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Kingdome: The Controversial Birth of a Seattle Icon (1959-1976)

The first protean ideas for a Seattle domed stadium arose 12 years before the Kingdome's long-anticipated groundbreaking in 1972. Although many local sports fans and business leaders enthusiastically backed the concept, its funding tripped over two failed bond initiatives, the first in 1960, and the second in 1966. Voters eventually passed a $40,000,000 bond for the stadium in 1968 as a part of a comprehensive improvement package known as Forward Thrust, but the struggle was far from over. Between 1968 and 1972, more than 100 sites were considered, the County Executive was sued, protests abounded, and conspiracy theories flourished.

The First Pitch

In the summer of 1959, Barb Restaurants Inc. President David L. Cohn sent a letter to the Seattle City Council that would stimulate public debate for decades. Seattle needed a new sports stadium, more impressive than any yet built in the country, with 50,000 seats, and a new-fangled hyperbolic paraboloid roof. One year later, on September 23, 1960, this idea bloomed into a bond resolution, Proposition 2, which proposed a $15 million bond for a stadium to be built somewhere between Seattle and Tacoma.

Two primary concerns undercut this first public pitch. The stadium could not be built, many thought, without first securing a major professional sports franchise. More importantly, the stadium's budget was in question. Could an architectural gem and city landmark be constructed for $15 million? The public could not swallow this optimistic estimate and defeated Proposition 2 on November 8, 1960, by 158,747 to 148,520 votes.

Not So Instant Replay

Despite the defeat of Proposition 2, stadium advocates pushed the idea ahead. Meanwhile, Seattle 's aggressively modern and forward-looking Century 21 Exposition (1962) envisioned life in the 21st century. Reflecting the fair's theme, Seattle looked toward its own future, new development, economic progress, and civic enhancement.

What better way to celebrate a new modern city than a shining, streamlined coliseum? As the American Football League and other sports franchises sought expansion, and as sporting events began to be nationally telecast, this civic backdrop gained importance. The 1938 Sicks' Stadium seated only 15,000 fans. Husky Stadium was proud of its longstanding role as Seattle 's premiere football venue. But many in Seattle wanted to raise the bar to the national level. To do this, they needed a major league stadium seating major league crowds. During the early 1960s, other cities around the country were considering these very issues, and there were only so many franchises to go around. If Seattle wanted to play ball, it had to ante up. A few divergent interests came forth with quick solutions.

In 1963, Pacific Raceways Inc. proposed a sports complex including a stadium, golf course, swimming pool, motel, cocktail lounge, bowling alley, and landing strip. The imagined, privately funded complex would be located in Kent . Another group, made up of Seattle architects and contractors, suggested a floating stadium on Elliott Bay , near Seattle Center , at the base of Harrison Street .

The floating stadium near Seattle Center was the popular favorite, and had been considered in planning the World's Fair. In 1963, County commissioners Scott Wallace, Johnny O'Brien, and Ed Munro supported the idea of another bond referendum to get the public's blessing. Commissioners announced plans to put up another stadium bond for vote, but delayed the issue until 1966 as they felt the need to educate the public about the benefits of major league sports in the region. This campaign required $100,000. Otherwise, the County thought the bond would be defeated again, and the fate of the stadium sealed.

Strike Two

On September 20, 1966, after considerable campaigning, the stadium initiative lost yet again. Facing this defeat, stadium proponents buoyed themselves when the American Football League announced plans to activate three new teams by 1970, bringing the franchise total up to 28. This sparked the creation of a 12 person committee, headed by Joseph E. Gandy, which began exploring stadium financing. Cincinnati stood to receive a franchise in 1967, and served as a model: Its new 55,000-seat stadium was estimated at $33 million, with no vote necessary. In Seattle however, local politics dictated a much more complicated solution -- public financing.

Public funding required public participation, and local voters were historically sensitive to their rights and to the power of government. In the late 1960s, this spirit escalated. Seattle , King County , the nation, and the world had changed radically since 1960 when the stadium idea first came to public vote. What had been a great glossy idea, wrought with 1950s-style optimism, conceived by a cadre of dark-suited businessmen, was transformed into a many-faceted issue with significant community impact beyond simple economic benefit.

The controversial issue of funding the stadium with public monies snared the project in a very sticky and recalcitrant web of agitated public discourse.

Forward Ho!

By 1967, the proposed budget for the imagined stadium rose to $40 million, and more groups joined the fray as advocates presented a variety of sites. Stadium proponents rejoiced as their pet issue fell under the umbrella of a new comprehensive capital improvement plan known as Forward Thrust.

The Forward Thrust package proposed sweeping improvements in transportation, parks, recreational facilities, and community centers totaling $815.2 million. Voters approved $334 million in bonds on February 13, 1968, including $40 million earmarked for the stadium. Unfortunately, another battery of problems undermined the stadium's progress:

bulletInterest rates rose to 6 percent, which warped a stadium budget based on a 4.65 percent rate.
bulletThe Environmental Protection Act was passed in 1968, and this required professional impact statements for new construction.
bulletHeightened citizen participation in the wake of Forward Thrust complicated the stadium issue.

