Tuesday, January 27, 2009

That's My World Tuesday #15: Dorton Arena

"Dorton Arena - Wide View"
Raleigh, NC - January 2009 (Click to embiggen)

Be a virtual tour guide on That's My World Tuesday

"Dorton Arena - Tight(er) View"
Raleigh, NC - January 2009 (Click to embiggen)

Be a virtual tour guide on That's My World Tuesday

Over the last 20 years Raleigh has seen an expansion of Carter Finley Stadium, completion of the 19,000-seat RBC Center and construction of the new Civic and Convention Center downtown. What was once known as Raleigh Memorial Auditorium has been expanded to roughly three times its original size and named the Progress Energy Center for Performing Arts. Walnut Creek Amphitheater and the Sponsor-of-The-Year Pavilion (I can't keep up with who owns the naming rights anymore) sprang up in 1991 and hosts most of the major concerts that come to town during its season of operations (April to October). So there isn't a shortage of event venues in town.

Back in the day though, that wasn't so much the case. Memorial Auditorium hosted the North Carolina Symphony, Reynolds coliseum was home to NCSU's basketball team and in 1951 the designs for the J.S. Dorton Arena were completed. And that's the part of my world I'm showing you today.

It has been home to The Carolina Cougars of the old ABA (now the NBA's Denver Nuggets) and the Raleigh IceCaps of the ECHL (now the Florida Everblades). It has hosted circuses of all kinds -- including actual circuses Barnum & Bailey, and figurative ones like the Harlem Globetrotters and the forbears of the WWE. Over the years it has been the scene of virtually every kind of entertianment event imaginable and for much of the latter 20th century, this oddly shaped building was the only venue in town. Anyone who grew up here in the 60's or 70's is familiar with the saddle shaped J.S. Dorton Arena at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh. It's been a part of the city's landscape since 1952 when construction was completed and even though it's largely been replaced for big-ticket events by the nearby RBC Center and the shiny new Raleigh Civic and Convention Center downtown, Dorton still books its share of smaller events.

With only just over 5,000 permanent seats the building is dwarfed by the RBC Center, its 19,000 seat neighbor just to the north. But crowds that would be swallowed up by the big arena are right at home in Dorton. And for stage performances, they can truck in temporary floor seating for another 2500 if the need arises. The building is popular with Roller Derby teams since its elliptical shape makes it a natural fit for skating events. Ice shows and hockey games were once common here for the same reason. With the arrival of the NHL however, the far more modern ice-making machinery of the RBC Center took most of the ice-rink based events out of Dorton.

The design for the building was created by the late Matthew Nowicki while head of the Department of Architecture at North Carolina State University. Professor Nowicki was killed in a plane crash in 1951 and never saw the completion of the project. His personal friend William Henry Deitrick of Raleigh was named to the project to see it through the final phases. Anchored by two intersecting parabolic arches and a cable suspension system similar to those use in suspension bridges the roof of the building requires no internal columns for support despite its overall size (the major diameter of the ellipse is 300 feet). The concrete arches intersect 26 feet above ground level and extend into tunnels at the east and west ends of the structure. The suspension cables equalize the weight and stress using 14 2-inch strands connecting each end through a stress tunnel. The metal roof is suspended in this fashion and requires no additional support meaning the building's interior is completely unobstructed from end to end and side to side.

The building opened to the public in 1952 and 20 years later was named a National Historic Monument. It underwent significant renovations in 1979, 1996 and for its 50th anniversary in 2002. I've personally attended more events here than I can count including hockey and basketball games of the aforementioned IceCaps and Cougars and one of the very first "headliner" rock concerts I ever went to.

And for a mere 10% of gross gate receipts or $2000 per day (whichever is greater), you can rent the entire building for your next event. So call up your 7,500 closest friends and party on!

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Carver said...

Interesting post and good photographs. I haven't ever gotten any shots of Dorton Arena that I really liked. You did a good job with these.

Your EG Tour Guide said...

Looks like a fun place to take my favourite 7,500 friends, Mojo. Thanks for the tip!

Louise said...

Nice building from another era. I love the roller derby sign!

Sara G said...

Awesome post and photo's!
Thanks for sharing your part of the world with us!!

Janie said...

Roller derby sounds really cool. Very nice pic and interesting history.
I'll start rounding up friends.

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing that yours is not only a university town but a sports town as well. Nice shots.

mamie said...

Last week I was driving down Hillsborough Street toward the arena and the sunset was behind it and the streetlights in front. I had the greatest urge to pull over and photograph it. What a building--I love how it dresses up the skyline!

Gaelyn said...

A very interesting post, and a marvelous structure. I'm glad it has historic protection. Otherwise, someone would want to knock it down because of the newer, bigger, maybe not better.

Babooshka said...

Always learning. The Harlem Globetrotters were always on the tv in the UK during the holidays. Really comprehensive post.

Thanks for chipping in on my blog re photography. Really interesting perspective.

Guy D said...

Wow what an unusual looking arena, I love to see the inside. Great pics as always.

Go Habs Go

Regina In Pictures

jaw2001 said...

Great photos and a very interesting post. One inaccuracy, The Denver Nuggets were never The Carolina Cougars.
They Were The Denver Rockets, one of the original ABA. franchises and became The Nuggets in the mid seventies.
The Cougars were moved to Missouri and became the Spirits of St. Louis until the ABA folded in 1976 and were one of only two ABA teams to survive until the very end of the league but not join the NBA; the other was the Kentucky Colonels

SandyCarlson said...

I can't begin to imagine the engineering smarts required to thing up a building like this one. Those smarts teamed up with imagination sure do amazing things.

Indrani said...

Interesting post and very informative too. The architecture is amazing in the close up.

Brit' Gal Sarah said...

Very interesting history it has and a wonderful design too.

Brit' Gal Sarah said...

Very interesting history it has and a wonderful design too.

Shadow said...

it's nice to get to know your home town.

magiceye said...

that sure is very interesting! have a bloggers' bash?!!

Mojo said...

@jaw: Quite right. I think my fading memories of the Cougars and the connection to Denver came from the fact that Larry Brown and Doug Moe who coached the last two seasons before the sale and move to St. Louis wound up in Denver coaching the Nuggets. Apparently the new ownership group kept very few of the players and neither of the coaches.

And this would have been about the same time that the Nuggets drafted David Thompson out of NCSU too. I'm guessing that's where the wires got crossed.

Anonymous said...

$2000 sounds like a bargain. And if I had 7,500 friends, I'd be rich indeed.