For almost 30 years the familiar shape of the Pontiac Silverdome has dominated the junction of two of southeast Michigan’s busiest highways – I-75, and M-59. Once home to the Detroit Lions football team and the Detroit Pistons basketball team, it’s deflated dome is a reminder of how quickly places and tastes can change, and the complicated nature of redevelopment.
The Detroit Lions had several homes before landing at the Silverdome. In 1934, several local businessmen bought the Portsmouth Spartans, a bankrupt NFL team based out of southern Ohio. The team was renamed the Lions and began playing at the University of Detroit’s athletic stadium. In 1941, the Lions began leasing Tigers Stadium, then known as Briggs Stadium, where they remained until 1974.
Talk of a new stadium for the Detroit Lions started in 1964, with locations downtown and at the State Fairground considered. As early as 1968, the suburban city of Pontiac proposed building a stadium to lure the Detroit Tigers baseball team and the Detroit Lions. A spokesman for Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavangh dismissed the idea, quipping, “What are they going to call them – the Pontiac Tigers?” By 1969, however, site feasibility studies indicated that neither downtown Detroit or the State Fairgrounds were suitable locations, and 150 acres of land at the junction of Interstate 75 and Michigan Route 59 was under serious consideration. Proponents argued that within the next five years, the stadium location would be the exact center of the state’s population, with 6.7 million residents living within a 90-mile radius. While other suburban cities, including Walled Lake and Taylor made proposals for the stadium, but by 1971 the Ford family – owners of the Lions – decided on Pontiac as the location.
The stadium was designed by the firm of O'dell, Hewlett & Luckenbach. Due in large part to Michigan’s active climate, it was decided early on that the stadium would be enclosed with a dome, so that events could take place throughout the year. The dome was innovative for its time, using a cable restrained air supported fiberglass fabric covering 10 acres. The dome would be held up by positive pressure generated by large fans, and kept in the stadium by pressure-sealed doors. At the time, it was the world’s largest air-supported roof. The stadium would seat 80,638, with 102 private luxury suites, making it one of the largest football arenas in the world. Construction began on September 19th, 1973 and finished two years later, at a total cost of $55.7 million dollars.
The Lions made their debut at the Pontiac Metropolitan Stadium on August 23rd, 1975, where they played the Kansas City Chiefs before an audience of 62,094 fans. The Lions won, 27-24, scoring three touchdowns in the last quarter. Not everything went smoothly – the stadium was only 95% completed, and there were problems with unfinished parking lots, toilets that didn’t work, and huge traffic jams. Heavy rain the night before had soaked the Astroturf field, as the dome above was only half finished. Two helicopters were used to dry the field, to little effect. It wasn’t until October that the dome was finished and inflated, much to the curiosity of residents and onlookers. Eventually the Metropolitan was dropped from the name, as city commissioners disliked the nickname “Ponmet” given to it by fans. Instead, the informal name “Silverdome” was given due to the dome’s appearance. The nickname stuck, and eventually the name was changed over to the Pontiac Silverdome.
The Lions first few years at the Silverdome were mixed, managing only three winning seasons between 1975 and 1982, but the stadium was a popular draw. The profile of the Silverdome and the City of Detroit were raised in 1982 when the stadium hosted Super Bowl XVI between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals. It was the first Super Bowl held in a cold-weather state.
In September of 1977, the Detroit Pistons basketball team announced that they were leaving Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit for the Silverdome. For basketball games large parts of the stadium were covered in tarp or curtained off, as only about 1/4th of the seats were needed for an average home game. A portable wooden court and grandstands were installed on the field, and an overhead scoreboard suspended from the ceiling. In the late 1980’s the Pistons enjoyed some success during the “Bad Boys” era, going to the NBA finals in 1988. However, conflicts between the Pistons and Silverdome management over rental rates and scheduling conflicts led the Pistons to build a new arena in Auburn Hills, which they moved into for the 1988-89 NBA season.
The large size of the Silverdome made it a popular regional concert venue in the 1970’s and 80’s. Nearly 77,000 fans of The Who packed the stadium for a show on December 6th, 1975, and a few weeks later an Elvis concert on New Years Eve drew a crowd of 62,500. A new world record for indoor audience was set by Led Zeppelin in 1977, with 76,229 fans filling the stadium. The Jacksons, Kenny Rogers, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna were also big draws. Andrew Heller, columnist for the Flint Journal said after a Rolling Stones concert in 1995 that "Listening to rock music inside Michigan's Silverdome is like stuffing your head down Pavarotti's throat, then dropping an anvil on his toes. You aren't likely to hear correctly for a week, the result being that you end up speaking loud enough to be heard in Cleveland... sort of like your grandfather when he forgets to turn on his hearing aid."
Religious events were also a mainstay of the Silverdome. From 1978 to 2004, the Jehovah’s Witnesses held a yearly convention at the Silverdome, with up to 40,000 attending. Pope John Paul II celebrated mass at the stadium on September 19th, 1987 in the presence of 90,000 faithful.
The design of the dome proved to be troublesome in early years. The first minor collapse came in August of 1976 during a thunderstorm, and was quickly repaired. On the night of March 3rd, 1985, the Detroit area was hit by a late-season snowstorm, which dropped several inches of snow and rain on and around the Silverdome. The next day, Lions running back James Jones and quarterbacks Eric Hipple and Gary Danielson were practicing on the field when the roof gave way under the weight of the wet snow, which poured down into the stadium and onto the basketball court. Seven panels of roof fabric ripped, and concrete falling from the upper deck crushed several seats. Several Pistons games were cancelled for safety reasons and because the melted snow caused the portable wooden basketball court to warp.
