Dome Party

A Landmark Looks at 40

Andy Warhol wanted to cover it with a giant flower. Bruce Springsteen maligned it in Rolling Stone. From rodeos to K-Pop, the Tacoma Dome has aged with surprising grace.

By Eric Nusbaum April 24, 2023

The Tacoma Dome turned 40 last week. To mark the occasion, workers crawled up the wooden catwalk to its cupola and raised a commemorative flag over its roof. Jacki Skaught, who served on the original committee that guided its planning and design, brought over cake from a local bakery. In the early 1980s, she went from a citizen volunteer to an expert in the design of sports arenas. The dome changed the course of her career. It was also meant to change the course of the city that bears its name.

It may not seem like much, a building turning 40. Especially a building that The New York Times once (unfairly) described as a “giant white blob” and that a generations of Seattleites (quite fairly) associate with freeway congestion. But sports facilities don’t tend to age gracefully, if they age at all. The Kingdome, for example, was mercifully imploded on national television one day after it turned 24.

The Tacoma Dome stands, however, as a unique triumph in that it is almost exactly what boosters imagined when they asked voters to approve the bond issue for its construction: a community gathering space, a landmark, a “dome of our own.” But nothing fancy.

 “This building, over 40 years, is ingrained in the culture of Tacoma,” says Adam Cook, director of Tacoma Venues and Events, the city department that manages the dome. And it’s true—not just because the dome is so recognizable, either. In its conception, its construction, and the fact of its continued existence, the Tacoma Dome reflects the ragged pride, stubbornness, and charm of Tacoma.

That begins with the material it is made from. At 530 feet across, the Tacoma Dome is one of the largest wooden domes on earth. The timber, provided by Weyerhaeuser, was reportedly salvaged from the tens of thousands of acres of forests flattened by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in March 1980—the same month Tacoma voters approved the bond issue for the dome in the first place.

If you climb high up into the rafters, you can see the dome’s history in the form of signatures by original construction crews scrawled onto the curved beams, as well as as more recent additions by employees, road crew members for touring events, and visitors. Dome staff says that out-of-town architects sometimes show up unannounced during non-event hours just to wander around and look up at the beams.

The biggest controversy in the Tacoma Dome’s 40 years came early in its life and was over how the city would use the 1 percent of its construction budget that was legally mandated to be set aside for public art—about $280,000. Tacoma’s arts community was ecstatic about the possibility of doing something spectacular with this large sum of money and solicited proposals from major art figures.

Andy Warhol envisioned covering the exterior of the dome with a giant yellow flower. Richard Haas wanted to give the dome the appearance of a night sky filled with stars. But the winning entry was by Stephen Antonakos who intended to decorate the dome with an abstract design of neon light tubes.

It never happened. The team in charge of construction of the dome argued that first, the neon was unseemly, and second, that any art that required the puncture of the dome’s wooden roof would be too great a structural risk. So instead, the city paid Antonakos to use its mandated public art budget hang neon panels inside the dome. This set off a series of somewhat absurd political events which have since become known as the Tacoma Neon Wars. (At one point Seattle mayor Charles Royer graciously offered to accept and display the neon panels as a gift if Tacoma did not want them). The city’s public arts program was repealed, but the panels themselves remain. And instead of a neon-laden roof, the Tacoma Dome got the geometric design by architect Lyn Messenger that has since become part of its identity.

Over its 40 years, the Tacoma Dome has not found a long-term anchor tenant. Initially, some of its boosters hoped it might be home to the region’s first NHL team. Instead, there was indoor soccer, minor league hockey, and fits and starts elsewhere: the Goodwill Games, the Sonics while KeyArena was under construction in the 1990s. But without luxury boxes or high-end amenities, it was never destined for major league sports.

When they were selling the Tacoma Dome, the men who were its boosters (and they were mostly men), talked a lot about putting the city on the map, and getting out of the shadow of Seattle.

“We got to this point where this blue-collar town finally said 'I think we’d had enough and we need to do something for our community, for our image, and for the livability of our children and grandchildren to come',” said Hal Nielsen, who was a city council member at the time of the dome’s construction in a 2003 interview.

It’s hard to make an argument that the Tacoma Dome has necessarily changed the image of Tacoma. A year after it opened, Rolling Stone magazine reported that Bruce Springsteen had to delay a concert there because the city’s aroma had made him ill.

"I promised when I came here I would get us mentioned in Rolling Stone,"  said city manager Mike Gebauer afterwards. "There was no other facility mentioned in that article. It's a case of 'I don't care what you say about me, just as long as you spell my name right'." 

Hurt feelings aside, the aroma couldn't have been that bad. Springsteen would go on to become one of the dome's most frequent guests. 

Instead of changing the city's image, the arena has come to reflect Tacoma for what it really is: diverse, hardworking, perhaps a little bit hard for Seattleites to fully grasp the appeal of, and yet as deeply woven into the region’s identity as economy as anywhere else. There are RV shows and rodeos and every kind of convention you can imagine. Monster trucks and standup comedy.  And of course, there are concerts, from David Bowie back in 1983 to an upcoming performance by Twice, which will be the Tacoma Dome’s first K-Pop act, according to arena staff.

For all of it, the dome works best as a community space. In 2020, there were drive-through Covid tests inside on the arena floor. (Yes, you can drive through it.) As part of the 40th birthday celebration, the city is holding a city services exposition and career fair. And the Tacoma Dome's most important events each year are the high school sports championships and graduations it hosts. 

“It’s the people’s building,” says Skaught, who served on that initial committee. Which is why she brought the birthday cake.

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