A Dream and a Dome

In many ways, the Superdome serves as a great metaphor for the city: It’s historic. It’s iconic. It’s been through a lot, and it needs a lot of work.

Legend has it that when Dave Dixon — businessman and chairman of the city’s municipal sports commission — proposed the idea of the Superdome to then-Gov. John J. McKeithen in 1963, the normally folksy and passionate McKeithen was stone silent as he studied a scale model of the domed stadium and listened to Dixon’s vision.

Suddenly, McKeithen slammed his fist on his solid wooden desk.

“My God, that would be the greatest building in the history of mankind,” he roared. “We’ll build that sucker.”

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Dixon was fiercely focused on bringing a professional football team to the Big Easy, but after a rain-soaked exhibition double-header, he realized a domed stadium would be crucial if he was going to persuade a professional franchise to stay in New Orleans.

He believed Saints spectators would have to be protected from the elements if a team was going to succeed in the region’s tropical climate. Dixon was able to gather support from city officials, and now he had a supporter in McKeithen.

But it wouldn’t be easy. After Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment that would make the dome’s construction possible in 1966, the project’s progress ebbed and flowed for years. For starters, there were disputes as to where to build it.

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Initially, the dome was set to be built on 125 acres of land on Paris Road in New Orleans East, which would have provided interstate access and plenty of elbow room for the stadium, with parking for more than 20,000 cars. There were even dreams of a Disneyland-style amusement park being built on the site.

Louisiana’s $129.5 million Super Dome is taking shape in New Orleans, November 30, 1972. The 72, 000-seat facility is slated for completion in the fall of 1974. The center crown of the stadium is currently under construction at center. (AP Photo)

But the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce made a strong case for a central location, arguing it would bring in more tourists and more money to downtown businesses and the nearby French Quarter, and convinced Dixon and McKeithen.

But by the middle of 1970, construction had yet to begin, and locals started to question whether the Superdome was worth it—or whether it would ever be built. Despite delays, setbacks and going over budget, the project moved forward with city and state funding, opening its doors on Aug. 3, 1975.

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Every New Orleanian remembers the first time they walked into the Superdome and looked across the field. It gives one the sense of what it must have felt like to be in a Roman arena. And, like The Colosseum, the Superdome is an iconic landmark — it’s a part of the city.

Over the last 47 years, the dome has weathered its fair share of storms, literally. Many recall the stadium being used as a shelter of last resort during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which also tore off a large section of the outer covering.

And while the hole in the roof was repaired, the dome has been long overdue for some much-needed TLC. An example of that was made obvious at the 2013 Super Bowl, when a power outage in the stadium turned out the lights and halted the game for 34 minutes.

And because the Caesars Superdome (as it is now known) is historic, it’s important that any renovations are done with care and attention. The architect for the current upgrades — a five-year, $450 million endeavor — is Trahan Architects. The firm has been charged with upgrading the facility without sacrificing its iconic architecture.

That includes the Superdome’s complete transformation of the traffic flow. In the past, the volume of the dome’s interior was shielded from visitors until they entered the main arena.

“Visitors experienced low floor-to-floor heights and tight concourses from the entrance to the seats,” said Brad McWhirter, partner at Trahan Architects.

“The [new] design carves three large corners and two large sideline atrium voids vertically through all levels to create enhanced pathways for new escalators and elevators, allowing patrons to move quickly through the building to new amenities.”

Anyone who’s ever had to navigate the narrow, labyrinthine system of escalators to grab a snack or a drink will be happy to hear that. On that note, the project also includes a complete transformation of the food-and-beverage program.

“Due to the iconic nature of the exterior of the Superdome, cooking capabilities were limited in the original design,” McWhirter said. “Current technology and systems allow us to create satellite cooking capabilities throughout all building levels to provide patrons with an enhanced food-and-beverage experience.”

That means more options and a series of new “grab-and-go” markets throughout the dome to make concession runs faster and more efficient.

These renovations have been ongoing since 2020, and adding to the challenges the design and construction team faced was maintaining an operational, functional and safe building throughout phased construction.

“It was important to the state and the Saints to allow as many scheduled events as possible to continue throughout construction,” McWhirter said.

To date, Broadmoor — the construction company working to put Trahan Architects’s plans into action — has installed four new stairwells that allow vertical movement from the 100 to 500 levels, along with two new freight elevators and eight new standing-room viewing decks.

Broadmoor has also completed construction on newly added north endzone clubrooms and north end zone field level suites, new high school and college football locker rooms, a new NFL visitors locker room, new Saints locker room, and a new Saints team store.

They’ve also been hard at work on the less flashy but critically important revitalization of the facility’s infrastructure, with projects such as relocating major electrical rooms from the ground level up to the 550 level, installing two new emergency generators, adding enhanced fire alarm systems, and building a new kitchen and commissary on the ground level.

For Broadmoor, it’s the project of a lifetime.

“It’s an opportunity to transform the most iconic building in the city of New Orleans,” said Ryan Mouledous, the company’s president and CEO. “This project puts the dome in contention for hosting future events such as the Super Bowl, Final Four and College National Championships.”

 

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