Philip Gould

$185 million in renovations buys you a pretty snazzy facility.

As if hosting the Super Bowl weren't excitement enough, New Orleans will unveil a renovated Superdome to Super Bowl fans this weekend.

The Superdome opened in 1975, not quite in time to host Super Bowl IX like it was scheduled to (that game was played at the outdoor Tulane Stadium instead). It quickly became an architectural icon, recognizable around the country and a source of civic pride. It was even the star of 1978's Superdome, a film so bad it was featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. This will be its seventh Super Bowl.

Its 10-year anniversary warranted a 20-minute retrospective on the Superdome's history and its role in revitalizing New Orleans' downtown. The program ends on an ambitious note, with aspirations of hosting an NBA team (again), an MLB team, tennis tournaments and even the world's largest garage sale.

Things changed in 2005, when the Superdome was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. More than 20,000 locals fled their homes for the Dome. Built to host people for hours at a time, not days, it could offer little besides inadequate facilities and poor sanitation. Katrina also devastated the stadium's physical structure -- the outer layer of its roof peeled off, two small holes emerged, and water damaged the Dome's ground level and electronic equipment.

Image courtesy FEMA/Wikimedia Commons

The state had been contemplating a full renovation since 2002, asking architectural firm Ellerbe Becket (now AECOM) to redesign the 30-year-old stadium so that it could compete with newer and better options around the country. But in the weeks following Katrina, officials wondered whether the Superdome was worth saving at all.

With the financial assistance of FEMA and the NFL, Louisiana did decide to bring the Superdome back, spending $185 million to make it usable again.

With the initial wave of renovations complete, the Superdome's most famous tenant, the NFL's Saints, made their emotional return to the city in 2006 after a year away. During that game, a blocked punt by Steve Gleason took on such significance to the team and city that a statue of the play was erected last summer, seen by Gleason (who's since been diagnosed with ALS) as "a symbol of the commitment and perseverance that this community took on before that game."

Images courtesy of Shannon Sheridan

After 2006, a second round of renovations (costing $320 million) took place, finishing up in 2011. New technological systems and amenities are in place throughout the interior, a big departure from the original 1970s design. The stadium, which hosts about 150 events a year, has an entirely rebuilt lower level with 3,000 additional seats. The width of the concourses around the 50-yard line have tripled in size.

Image courtesy of Philip Gould

Changes are just as noticeable outside. The stadium can now put on a light show along its slick facade, synching up with the sound systems used for outdoor concerts in front of the Dome. Perhaps the biggest change in the way people experience the stadium is through Champions Square, 60,000 square feet of new public space replacing a retail facility that struggled to come back after Katrina.

"New Orleans is built around a series of public squares," says AECOM's Paul Griesemer, "so it was only natural we add on to that history." Champions Square is at its busiest when hosting concerts and pre-game hangouts for fans with or without tickets. It fits in with the NFL’s interest in making game day experiences less of an in-and-out football game and more of a full day social event with crowds casually filing in and out of the stadium.

Image courtesy of Philip Gould

The square has also allowed the city to make the Superdome and everything around it lively when there’s no football game. Champions Square hosts concerts and local food vendors, creating a contemporary public space that fits in with the city’s traditional urban forms better than its retail predecessor. Planners hope to see a residential component added in the future. Says Griesemer: "It’s really a story of great fortitude for everyone who wanted to bring the dome back and make sports the anchor of the city again."

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