Dome Alone

In an age of arenas and stadiums shiny, expensive, and new, the 1980s-era Tacoma Dome continues to capture the spirit and character of its namesake city.

Courtesy McGranahan Architects

Perched on a wooden catwalk some 150 feet above the floor of the Tacoma Dome, regrets and second thoughts clouded my mind. 

What seemed like a neat idea at one point — ascend to the roof of the Dome for a bird’s-eye-view of the city — now felt utterly daring and witless.

Three days earlier, my request to Tacoma Dome director Kim Bedier was simple: Could I go behind the scenes of the Dome to explore areas of the venue not regularly afforded to average visitors, concertgoers, or many of our readers? 

“I am happy to help you out on this,” Bedier replied. “We can give you a tour of the Dome, including climbing to the roof, if you are not afraid of heights.”

After meeting Bedier and the Dome’s operations manager, Matt Balk, at the building’s 24-hour security entrance, we navigated our way around crews tearing down the previous evening’s event, setting up for a weekend guitar festival, and planning for two days of filming American Ninja Warrior. 

We dropped in on the backstage artist quarters, where Bedier and Balk dished on some of the marquee artists who have performed at the Dome. Generally, country-western performers tend to hang out backstage at the Dome and mingle more with fans several hours before a performance. A-List, mainstream pop and rock stars tend to slip into the building in time for soundcheck, perform for a sold-out audience, and then slip away before fans can gather outside the security exit in hopes of autographs and selfies. 

As our tour and interview winded down, scaling the city-owned Dome’s roof became the topic of conversation.

“The biggest thing is it’s easy to hit your head on a beam or a sprinkler pipe,” Balk said. Slightly joking, he added, “Please, just be very aware because a (rescue) call to the Tacoma Fire Department would not be good.”

And with that, Balk unlocked a small gate behind a set of bleachers and he, Bedier, photographer Jeff Hobson, and I began our journey to the Dome’s summit — perhaps the ultimate destination in a behind-the-scenes tour of this iconic building.

From its groundbreakingceremony in the summer of 1981, to its grand opening in the spring of 1983, few structural landmarks represent a city quite like the Tacoma Dome does for its eponymous hometown. 

Postcards and promotional materials for Tacoma often depict the Dome set against distant Mount Rainier — a man-made wonder trying, like a scrappy little brother, to emulate its elder, more esteemed sibling. The Dome’s faded, blue-and-white roof — even on those days when it’s dirt-glazed and smog-smudged — bares an abstract resemblance to Mount Rainier’s frosted, creased, and contoured surface. The Dome is the city’s realized, personified, and outsized ego: A bulbous building that stands some 150 feet high and spans some 530 feet wide, an engineering feat that blends 1.6 million board feet of lumber with enough concrete to build a 70-mile sidewalk.

If you travel south on Interstate 5 and through the dogleg Fife curve, the Dome emerges from around a bend, its surface smooth and rounded, its arced hemisphere large and imposing, crowding the view through your windshield, as if orbiting a planet up-close.

And the Dome sits in architectural contrast to the LeMay automobile museum. Shiny and sleek, as though dipped in aluminum, the car museum was built right across the street, and cost approximately $60 million to construct when it opened in 2012. 

Often, a city’s prominence is measured by its expensive, amenity-laden stadiums and arenas, which can cost a half-billion-dollars and more to construct, and even renovate. 

Over the years, people have left their mark on the Dome’s beams.
Photo by Jeff Hobson

In 2018, the Tacoma Dome — which cost $44 million to build (nearly $113 million in today’s dollars) — experienced its first major renovation in its now-36-year history. The City spent approximately $31 million to install modern seating that is comfier and offers better sightlines and more legroom. It also built out the backstage artists’ quarters and dressing rooms to include a suite of seven contemporary and comfortable rooms, upgrade restrooms and offer more food and beverage locations to elevate the visitors’ experience. New loading docks to better serve crews setting up and tearing down events also were added. 

