Baltimore first put lid on dome debate in 1945 Martin's idea predated Astrodome by 20 years

February 27, 1996|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

State officials say there may be a dome in Baltimore's future.

There is certainly one in its past.

Half a century ago, the city toyed with building a covered stadium, the fancy of airplane magnate Glenn L. Martin, but backed down for fear a domed ballpark wouldn't fly. Conventional wisdom prevailed. Memorial Stadium was built instead, denying Baltimore pioneer status.

How futuristic was the city's domed dream? Baltimore considered its roofed park in 1945. The Houston Astrodome, the first covered stadium, would not open for another 20 years.

Last week, Maryland officials hinted at making a dome-ready football park at Camden Yards, an open-air stadium that could be roofed later on.

Baltimore has heard that before.

The city's first designs for an "indoor ballpark" were ambitious, even in the giddy post-World War II climate: a 100,000-seat facility as site for all major sports events (football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey), plus boxing, wrestling, rodeos and track meets. An Olympic-sized swimming pool was in the plans, as were bowling alleys, a roller rink, handball courts and a pistol range.

Above it all would hang a shimmering aluminum roof, less than one-eighth of an inch thick and buoyed by air pressure created by ordinary fans -- machines, not people -- puffing skyward from inside the park. Simple ventilation would keep the dome inflated, engineers surmised.

Such was the brainchild of Martin, whose peacetime interests swung from building bombers to ballparks. Until his dome was shot down.

Despite the approval of a mayoral-appointed stadium committee and the backing of some of the city's top businessmen, including spice tycoon Charles P. McCormick, the domed park died a blueprint. Stadium designs submitted to the City Council in October 1945 were shelved soon thereafter.

Baltimoreans balked at the premise, not to mention the price tag ($7 million). Subscribers of The Sun took turns punching holes in the doomed dome.

"Imagine the terrible heat in the summer on such a metal roof!" one wrote. "Consider the deafening noise of rain beating against a structure of such proportions."

"Half the enjoyment of a game is freezing to death in a windy stadium, cheering for the home team," a war veteran opined. "Perhaps we Americans are getting soft, after all."

And this, from an angry reader:

"The Baltimore fine arts program is in danger of collapse. The Pratt Library was forced to suffer last year for the lack of a paltry $15,000. Away with this monstrosity! Let's show some sense."

Advocates of the multipurpose park fought back. The mayor's stadium committee offered its own rosy scenario:

"The youth who yelled his enthusiasm at a Saturday football game could easily be made to feel just as much at home applauding a symphony orchestra the following Wednesday evening. He couldn't fail to take a more personal interest in a political convention if it were held in the same place where he watched the Orioles trim Jersey City."

Finally, in a desperate effort to drum up support, the dome's designer, a New Yorker named Herbert H. Stevens Jr., met with a group of 200 skeptical businessmen to allay their fears. He was doing OK until R. Brooke Maxwell, city parks superintendent, raised his hand.

"How is grass grown inside a stadium through which rain and sunshine cannot penetrate?"

This being 1945, Stevens was stumped. Synthetic grass was years away.

Ultimately, the project was thought too offbeat and expensive by taxpayers who, The Sun wrote, "would be extremely interested to see some other city build a stadium with a floating roof first, but who are not interested in building the first one." Or the second, third or even 12th, it turned out.

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