Mossback’s Northwest: The rise and fall of Seattle’s Kingdome

The Seahawks and Mariners called it home for 24 years, but now much of the city doesn’t even know the stadium existed.

Knute Berger's Kingdome T-shirt has people asking where and what the structure was.

It was almost like a magic act — making a giant white elephant disappear.

Seattle’s skyline once featured a massive concrete structure that had an interior volume of 67 million cubic feet and weighed 130,000 tons. It was like a brutalist flying saucer had landed in the city.

Then, poof, it was gone.

What the hell happened?

I’m talking about the Dome — the Kingdome, the massive concrete sports complex that sat at the edge of SoDo near Pioneer Square. In fact, we say SoDo because the neighborhood was south of the Dome.

It was controversial from the very beginning.

Seattle had long wanted to be a major league city. In 1968, King County voters approved funding for a multipurpose stadium that could host professional baseball, football, special events and national political conventions.

Immediately, in typical Seattle style, debates flared. The biggest was over where would it be? More than 100 locations in the county were considered, but downtown business forces were divided. Some wanted it at Seattle Center, others favored the edge of the International District, near Interstate 5. People opposed a site that would eliminate low-income housing. Construction was delayed while Seattle process ground on. It took four years of fighting to decide finally where to put it.

Lawsuits were filed, some activists opposed public funding (not for the first or last time with stadiums), commissions formed, consultants were tapped. Finally, the voters said “no” to the Seattle Center site. Even then people thought traffic there was a nightmare. A compromise was reached: Stick it downtown between King Street and the waterfront on landfill near what had once been the city’s largest Hooverville.

Having a new stadium would also help the city land major sports franchises, the NFL football team Seahawks and the Mariners baseball club, for instance. The decision was to make it a domed stadium — they were in vogue in the '70s. AstroTurf was the hot new playing surface, like a polyester leisure suit for your feet. The ribbed concrete hump on top resembled an old-fashioned orange juicer. Events could be held under the roof -year-around in rainy Seattle. It was the largest roof of its kind in the world, at more than 660 feet across. It was originally budgeted at $40 million, but ended up costing nearly $70 million in the end.

When it opened in 1976, its first major sports event was a soccer game featuring the New York Cosmos and the famous Pele against the Seattle Sounders. The first major nonsports event was evangelist Billy Graham’s crusade. Seattle was finally going to be a major league town, too. The Sonics played there during their championship year. The Mariners and Seahawks also made their homes in the Dome. For Seattleites of a certain age, its vast interior, outfield nosebleed seats 600 feet away from home plate, didn’t make it cozy. It tended to swallow even capacity crowds of 60,000. But it was ours, it was weird, it was loud.

Vendors sold giant beers — called King Beers — 32 ounces of suds for $2.50, limit three — that’s right, three — per customer. Yes, only 96 ounces of beer for 9 innings, which while watching the perennially losing early Mariners didn’t seem nearly enough, until Ken Griffey Jr. came along. A Dome celebrity was born of this: Bill “The Beerman” Scott, a beer vendor who became the Kingdome’s ever-present and unofficial cheerleader. Burly, bearded Bill led The Dome’s circular interior as if in a tumble dryer. The crowd noise at Seahawks games became infamous. The new football team needed every edge.

The Dome was a big concert venue, too, and could accommodate over 50,000 music fans. Paul McCartney and Wings kicked things off as the first rock act, followed by groups like Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, The Who, The Clash, Willie Nelson & Emmy Lou Harris, Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Beach Boys, Van Halen, Joan Jett, Led Zeppelin, Blondie, Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and U2, to name major acts that came through in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Michael Jackson was going to come, but canceled.

There were other big events, too: Evel Knievel and his motorcycle stunts, a Final Four basketball tournament in 1995, a Major League Baseball All-Star game and a National Football League Pro Bowl, endless boat shows, auto shows and home shows, even a mass meeting of Microsoft employees, but no national political conventions.

The Dome reshaped Seattle, and not just the skyline looking south. Its location altered historic neighborhoods like the International District and Pioneer Square. Sports bars and T-shirt shops became a thing as sports fans washed through on game days.

There were troubles along the way, however. The sports trend moved away from giant domes. Teams lobbied for better, customized facilities for their particular sport — multipurpose was giving way to specialized, customized stadiums. Teams threatened to move if their needs weren’t met. Then, in the mid-’90s, the interior roof tiles started falling off. Some landed in the seats right before a Mariner’s game; they would have killed folks below if they had hit anyone. More than $50 million had to be spent to bring the Dome up to date and fix the leaky roof and roof tiles.

In a little over only two decades, the massive Dome had become obsolete even before it was fully paid for with hotel-motel tax money. Five years after the expensive roof repairs, it was decided to get rid of the facility. This massive complex had lasted a mere 24 years. It was taken down before the bonds were paid off.

Taken down is not exactly a correct description. The Dome was imploded in spectacular fashion in March 2000. In some ways, it was perhaps the Kingdome’s most spectacular event. People climbed up on roofs and lined the city’s hills to watch the countdown, the blasts, the collapse of one era’s monument to the dream of big-leagueness. A huge dust cloud engulfed the neighborhood and left a pile of rubble six stories high.

In the end, the spectacular structure lay flattened, like someone had stomped on a mushroom.

And in that moment, a certain nostalgia was born with local generations divided between those who knew the Dome and its ’80s rec room atmosphere, and those who’ve never heard of it. Wear a Kingdome T-shirt today and many people will ask, “What’s that?”

One newspaper said it left “a void in the sky,” but it also left a void in a few people’s hearts, and then, in the new millennium, slipped down a memory hole.

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.