“It works, Toronto!”: An oral history of the SkyDome

A World Series win. The first Raptors home game. The city’s landmark stadium has played host to memorable events in the last 30 years — but getting it built was a story in itself
By Glyn Bowerman - Published on June 3, 2019
construction of Toronto's Skydome
Toronto’s SkyDome under construction in June 1988. (John McNeill/GlobeandMail/CP)

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The idea for the SkyDome was born in the rain.

On November 28, 1982, Toronto hosted a wet, miserable, cold Grey Cup at the open-air Exhibition Stadium. Premier Bill Davis and Metro Chairman Paul Godfrey were in attendance. When thousands of sports fans descended on Nathan Phillips Square the next day shouting, “We want a dome!” the two men were inclined to sympathize.

Committees were formed. Multiple levels of government, as well as the private sector, agreed to help fund the project: the world’s first fully retractable dome, appropriate for all seasons, multiple sports, and a variety of events. “We wanted to do something fairly dramatic for Toronto,” says Godfrey.

Enter developer Chuck Magwood, who convinced the new hiring committee that he should oversee the business end of the project.

“They just called me and said, ‘So, what do you think?’ and I just stood and gave them a half-hour chat about the way I thought this should be approached,” says Magwood. “And I got a call the next day that I was hired. Just like that.”

The next step was to settle on a location. Many were suggested, most of them far outside the city centre. In 1985, they settled on the rail lands at the foot of the CN Tower — a controversial choice.

“The early press was location,” says Magwood. “This was an innovative approach to go urban. We went into the railway lands that had been sitting fallow for 30 years at the Ontario Municipal Board with nothing happening. So it was a real shot to stick it in that location, particularly because the car was king in the ’80s.” As the downtown site was served by multiple commuter lines, fans and visitors would be able to get there using public transit.

Perhaps the most iconic images of the SkyDome are captured from Lake Ontario, looking north toward the city, where the stadium cuts an immediately recognizable silhouette into the skyline.

This was no accident. The stadium’s design was the result of an open competition, and architect Rod Robbie’s winning submission included watercolours he’d painted to communicate his vision.

“As an artist as well as an architect, he wanted to make sure there was some kind of artistic expression of what he saw as the elegance of the form beside its CN Tower counterpart,” says Caroline Robbie, Rod's daughter and a principal at architectural firm Quadrangle.

It was one thing to design the dome, but it was another thing entirely to design a retractable one. That’s where project structural engineer Michael Allen came in. Robbie (in Toronto) and Allen (in Ottawa) would send sketches back and forth by bus — at the time, the fastest method available. Then, during a flight back home from Toronto in 1985, Allen had a breakthrough about how the dome’s complex mechanism could work.

“It was Friday, actually, as I recollect,” says Allen. “And I took the sketches home, and I spent the whole weekend trying to prove that it wouldn’t work. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it.”

With Magwood as president of the Crown corporation responsible for the project, Robbie and Allen providing the design solutions, and a public competition to decide the name, all that was left was to make the vision a reality and to hope that the funding, public support, and political will required wouldn’t dry up.

The 1985 election resulted in a transfer of provincial power, as David Peterson’s Liberals took over from the Progressive Conservatives. The Metro government considered pulling its funding multiple times, mostly because of the rising pricetag.

“When we came in, we had to make the decision to go ahead with it,” says Peterson. “We actually put the shovel in the ground, and sort of built the thing, although the planning had been done by a previous government.”

“There was lots of controversy on it — adding things and changing things and adding the hotel on the side and every other damned thing that ever happened — but it turned out to be a stunning success,” he adds.

Getting there wasn’t easy, though. Caroline Robbie, who worked on the project alongside her brother (who handled administration) and sister (marketing), described the run-up to the opening ceremonies as a “nail-biting” experience.

“This was a project that was on the fly, that kept just a hair above the approval process at any moment in time, as well as ahead of the design process,” says Magwood. “Literally, the plans were coming in often same morning as work was happening.” The occupancy permit from the city, for example, came through a mere two days before the opening gala.

“The final piece was actually with the fire department,” he says. “They went through the building the day before, going from one exit to the next, ensuring that the systems were engaged, the lights were properly in place. And we had walkie-talkies with people all over the building running ahead of the fire department, as well as the building department, literally cleaning up, pushing things out of the way, turning lights on, just before they got there.”

Permit acquired, it was now time for the opening celebrations, on June 3, 1989. The endearingly hokey, proudly Canadian bill included emcees Alan Thicke (of Growing Pains fame) and SCTV’s Andrea Martin. Rounding out the night were jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, the many-mulletted band Glass Tiger, and assorted comedians, singers, and dancers.

A large banner proclaimed, “It works, Toronto!” But many Torontonians still found it hard to believe that a technological marvel such as the SkyDome could actually happen in Hogtown.

According to the Toronto Star, less than an hour before the occupancy permit was issued, the city buildings commissioner, Michael Nixon, had told council that the stadium was unsafe.

So when the stormy sky began to unleash a downfall, Magwood, Robbie, and Allen agreed that it was time to show the city what the structure could do.

“The whole point of the opening was to herald and triumph the fact that this facility had a roof that could open,” says Magwood. “We all wanted it that way, it was a time for us to show our stuff.”

Thicke began leading a chant: “Open up the dome!”

“Even the rain feels good in here,” Thicke said. According to the Star, the crowd responded with a thunderous “No!”

Peterson himself gave the signal to retract the roof, and an estimated 45,000 people got absolutely drenched. Dancers slipped (Magwood was later sued, but the case was dropped). Paratroopers flew in through the opening and beefed the landing on the rain-slicked surface.

Godfrey didn’t think it was the right call, but Peterson is still bullish: “It sure as hell was a good thing to do. Let ’em soak ’em! Everybody remembered it!”

Thirty years on, the SkyDome (renamed the Rogers Centre when the telecommunications firm bought the building in 2004) remains a technological marvel of its time, a quintessential Toronto landmark, and a visionary piece of urban planning that spurred development across the western waterfront.

Rod Robbie passed away in 2012, but not before being named an Officer of the Order of Canada. Allen considers what he and Robbie created together a highlight of his career.

Whatever corporate shingle hangs on the entranceway, Magwood says that, for him, the stadium will always be the SkyDome.

The SkyDome, of course, belongs not just to the politicians, architects, and engineers, but also to the fans. Todd Lastman (great-nephew of former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman) was there for both the rainy opening ceremonies and the first Jays game under the dome.

“I’m gonna be really honest with you,” he says. “I got in there — I cried, okay? I bawled my eyes out. I couldn’t believe that the Blue Jays were playing there. I was so emotional. I thought it was the most amazing place ever.”

Correction: This article originally stated that Todd Lastman is former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman's grandson. In fact, he is Lastman's great-nephew. TVO.org regrets the error.

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