Sure, Bedier wouldn’t turn down hundreds of millions of dollars to completely overhaul the Dome, especially considering simpler things, such as cleaning the Dome’s roof, costs more than $100,000, and endured its last thorough scrubbing seven years ago. But she’s appreciative of the city’s investment, noting that $31 million is a lot of money, and every dollar is being stretched for its maximum return.

“Buildings of this vintage are getting knocked down all over the place,” Bedier said. “But the City of Tacoma is committed to keeping it going. It’s awesome, actually.”

When David Bowie performed before a sold-out crowd of 27,000 fans on August 11, 1983, at the Dome, it was the venue’s first major concert — and it opened the door for Tacoma to host marquee musicians and artists who might otherwise have settled on Seattle.

Over the years, approximately 25 million people have attended thousands of events at the Dome, which has witnessed (and hosted) evolving tastes in music — from 1980s hair metal bands (Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, and Mötley Crüe); to 1990s alternative rockers (Bush, Green Day, and Korn); to singular pop stars of the early-aughts (Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Justin Timberlake); to icons who span generations and music styles (Bob Dylan, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Prince, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, and Tina Turner).

The Dome also has hosted sporting events; high school and college graduations; rodeos; monster truck competitions; and, well, almost any kind of public spectacle you can imagine.

In any given year, the Dome hosts approximately 80 to 90 events.

How has this old building remained a viable venue for artists and events?

First, the Dome can seat about 23,000 people, making it the largest indoor venue in the state of Washington. The next largest indoor venue is Seattle Center Arena, which accommodated just under 17,500 people before it closed for renovations. At its maximum capacity, the arena is expected to hold about 19,000 people following the renovation’s completion. 

“If you want to make a one-night stop and make as much money as you can, this is where you should come,” Bedier said. “That’s, really, the mercenary reason.”

Scaling a catwalk en route to the Dome’s roof.
Photo by Jeff Hobson

And yet, the arena can still feel intimate for both fans and performers. The Dome’s seating bowl isn’t broken up by luxury seats or private boxes, which, according to Balk, enhances the event experience.

“When the artist is looking out, they see people from the floor all the way up to the roof,” he explained. “There aren’t those breaks. It just really adds to the environment. I think anyone who is doing their job, if they look out and see an atmosphere that’s really conducive to them doing good work, they are going to perform really well.”

“Artists get a great vibe from the room,” Bedier added. “And don’t let anybody tell you the acoustics aren’t good. The wood roof and the dome structure make the acoustics amazing!”

And then there’s the almost-intangible factor that is sentimental.

When the Dome turned 30 years old in 2013, the City of Tacoma invited visitors and local residents to share their favorite memories of the venue. Bedier, who had been recently hired by the City after managing the Everett Events Center, said she was overwhelmed by the responses.

“People played their first football games here,” she explained. “Multiple generations have graduated here. People got engaged here. You can talk in really fluffy terms — it’s the heart of the city! But in this case, it really is. Especially when you think, we have 30 graduations here every year, and we’ve been having them for 36 years. How many lives has that impacted? 

“It’s very fondly thought of, this place,” Bedier continued, reverently. “It’s more than a place. It’s integral to the community. It’s not just a building. It’s so much more.”

But will the aging Dome hold up against shiny, new stadiums?

“Like with anything, equipment and mechanical systems obviously have a lifespan, no matter how well you maintain them,” Balk said. “How many cars from the 1970s are still on the road? Very few. But as long as there’s continual investment into the systems of the facility to renew them as needed, then the reality is this building could be a 100-year-old building.”

Back on the catwalk above the Dome’s floor, our group continued its ascent toward the roof. 

Situated high above the floor, this ladder leads to the Dome’s cupola
Photo by Jeff Hobson

We climbed a succession of narrow, steel ladders that stretched upward toward a cupola that, from outside the building, resembles the button-like squatchee atop a baseball cap.

