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
June 11, 1989

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.

Outside in is a slightly different story. Enough concrete was poured in the arena to lay a sidewalk from Toronto to Montreal, 340 miles away, and it shows. The gray concrete housing of the dome gives the place a drab appearance. Attempts have been made to enliven the outside, most strikingly by the addition of two sets of gigantic sculptures on the north face of SkyDome. Executed by Michael Snow, a Canadian artist, the 14 gargoyles depict fans cheering, booing, pointing, and looking through binoculars.

SkyDome's proximity to the 1,815-foot CN Tower, the world's tallest freestanding structure, also brings to mind a certain sexual imagery that is not entirely accidental. "Obelisk and sphere," says Robbie. "I wanted something soft, organic and mysterious to contrast with the hardness of the tower." Hmmm.

"The eighth and ninth wonders of the world," says Harry Ornest, the owner of the Argonauts. "It is the most amazing and luxurious stadium I have ever been in, and I've been in all of them. However, I would rather have 60,000 seats than 50,000 seats and a health club." Yes, a health club—complete with squash courts. But that's nothing compared with the hotel. The SkyDome Hotel will open this fall, with 350 rooms, 70 of them overlooking the outfield. Some of the rooms with a view of the game will cost more than $1,000 a night. ("Hello, room service? I'd like a hot dog and a beer, and could you please get Henke up and throwing in the bullpen?") The thought has crossed Beeston's mind that a rival team could rent a room in centerfield to steal signs. "But at least it will cost them some money," he says.

SkyDome also has "the world's longest bar" in the centerfield club level; a Hard Rock Cafe in rightfield; a roof-level running track; and Jumbotron by Sony, the world's largest TV screen. Concessions are by McDonald's, which has never done a stadium before. (Eat your heart out, Joan Kroc.)

One thing SkyDome does not have is plenty of parking. In fact, it has very little parking at all. Officials say that will change in the next few years. In the meantime, fans are encouraged to use public transportation. That annoyance is made up for by an abundance of bathrooms. This may be the first stadium in which women will not have to wait in line for three innings.

All this makes Exhibition Stadium, the previous home of the Jays and Argos, seem even more an ex. "Will I miss the old place?" says Beeston. "No." On May 28 the Jays played their last game there, and for the occasion they brought back such former greats as Garth Iorg, Al Woods and Doug Ault. Oh, the stories they told. "My third game in Toronto last year," said the legendary pitcher Frank Wills, "I'm out in the bullpen, and all of a sudden, something hit the bill of my hat. I looked up in the stands. I thought somebody threw something, and I took my hat off and looked. A sea gull had pooped on the bill of my hat."

Sea gulls are definitely a part of Exhibition Stadium lore. Toronto, specifically the Leslie Street Spit, is home to the largest colony of ring-billed gulls in North America (and possibly the world); and on game days, the gulls—beginning in the seventh inning, like clockwork—would swoop in and begin to gobble up leftovers. We all remember, of course, the Dave Winfield incident in 1983. The Yankee outfielder beaned a gull with a throw between innings and was arrested and charged with cruelty to an animal.

How soon before the gulls start flocking to SkyDome? "As soon as one tastes a McDonald's French fry," says Paul Valder, a bird control expert for Professional Pest Consultants. "They love those things." Valder is particularly concerned because he advised the SkyDome people to bring in a falconer to discourage the gulls, pigeons and starlings from making the place their future home by flying in when the roof is opened and staying to roost after the roof is closed. "The plan," Valder says, "was for a falconer to keep five falcons in the building—three on duty and two in the bullpen, so to speak. They even set aside a room with a glass wall so people on tours could see the falcons. The falcons wouldn't hurt the birds, just scare them. They've been very effective out at the airport." But the people in charge of SkyDome operations have adopted a wait-and-see-if-they-leave-droppings attitude, which Valder thinks is a big mistake. "The gulls pose a health hazard, and the pigeons are liable to foul up the roof machinery. I think it'll be a big problem by the end of the summer."

Those other birds, the Blue Jays, are also taking a lot of heat for bringing such a mediocre team (23-31, eight games behind the Orioles in the AL East as of Sunday) into such a magnificent facility. Still, even with their slow start, the Blue Jays will draw close to 2.5 million this year; they expect to average at least 40,000 a game in SkyDome.

Neither the Jays nor the gulls were much in evidence for Saturday night's Olympic-style opening ceremonies. (Toronto, in fact, is a strong contender for the 1996 Summer Games, and the city's success in opening SkyDome on time will strengthen its bid.) After the roof began to open in the rain, the stadium announcer told the people, some of whom had already popped open umbrellas, that the roof would close. But on orders from Chuck Magwood, the president of the SkyDome corporation, the sky continued to expand, upsetting at least a few spectators who had paid more than $100—and were getting soaked. But the show went on, with a cast of Canadian performers. The best part of the evening came when all the different groups of workers—ironworkers, electricians, carpenters—passed in parade as if they were nations unto themselves. They didn't mind getting wet underneath an open roof that could have been closed. They were proud of what they had done, and rightfully so.

If you're going to have an indoor stadium, you might as well have one that's an outdoor stadium too. Coming soon to a major metropolitan area near you.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIEROn opening night, the last roof section slid back into place—and let the rain come in. THREE PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERWhen the dome apparatus becomes fully automatic, it will take just 20 minutes to complete the process of opening the roof. ILLUSTRATIONHAYES COHEN1 ILLUSTRATIONHAYES COHEN2 ILLUSTRATIONHAYES COHEN3 ILLUSTRATIONHAYES COHEN4 PHOTOPETER SIBBALDFrom inside, the dome is dazzling, as is the view of the CN Tower. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERLess than 36 hours before the Jays' first dome game, the artificial turf was put down. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe exterior is graced by large gargoyles, while the interior is marked by Big Macs. PHOTOPETER SIBBALD[See caption above.]


The SkyDome roof consists of four sections. When it's open (1), the sections sit in layers at one end. As the roof closes, one section swings around (2) to form the other end of the dome, and two large panels slide forward (3) to seal the center (4).