In 1968, 110 potential sites were considered, including 94 recommended by individuals and 15 selected by a consulting team. The State Stadium Committee whittled this number down to 12, then down to 5:

bullet Seattle Center
bullet 5th Avenue and Yesler Way
bullet Northup Way Interchange
bullet South Park
bulletRiverton

Rejects included the current site, which was ranked lowest of the 12 interim contenders:

bulletFactoria
bulletLongacres
bullet Orillia
bullet Atlantic Street
bulletTukwila
bulletBothell-Woodinville Interchange
bullet King Street

The sites were ranked according to a slate of criteria including: market area, cost, accessibility, configuration, environment, community acceptance, availability, competition, flexibility, and climate.

For the Last Time, No!

The Stadium Committee chose the Seattle Center , one of the first considered at the time of the 1960 bond initiative. This, of course, met with more contention from some community members who thought the committee entertained special interests -- businesses that would personally benefit from construction at the Seattle Center site. The Ad Hoc Committee for the Center Site contended that no other site was as cost effective and appropriate for multiple uses going beyond sporting events. The Committee to Save the Seattle Center disagreed. On May 19, 1970, when the plan to build the stadium at the Center went to the ballot, voters rejected it.

In 1970, inflation and interest rates continued to rise. Could the stadium be built for $40 million? many wondered. The County reconsidered the site near King Street Station, and funded a feasibility study. A stadium could be built for $40 million, the study reported, but parking would cost an additional $8 million. Some wondered if this stadium would be the same stadium proposed in 1960.

Heading up the phalanx of doubting citizens, Frank Ruano (1920-2005) argued aggressively against the County's management of the stadium problem. Local government and County Executive John Spellman in particular, he asserted, were lying to the public. This was an especially serious challenge because King County had only reorganized itself under a new Home Rule Charter two years earlier.

This discontent thwarted quick action.

Enough Already

By 1971, many people had had enough. Although community activists like Frank Ruano continued to lob complaints at the County Council, bids for the new stadium on the King Street site went out. Despite disapproval and concerns from International District groups, the commissioners stuck to the findings of an environmental impact study which claimed minimal damage to the Asian enclave lying to the east of the proposed site.

During the Kingdome's official groundbreaking ceremonies on November 2, 1972, some 25 young Asian protesters hurled mudballs at the dignitaries in attendance. Several hundred spectators watched as County Executive Spellman's speech drew chants -- "Stop the Stadium!" -- From agitators. Dissenters booed other speakers, including a Seattle Kings representative seeking to attract a professional football franchise. Spellman hastily planted the gold home plate on the field, and a football was quickly kicked through ceremonial uprights. The ceremony was a bust.

Construction Woes

Dissent continued throughout the stadium's construction. International District groups prepared for the worst, thinking the Kingdome would overwhelm the scale of their neighborhood, create noise and light pollution, clog the district with traffic, and escalate parking problems. In January 1973, steel towers forming the core of the stadium's sturdy concrete piers fell on a workman, and toppled other standing towers like dominos.

Spellman terminated the County's contract with the Donald M. Drake Co., a decision that drew even more fire from citizens concerned with overspending. Drake, responsible for much of the concrete dome's construction, was dismissed for being 300 days behind schedule and failing at "basic performance." Neither the County's design committee nor the contractors wanted to be responsible for the structural integrity of the innovative hyperbolic paraboloid dome.

Bob Sowder of Seattle 's Naramore, Bain, Brady & Johanson Architects and Jack Christiansen of Skilling, Helle, Christiansen & Robertson, a structural engineering firm, headed the design team. The team spent many long days and nights making sure the designs fit strict financial constraints. Kingdome promotional material sang the praises of their economic design, including "records" set by the team: "At $30 million, the stadium was the least expensive domed, air conditioned stadium of its size anywhere in the world; the contract bid was only two-tenths of one percent from their cost estimate!  And they designed the largest thin shell concrete dome in the world, 660 feet in diameter."

Some worried about the quality of this economic wonder.

A Very Grand Opening

No mudballs were lobbed at the grand opening. On March 27, 1976, the Kingdome opened to a crowd of 54,000. The ceremony, as described by its coordinator Tommy Walker, included "ethnic groups, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, armed forces color guards, antique and classic cars, log rollers, drill teams, square dancers, barbershoppers, a choral group of 1,717 voices from 23 schools and a massed band of 2,680 instruments from 32 schools ... and Rufus, the Frisbee-chasing dog."

The single largest event during its first year was a Billy Graham Crusade that drew 74,000 visitors on May 17, 1976. On April 7 of the same year, the Kingdome hosted a Sounders soccer match that broke North American attendance records with 50,200 fans. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer dubbed 1976 "The Year of the Dome" and included a Kingdome icon in its banner throughout the year. Although many people were thrilled, and hoped the battle was over, controversy followed the stadium throughout its 25 year life.

The Kingdome was imploded on March 26, 2000. Most of Seattle was on hand to watch the stadium's last event -- its own demise.  

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