Along the way, we paused to read messages (professions of love from one person to another, a cartoon image of a drum kit, scores of simple signatures) scrawled on beams more than 30 years ago, when the City of Tacoma hosted a topping-out ceremony and invited residents to sign their names and leave personal notes on the timber beams that were hoisted skyward by cranes.

Dust covered the circular platform inside the cupola, as well as bright strands of paper confetti from earlier events. The cupola’s main function, according to Balk, is to house the Dome’s ventilation and exhaust system. 

“Also, the roof was built in rings,” he added. “If you look at the base of the roof, you will see there is a ring of boards all the way around. Then they built the next level up, then the next level up, and so on. At the top, they had to create something to lock it all in, and that’s what’s up here, too.”

One final ladder separated our group from emerging through an unlocked hatch and summiting the Dome. 

Bedier and Balk noted that, on stormy and windy days, a trip to the roof to do maintenance or raise and lower the Dome’s flag can be unnerving. On the day of our visit, however, we ascended the final ladder and stepped out onto the roof to experience a sky that was cloudless and cobalt, punctuated by a light breeze that tickled one’s skin.

From this vantage point, the views stretched for miles, and all of the familiar landmarks were recast in miniature. Interstate 5 and Interstate 705 were distant streams coursing with the late-afternoon rush-hour traffic of tiny cars and trucks. Cranes that typically towered over Port of Tacoma terminals looked like pieces of a child’s Erector Set. The downtown skyline was reduced to a scale model. 

Although Bedier has climbed to the roof on several occasions, she still seemed to marvel at both the view and the Dome’s longevity.

“It’s an incredibly well-built facility,” she observed. “Credit to the folks who were actually involved in the design and construction, because it’s a solid building.”  

Making the Dome “Pop”

Pop artist Andy Warhol’s storied Tacoma Dome connection

In 1981, Vincent Fremont was managing Pop artist Andy Warhol’s New York City studio when a commission landed on his desk and intrigued both Fremont and his boss.

The City of Tacoma was building the Tacoma Dome, and $280,000 was earmarked for public art at the new arena. 

Warhol was one of several high-profile, blue-chip artists invited to create original public art for the Dome.

Decades have passed since the original request was mailed from Tacoma to the Factory in New York City, but when I interviewed Fremont in 2015, he recalled how Warhol’s interest would have been piqued by the opportunity to create public art at the Dome.

“I would have been the one to look at this particular request,” Fremont recalled. “I may have said, ‘Andy, there is this large commission. This might be a good idea.’ We would have had some discussion about it. It was (an) interesting idea.”

In January of 1982, Fremont mailed to officials at Tacoma City Hall a simple, two-page proposal that included one conspicuous specification that reverberates today: Andy Warhol would like to see the Tacoma Dome as a large flower.

In Warhol’s imagination, the flower’s center would be at the top of the Dome, and large wide petals would extend out over the roof’s circumference. Further, in true Warhol fashion, he designed a flower that was a unique hybrid, a composite of different flowers that couldn’t be found in nature.

In the end, Warhol and three other artists submitted public art proposals for the Dome. 

Warhol’s bid was edged out by artist Stephen Antonakos, who proposed painting the Dome’s roof blue and illuminating it with tubes of neon arcs and angles that would be installed on the roof’s surface. But concerns that drilling holes into the roof for neon tubes to be installed might compromise the roof’s structural integrity forced Antonakos to rethink his plan. All that neon has been installed on walls inside the Dome.

As for Warhol’s original vision for the Dome?

In recent years, local residents have backed a plan to cover the Dome in Warhol’s hybrid flower. Tacoma Dome director Kim Bedier said the City of Tacoma is onboard, too, but money for the project (estimated at more than $5 million) would need to come from a source other than the city’s public coffer.

“We hope, at some point, somebody will resurrect the concept and do a private fundraising campaign,” she explained.

Illustrations by Jorgen Burt

 

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