Once, it had been a place of color and spectacle – a place where families rallied to watch their teams and salute their heroes. But all that was gone. The stadium no longer resounded with cheers. There were no stars and stripes, no marching bands. Only wintry decay remained.
The stadium’s most iconic feature had been a Teflon-covered fiberglass roof held in place by the arena’s air pressure. Although the roof was white, it appeared to shine with a metallic sheen in the sun, earning the stadium the legendary nickname “Silverdome.”
Opened to the public in 1975, the Silverdome was the pride of Pontiac, Detroit and the state of Michigan. Constructed at a cost of $55.7 million, it boasted 80,311 seats, 7,384 club seats and 102 luxury suites. Initially known as the Pontiac Metropolitan Stadium, it would serve a generation of faithful sports fans until its final abandonment in the early 21st century.
Enter Johnny Joo (pronounced “yo”) from Ohio, a 26-year-old urban explorer and photojournalist who has made his name documenting abandoned and historically significant architecture. Accompanied by three companions, he set his sights on Pontiac’s fabled Silverdome in 2014.
Built in Pontiac, Michigan, the derelict Silverdome is a faded symbol of glory days past. Like neighboring Detroit, 30 miles away, Pontiac was once home to a thriving auto industry. Yet after the post-war boom it began to deteriorate as its wealthier citizens abandoned the downtown area for the suburbs.
Pontiac architect and urban planner C. Don Davidson – who had been a star athlete during his high-school years – was so appalled by the decline of his city that he dedicated his career to its renewal. He spent years campaigning for the construction of the Silverdome and was finally commissioned to build the stadium in 1972.
“While a mossy carpet sat at my feet,” wrote Johnny Joo on his website, Architectural Afterlife, “I stared through an open panel, welcoming the cold winter breeze to my face, chilling my skin as I studied the destruction below. Such a huge space, once filled with so much energy, now sits an open shell, victim to the elements.”
Filled with the rank smell of decay, the corridors were dank and wet. Joo and his companions had arrived in the old dining hall, its floor-to-ceiling windows shattered and breached by an invasion of creeping vegetation. Gazing out to the arena below, Joo took in the devastation. “It’s like looking off into the apocalypse,” he later wrote.
Before its abandonment, the Pontiac Silverdome had been home to the NFL’s Detroit Lions, as well as the NBA’s Detroit Pistons and various local soccer teams. For 30 years the stadium hosted everything from college games to historic football matches.
In 1982 the crowds had gone wild when the San Fransisco 49ers won the Super Bowl there, beating the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21. It was the first time that a city had hosted the Super Bowl in freezing conditions and the stadium’s legendary dome held up well against the snow.
As an international venue, the Silverdome was the host of four first-round games in 1994’s FIFA World Cup – the first occasion that games in the soccer tournament had been played indoors. In 1987, Wrestlemania III attracted a crowd of 93,173 to the stadium.
On December 6, 1975, English mod rockers The Who played to a crowd of 75,962, their attendance outperformed only by Led Zeppelin, who drew 76,229 in 1977. Pope John Paul II outdid them both, however, when he held Mass for a faithful gathering of 93,682 – the Silverdome’s largest ever audience.
Clambering through the Silverdome’s dereliction, Joo and his companions made their way to center field. The old electronic panels and scoreboards lay broken among the stands, seats empty and dusted with snow. The winter wind brought an icy chill.
“I could only imagine the feeling of being surrounded by 80,000 screaming fans, all eyes on you,” wrote Joo. “The silence was so great; you could almost hear the screaming of fans in the howling and whistling of each strong wind. I truly felt that I was lost in a reality shift, thrown into a life after people.”
The first major disaster to strike the Silverdome was a heavy snowstorm in 1985. The accumulated mass of snow pressing on one corner the roof caused it to make contact with some lighting rigging. It tore, decompressed and collapsed. It was subsequently repaired and lasted until 2013, when it unfortunately came down once and for all.
“As each 15,000-pound cable whipped down through seat after seat,” wrote Joo, “down went the massive roof of Pontiac’s Silverdome stadium. These huge steel ropes went swinging through the stadium, slicing through the stands, causing destruction with the force of a bomb to butterfly wings.”
But by then, the Silverdome was already in terminal decline. In 2002 the Detroit Lions had moved to a new home stadium, Ford Field, signaling a change in fortunes. In 2008, the global financial crisis hit Michigan hard and the city of Pontiac could no longer afford to maintain the Silverdome. It was forced to put it up for sale.
The Silverdome was sold to Toronto-based developers Triple Properties Inc in 2009. The price? Just $583,000 – a loss of more than $224 million dollars, when adjusted for inflation. Some blamed the sale on the crash of local property prices, others the alleged incompetence of city bigwigs.
Though dilapidated, the stadium was still used for events as late as 2011. In March 2014, the owners began auctioning the Silverdome’s contents, slating it for demolition in spring 2016. It currently remains standing, but sooner or later it is bound to meet its fate with the wrecking ball.
Meanwhile, America’s rust belt continues to battle the void left by years of industrial decline. “As I found myself balancing at the tip-top edge of this stadium’s roof,” wrote Joo, “I looked out across the skyline, and though I knew there was life outside these walls, the world felt quiet and empty. I was on top of the empty world…”