You can’t go dome again

For at least half a century, Chicago mayors have talked up a Soldier Field dome.

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Mayor Richard M. Daley shows the media the “new” Soldier Field model, with a retractable dome, in 1996.

Photo by Brian Jackson

Again with the dome.

Forgive me for lapsing into Yiddishkeit. But to see Mayor Lori Lightfoot drag out the dome will-o’-the-wisp, like a much-adored toddler’s blankie now worn to a nubbin, and wave it over her head, as if it were an original genius divination of her own — it taps into a well of deep Chicago nostalgia. It makes me want to set up a cart in Maxwell Street and start selling bottles of Professor Steinberg’s Amazing Old World Cure-All.

Because if people will buy the dome notion, they’ll buy anything.

Opinion bug

Opinion

For years, decades, well over half a century, the idea of putting a dome over Soldier Field, or building a vast domed sports complex nearby, has been dangled in front of the city’s eyes by whomever is currently parked on the 5th floor of City Hall, joined by anybody else with a dog in this race who can find their way to a podium.

In 1964, it was the general superintendent of the Chicago Park District, Erwin Weiner, observing it would cost $8 million to put a dome over Soldier Field (say it in a Dr. Evil voice: “Eight MILLION dollars!”) and transform the stadium into “a modern, all-purpose sports arena.”

The timing wasn’t accidental. In the early 1960s, Major League Baseball created two expansion teams. One became the New York Mets. The other was slated for Houston, provided they could build a covered stadium. (Which might confuse native Chicagoans. A dome? In Houston? Whatever for? It never snows there. Answer: the Texas weather was considered too hell-like for human beings to play sports in a venue that wasn’t air-conditioned.)

In 1965, the Harris County Domed Stadium was built, the first covered sports stadium in the world. (Before Chicago spends the fortune the mayor imagines flowing from naming rights, remember that everyone insisted on calling it the “Astrodome” because the Astros played there and it was a dome. In the same way its space-age artificial grass, Monsanto ChemGrass, was immediately dubbed “Astroturf.”)

A rendering of the inside of a domed Soldier Field, released on Monday, July 25, 2022.

A rendering of the inside of a domed Soldier Field. This was among the images released on Monday, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot touted the latest plan to renovate the stadium and keep the Chicago Bears in the city.

Landmark Development

I wish space permitted me to fully celebrate the gales of political wind that have blown over this arid, lifeless desert where officials nevertheless suggest domes will bloom.

In 1978, the idea was to encase Soldier Field entirely in glass walls, a domed roof held up by no fewer than 40 pillars. (Now it seems four will do the job, since it takes fewer pillars to support a roof that’ll never be built.)

Soldier Field will be “the envy of the National Football League,” Richard M. Daley predicted in 1996, pushing the $395 million retractable dome project which, as always, would not require new property taxes. (A mantra the current mayor echoed. “It’s magic tonic! It pays for itself!”)

The Bears already have signed an agreement to buy the land in Arlington Heights. The prudent move would be to say, “Screw ’em,” and point out sports franchises are not the economy boosters that owners pretend they are when extorting concessions from municipalities. Particularly football teams which play, what, eight or nine regular-season home games a year? Gosh, and how many billions is Chicago supposed to spend for that right? To avoid the undying shame of losing bragging rights?

Three words: New York Jets. Three more: New York Giants. Both teams play in New Jersey.

I feel guilty even expending breath on the dome idea, but there is also tradition here. In 1986, a dome seemed so imminent that my late colleague, Andrew Greeley, devoted a column to pondering a name of the new venue. He voted for George S. Halas Dome, back in the day when sports venue monikers were honors to be bestowed and not corporate plugs to be auctioned off.

Geez, if the goal is raising money, be creative. Consider your Sundays in November. How much would it be worth to you to NEVER attend a Bears game? Forty bucks? $100? The city could sell some kind of yearly sticker, affixed to your front door, sparing you the legal obligation of being exiled to Soldier Field. Then all the city has to do is send around a few idled CTA buses, with Cook County Sheriff’s police to press stickerless citizens into the service of witnessing Bears games.

You wouldn’t need many news clips of hastily bundled Chicagoans marched into Soldier Field to huddle in frozen misery for four hours before people were lining up to buy their stickers. Problem solved.

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