Celebrating 'an engineering marvel': Toronto's iconic SkyDome opened 30 years ago

It's been 30 years since the SkyDome opened its world-renowned retractable roof for the first time. Today it's undergoing work that will help make it last for years to come.

Ever since it opened in 1989, it's been a fixture on Toronto's skyline. Here's a look back at the dome.

The SkyDome is seen here under construction. The final price tag was $570 million, but Rogers Communications bought it a decade and a half later for just a fraction of its original cost. (Toronto Archives)

It took approximately two years to build and cost nearly four times what was projected, but 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. 

After all of their efforts though, 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.

The landmark was initially projected cost of $150 million in 1985. Within two years, however, the decision was made to add a hotel and a health club, which added to the price tag. By the time it was finished, after additions and delays, the cost hit $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 took approximately two years to build Toronto's iconic SkyDome, since renamed the Rogers Centre. (Toronto Archives)

"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. 

An interior view of what is now the Rogers Centre. It was the world's first retractable-roofed stadium. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

"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. 

The Toronto Raptors played there too.

The system that was used to open and close the roof lasted from 1989 until 2015, when it was replaced. (Kate Cornick/CBC)

Over the years, the building has undergone 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 look at the way they've been engineered, to bring back lessons on how to reinforce the Rogers Centre for years to come.

Thirty years on, engineering manager Dave McCormick says there's no end in sight to the building, saying it was 'built like a tank' and isn't going anywhere fast. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

But 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. Compared with some of the later iterations of domed stadiums though, the building does lag behind in some ways — especially when it comes to weather-proofing.

Workers are now replacing the outer skin of the dome. (Kate Cornick/CBC)

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 said.

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.

The dome remains an iconic fixture on Toronto's skyline along with the CN Tower. (CBC)

Thirty years later, McCormick says there's no end in sight to the building. It was "built like a tank," he says, and isn't going anywhere fast. 

"Honestly, I don't think there's a limit."


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