Tacoma Dome - The Dream Becomes Reality

We found a treasure trove of Tacoma history this weekend at an estate sale near our home.  It’s not an eBay style collectible, another old photo album from our neighborhood or a stone from the Tacoma Hotel facade.  What we found was The News Tribune’s special section celebrating the completion of the Tacoma Dome, Tacoma Dome – The Dream Becomes Reality, from April 1983.  “The Tacoma Dome enjoys the distinction of being the largest arena in the United States, the largest wood-domed structure in existence and the largest public building of any kind between Seattle and San Francisco.” 

There’s good information in this 80-page piece:  Dome construction photos, articles, speculation and celebratory ads.  If we’d attended the opening celebration, we could’ve met Hank Aaron and the “world’s longest-hitting golfing gorilla”.  We might’ve won a brand new shiny 1983 Pontiac Firebird.  The first three events to land in the new arena were a three-day rodeo, a Billy Graham crusade, and a five-day boat show.  The first Tacoma Tractor Pull was June 17-18, 1983.  Have things changed all that much in twenty-three years?  In addition to the kitsch and random trivia were a couple of gems of particular interest…

The Name

Have you ever wondered how the Tacoma Dome got its name?  No, me neither, but it was quite the process from what we read.  The City Council first came up with the name, but then opened up the process to public comment and the public’s ideas.  In an article called Would Aroma Dome Sound As Sweet? the TNT lays out some of the names considered.  Some of the names mentioned:  The Aroma Dome, Chrome Dome, Parker’s Dream Dome, the Bing Crosby Dome, the Rhododen-dome, the Bore Dome, Tacoma International Kingdome, and the Tacoma Termite Terrarium.  In the end the City Council decided to ignore the public and go with the Tacoma Dome as it “was a name that told both where the building was and what it was.”

Building As Art

This is the part of the story that began to get attention again a few weeks ago when GritCity started asking questions about Andy Warhol’s connection to the Dome.  The questions arose thanks to a Beautiful Angle poster on the same topic. 

My newfound source on all things Tacoma Dome has an article entitled Art Controversy Nearly Blew Roof Off Dome.  Now that sounds intriguing.  The controversy goes something like this:  The city set aside $280k for public art at the Tacoma Dome.  A nationwide selection process was started that invited proposals from Andy Warhol, George Segal, Richard Haas, Stephen Antonakos, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Indiana.  The first four, Warhol, Segal, Haas, and Antonakos, responded with proposals.  Warhol’s image was a large flower on the roof.  Haas proposed a constellation design.  Antonakos used neon.  Segal – this entry’s description is rather ambiguous in the article.  The selection committee decided upon the design by Antonakos and controversy ensued: the original submission included installing an abstract work in orange neon on the roof. 

The roof art plan, rejected by the City Council last April after a year-long selection process, briefly divided the city into bitterly opposing camps – arts backers who saw the work as Tacoma’s chance for distinction, and other residents who feared the highly visible abstract art could leave the city open to ridicule.

Some groups were opposed to any of these expensive outside elite artists, preferring a more affordable local artist. Then, to further complicate things, the contractor refused to guarantee the roof if art were attached to it.  The public meetings got ugly and plain-clothes cops were apparently at all of them.  The city shelved the rooftop design and instead asked Antonakos to look into doing an inside-the-Dome-neon-project.  At press time (in 1983) that idea was still in a feasibility study phase.  While there may indeed be neon on the inside, it certainly doesn’t have the impact from I-5 that a bright orange neon-draped dome might have had.

In the end, the public art story about the Dome isn’t about Warhol specifically.  His painted flower design wasn’t seriously considered from what we can tell.  Yet, he’s the iconic image of this process and the one we’ll remember. 

Loss of a Neighborhood

One of the articles that closely mirrors the interests of Exit133 was Some Hawthorne Residents Still Bitter which documents some of the lives disrupted by the Dome site selection.  The project landed in the middle of a relatively low-density residential neighborhood.  Many of its residents had voted in favor of the Dome, but didn’t expect it to land in their yards – literally.  The newspaper has photos of homes being moved via truck and barge.  On a different page is a home encountering a bulldozer.  Signs in front yards shout their protests.  An aerial shot reveals something completely different from what I’ve ever known in that area: a true neighborhood.

The loss of the neighborhood is detailed on page 73.  On page 22 is the article Dome’s Coming Has Revamped Hawthorne.  This is the optimistic development story of new hotels, new restaurants and better roads.  It’s almost creepy how much it sounds like some of the persuasive articles we read today regarding burgeoning new growth.

There’s nothing like a Dome to liven up a neighborhood.  Tacoma’s Hawthorne district is entering a period of renaissance that could significantly alter its face in coming years.

All those restaurants and hotels materialized, but unfortunately we haven’t seen much new since.  The last few years have been better to the neighborhood and things are changing, but it took over twenty years to get to the present. 

That’s enough Dome talk for today. 

Photo by Todd Matthews

Newspaper scans are printed with the permission of The News Tribune


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