Capital Centre blown away

Demolition: The 29- year-old arena in Landover makes way for a $100 million retail and restaurant complex.

December 16, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

LANDOVER -- With a volley of thunderous explosions, the old Capital Centre outside Washington collapsed in a billowing cloud of dust early yesterday, ending 29 years of sports and entertainment history, and stranding millions of treasured personal moments in memory.

The end came at 8:05 a.m., with the sequential detonation of 355 pounds of dynamite pressed into 500 key points of the structure by technicians from Controlled Demolition Inc. of Phoenix in Baltimore County.

In seconds, the stairwells toppled, and 7 million pounds of tension -- cranked into the roof's supporting cables in 1972 -- were released. The roof crashed to the ground amid a chorus of whoops and cheers from a crowd of spectators.

The 19,000-seat arena, which has been closed for more than two years, is being cleared to make room for a $100 million retail and restaurant complex. The new "Boulevard at The Capital Centre" is to open next fall.

Thousands of people arose before dawn to witness the demolition of the arena, which was renamed the U.S. Airways Arena in 1993.

Traffic on a section of the Capital Beltway just west of the arena was shut down for about 15 minutes as a precaution. The dust cloud drifted away from the highway, however, and police reopened it at 8:10 a.m.

Spectators, bundled against the cold and fortified by coffee and doughnuts as they waited for the end, shared happy memories of the hours they spent under the arena's undulating roof, which some likened to a giant Pringles potato chip.

"It was such a part of growing up in D.C.," said Jose Cardenas, 42, of Vienna, Va. He was there in April 1976 to watch Muhammad Ali defend his heavyweight boxing title against Jimmy Young. "I saw [in 1974] Evel Knievel jump the Snake River -- almost -- on closed-circuit TV. I saw a lot of Sugar Ray Leonard's fights here."

Others recalled attending NBA Bullets and Wizards basketball and NHL Capitals hockey games with their children or their parents. Others reached back to concerts by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Michael and Janet Jackson, the Rolling Stones. They remembered inaugural galas, high school graduations, truck and tractor pulls, horse shows and figure skating.

"It is sad," Cardenas said of the arena's demise. "As you get older, you see all these doors closing on your life, these chapters closing. And you just come to see it as part of growing old."

The explosive end of the Capital Centre brought tears to the eyes of Linda Awramik and some of her co-workers at Washington Sports & Entertainment, owner of the arena and a partner with the Baltimore-based Cordish Co. in redeveloping the 70-acre site.

"A lot of us started out as hostesses," Awramik said, choking with emotion. She wiped her tears as her colleagues held each other and sang "Auld Lang Syne." "A lot of good memories," she said.

The Washington Capitals played their last hockey game at the U.S. Airways Arena on Nov. 26, 1997, losing a close one to the Montreal Canadiens. They moved their games to the new, $200 million MCI Center in downtown Washington a week later.

The basketball Wizards left the arena a few days after the Caps, ending 20 seasons in Landover. They, too, lost the last game, falling 88-83 to the defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls.

There was no weeping that night as the team departed.

"Tear it down, tear it down," Wizard forward Tracy Murray said. "There's been nothing but injuries for us here, nothing but bad luck. Ever since I've been here, it's like somebody put a hex on this place. Just tear it down."

No matter. For many area residents, the Capital Centre was always a bright spot -- a source of entertainment, a place to encounter a larger world, and a wellspring of shared family memories.

"When I had kids growing up, we would see Monster Trucks here, and then concerts. All the top acts came here. I had kids graduate from here," said Butch Dory, 49, of Columbia. "And the community accepted it. ... I'm a product of the '70s. But there was no racial barriers here. Everybody got along, black and white. It was a great place to meet people."

Anthony Eric Murrill, 35, came to know the Capital Centre as a "rollie" -- a volunteer who helped roll musical equipment into place for rap and go-go musical acts who came to perform. An aspiring musician himself, Murrill figured that "to be about the business, you have to be around the business."

He worked backstage with performers such as Prince, Janet Jackson, Earth, Wind & Fire, William Ju Ju House and Sugar Bear, and George Clinton, of Parliament-Funkadelic.

Today, Murrill is a child advocate and a motivational speaker. But he saw a lot of partying backstage among groupies and performers.

"I'll be honest with you," he said. "A lot of us lost our virginity here, ... a lot of people have been blessed."

Even with all the crowds and the dancing on the arena floor, though, and the potential for fights, he said proudly, "No one recorded a death."

The old arena, built at a cost of $18 million, was a state-of-the-art venue for the Washington Bullets when they opened the place Dec. 2, 1973. It featured luxury skyboxes, computerized ticketing and a big "Telscreen" that showed instant replays.

But by the 1990s the place was considered obsolete and unwanted by the NBA and NHL teams. It remained open until 2000.

Original plans for redevelopment of the site called for the arena floor and 5,000 seats to be preserved as a centerpiece, and for recreational ice skating, basketball and rollerblading.

Work was to have begun in 1998, with completion in 12 months at a cost of $150 million. But there were repeated delays.

In the end, the attempt to preserve something of the old arena in the new retail center was dropped as too costly and problematic. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held in October.

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