Celebrating ‘an engineering marvel’: Toronto’s iconic SkyDome opened 30 years ago today

It had taken approximately two years and was nearly four times over budget, and when it was finally time for Toronto’s SkyDome to open to the public 30 years ago, there was another problem: rain was in the forecast.

But after all of their efforts, there was no way organizers were going to let the moment pass without showing off the building’s signature retractable roof.

“We didn’t work this hard, this long to scratch the main attraction,” developer Chuck Magwood said at the time.

It was a landmark that was supposed to cost taxpayers $150 million. By the time it was finished, that price tag had ballooned to $570 million. All the more reason to put on a big show opening night, rain or no rain.

Entertainers Alan Thicke and Andrea Martin, rock band Glass Tiger and the Toronto Symphony were just some of the performers on hand for the opening ceremony on June 3, 1989. Some 50,000 spectators were also in attendance, ready to see the world’s first-ever retractable roof open.

“It absolutely was an engineering marvel and it was a massive deal. So much so that everyone couldn’t wait to see the roof open and close,” engineering manager Dave McCormick told CBC News.

Ontario’s then-premier David Peterson was there too, laser pen in hand, ready to officially declare the SkyDome open with the flick of a laser pen.

When it finally did, rain poured in, drenching everyone.

“That would probably be the first and last time we would do that intentionally.” McCormick said.

Since then, the building, renamed the Rogers Centre in 2005 after being purchased for $25 million by Rogers Communications, has played host to thousands of baseball games, conventions, and trade shows. Some of music’s biggest stars, including David Bowie, have also performed under the dome.

Even the Toronto Raptors played there.

Over the years, the building underwent some major modernization work. And in the process, other retractable dome stadiums sprang up, approximately 10 in the United States alone. McCormick has personally visited about seven to have a look at the way they’ve been engineered in order to bring back lessons on how to reinforce the Rogers Centre for years to come.

As for the stadium’s economic viability, that has been the subject of some debate. In 2018, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred commented the building was in need of an update.

In recent years, the ballpark has seen some changes, including a standing-room viewing area and a traditional dirt infield. Still, compared with some of the later iterations of domed stadiums, the building does lag behind in some ways, especially when it comes to weather-proofing.

Many other domed stadiums were built to welcome the elements, notes McCormick, allowing rain in to nourish the grass for example.

“Give the technology the credit that was put in ’89. It had never been done before. We only removed it five years ago. So up until the 2015 baseball season, we were using the day-one technology to open and close this roof,” McCormick says. As soon as that post-season ended, he says, workers ripped out the original system and installed a new one.

Right now workers are working on a complete replacement of the exterior membrane of the roof.

And 30 years later, McCormick says there’s no end in sight to the building, saying it was “built like a tank” and isn’t going anywhere fast.

“Honestly, I don’t think there’s a limit.”

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