoever. A quarter of a million dollars will be spent to remedy the situation.

The Superdome, like the Astrodome before it, will be a tourist attraction even if not so much as a game of marbles is played there. Tourism is Louisiana's second largest industry, lagging only behind its port operations, and the Dome Commission knows it can benefit from just the right mixture of sport and convention usage. It is a juggling act that requires grit. Ben Levy, the executive director of the Dome, is at the same time charged with negotiating the Saints' rental contract and planning the 1981 National School Boards meeting. "Sometimes I put on a hard hat and walk out on the 50-yard line and look around," he says. "I tell myself, 'Levy, you'd better run.' " If Ben's job is a challenge, he also sees the Dome as one. "Go ahead, world. Top this," he says defiantly.

One event already contracted for is that humid slice of Americana, Mardi Gras. One krewe (a private social club) of Mardi Gras, Bacchus, which has already "nationalized" its parade with guest kings like Bob Hope and Jim Nabors, plans to end its parade in the Superdome. Blaine Kern, a member of Bacchus and the designer and builder of its spectacular Mardi Gras floats, has wild plans. "We've already started building a life-size model of the Statue of Liberty to be assembled in the Dome during the two weeks of Mardi Gras," he says. "It is made of cloth and papier-m�ch�. And the floats! After they travel through the narrow streets they'll open like peacocks in the Dome."

Mardi Gras is a $25-million-a-year business and the Dome will add its share of revenue. Present plans call for the Bacchus krewe to draw its floats up in a circle and have its dinner dance on the playing floor with 6,000 invited guests. The public would not be overlooked on this occasion. Tourists could pay a dollar or two to sit in the stands and watch the festivities. With four smaller parties planned in the convention quadrants and shown in simulcast on the giant TV, it should be a fun evening for spectators. It may seem strange to pay a dollar to watch Bob Hope have dinner or to see Jim Nabors dance, but we've been doing it for years with the Tonight Show. The Dome makes this screen/magazine syndrome life-size.

Perhaps restaurateur Pip Brennan is right about the Superdome and buildings like it. "Lots of people at the Super Bowl never get to the stadium, and they don't care. At the Kentucky Derby thousands never see the race, or know precisely when it is run. Recently I was with a group in a private box attending a Dallas Cowboy game in Arlington. If you heard the crowd cheer, you'd go over to the window and look out. And if a touchdown was made, you'd say, 'Gee, that's nice,' but going there was the thing." Like a giant rock concert at which many young people don't even hear a guitar chord struck, being there, being a part of the scene, the mood, the crowd, is the thing. And now Mom and Dad can enjoy the same feeling in a color-coordinated, catered, temperature-controlled sort of way.

The Superdome will be a population-gathering place, like the old French Opera House. But working on it is more like building the Tower of Babel.
Head of the Superdome design team

The rain of Superfacts never ceases, like precipitation in New Orleans. There is so much rain and, at 9� acres, the roof of the Superdome is so large, that special basins had to be built in the eaves to catch the water. Otherwise the flow off the Dome roof could flood downtown New Orleans. A network of pipes drains off the water during dry periods.

On a sun-washed afternoon, Buster Curtis strolls through the French Quarter, speaking with love of the old buildings. In his olive poplin suit, circa 1955, and with his private table at venerable Antoine's he hardly seems the man to have designed the Dome, and when he says, "Less is more," the old Bauhaus dictum, while walking among the elegant iron railings and leafy courtyards of the Quarter, it is almost shocking.

"The way you design a megastructure like the Dome is to start from the inside out," says Curtis.' 'We began with a football field. Baseball was the second consideration and then the convention necessities. The most economical way to enclose this space, after we used computers to design the best maximum viewing for games, was a giant dome."

Perhaps New Orleans is the only city that could truly profit from a Superdome. The respect for the past and the concern for the future are more harmonious there than in most cities. Where else could you hear an architect, standing in front of the ornate town house of a famed 19th century chess master, say, "The Dome is round only at night, you know. It is so large and under such a complex of tensions and thrusts that in the heat of the day it bulges out as much as nine inches. We used hinged columns, and the roof can expand and contract." For $163 million a building should be able to breathe.

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