In the days after the stadium box office was deluged with calls from customers, but not for refunds – rather, they were asking for pieces of the roof as souvenirs. Efforts to patch the roof were unsuccessful, as 20 more panels fell in high winds the next day, and the rest were damaged beyond repair in another storm a week later. An improved replacement roof was installed over the summer at a cost of $8.5 million dollars.
WrestleMania III, a pay-per-view wrestling event was held on March 29th, 1987 in front of an audience of 93,173, a record for indoor crowds that stood until the 2010 NBA All-Star game. Along with boxing matches and the occasional hockey game, the stadium hosted four matches of the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament, the first to be held in an indoor arena. Other uses for the stadium included opening the upper deck to inline skaters during winter months, attracting 30,000 skaters a year to the smooth, half-mile track.
By 1996, however, the factors that had pushed the Lions to build a new stadium outside Detroit – namely, lack of suitable space downtown – had changed. The Silverdome was now over 20 years old, needed repairs, and had plenty of empty seats during Lions home games. When the Detroit Tigers announced that they would be building a new ballpark downtown, the Lions made the decision to move back to the city.
The Lion’s split with the Silverdome was contentious: When the Lions tried to get out of their lease on the stadium early, the City of Pontiac sued the team for additional compensation due to the economic loss they city would face. In November of 2001, the Lions were banned from practicing at the Silverdome until the lawsuit was settled. When the team tried to practice on November 28th, workers blared loud music and used the stadium’s air circulation pumps to create enough wind to cancel the practice session. The Lions would eventually settle for $27 million to end their lease four years early.
The final game at the Silverdome was on January 6th, 2002 against the Dallas Cowboys. Unlike the last game at Tigers Stadium, commentators were mostly glad to be leaving the Silverdome. Over 27 seasons and 208 games, the Lions won more games than they lost, but never made it to the Super Bowl. The next season the team moved back downtown to the $315 million dollar Ford Field. In 2006, the Silverdome was used by the Pittsburg Steelers as a practice facility during Superbowl XL.
The decision to leave the Silverdome was devastating to Pontiac, which was already reeling from the loss of General Motors. Concerts alone would not cover the operating costs of the stadium, and the new ones being built downtown would no doubt draw the larger acts. Proposals for re-use of the Silverdome were slow coming, as most real estate experts believed the land underneath the stadium was worth more than the stadium itself. In May of 2002, the Silverdome was put up for sale, with prospective buyers directed to a website for information – still a novel concept back then.
From 2003 to 2009, rounds of biding took place, none of which were successful. At times the selling price reached $20 million dollars, but each time the buyers would back out. Plans included casinos, racehorse parks, and business parks. One of the more ambitious plans involved converting the stadium into a $400 million dollar convention center, hotel, department store, office complex, 14-screen cinema, and aquarium. By 2009, the City of Pontiac was no closer to finding a buyer, and could no longer afford the $1.5 million a year it cost to maintain the stadium. Heavily in debt and in a financial emergency, the city put the Silverdome up for auction with no minimum bid price. A week after the auction ended, the city announced that the stadium had been sold – for $583,000.
The reaction from the public and the press was prompt and severe.
“$583K: Detroit stadium or New York studio?” asked CNN.com. “This was a giveaway,” said David J. Leitch, an Auburn Hills real estate broker. “The property alone, at $10,000 an acre, should have gone for more than that. And you have the Silverdome, its contents, and the infrastructure already in place. I had estimated it would probably go for between $1.2 million and $3 million. I can't believe it." Residents were outraged that they received so little back on the original construction price of $55 million dollars. One of the previous bidders sued to stop to the sale, but was denied.
The new owner of the Silverdome was real estate magnate Andreas Apostolopoulos, of the Toronto-based Triple Investment Group. Apostolopoulos envisioned bringing a major league soccer team to the stadium, and began making $6 million dollars in upgrades and improvements in March of 2010. Concession and VIP areas were refurbished, wireless Internet access was upgraded, and the Main Event restaurant was outfitted with flat-screen televisions. The Silverdome held its first major event in several years with a monster truck rally in April, with other events including a boxing match, concerts, and the championship of the American Ultimate Disc League. In August, a soccer match between AC Milan and Panathinaikos brought 30,000 fans.
In June of 2011, Triple Sports & Entertainment formally applied for an expansion Major League Soccer franchise. Apostolopoulos proposed dividing the interior into two levels, with a 30,000 seat soccer stadium on top and possibly two smaller arenas underneath. The roof would be removed, eliminating the need for the costly air circulation system and allowing in sunlight.
These plans were dealt a setback in December of 2012, when two of the four furnaces that heat the dome and prevent snow from accumulating failed, causing a buildup of ice that eventually punctured the roof and crashed the floors below. The hole quickly grew from 5 feet to 20, and despite a temporary patch job, continued to worsen. The dome was deflated on January 3rd to prevent further damage. Two weeks later another storm shredded the deflated roof, leaving it strewn across the field and seats. Several windows in the Main Event restaurant and the press box were shattered, allowing water in.
The contents of the stadium were auctioned off in 2014. Though several redevelopment plans for the Silverdome have been proposed, the most likely outcome is that the stadium will be demolished to make way for an industrial park.