Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
It became an outdated and leaky facility rather quickly, but it also brought Atlantans and a wave of redevelopment back to the urban core.
In the summer of 1997, Atlanta demolished two major sports venues in the span of a week. The Omni Coliseum came down on July 26. On August 2, Fulton County Stadium followed suit. The old home of the Braves and Falcons wasn't an especially significant piece of architecture, but Atlantans looked at it fondly. It was where Deion “Prime Time” Sanders took the field for the city’s NFL and MLB teams, where Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record, where an era of dominance by the Braves first blossomed, to be continued inside the new Turner Field next door.
Today, Fulton County Stadium is memorialized as a parking lot. A section of its outfield fence still stands as a tribute to Aaron’s 714th home run and what was once the infield diamond is now outlined in dirt-color brick. It’s an odd tribute, perhaps, but a tribute nonetheless. Two miles north, the Omni, the arena that helped revitalize downtown and served as the home of Atlanta's first NBA and NHL teams, came down without leaving a trace.
In 1966, the local developer Tom Cousins had just acquired air rights over a rail yard at the edge of downtown. It was an industrial area at the time with an unsafe reputation, and Cousins had built a parking garage that no one wanted to park in. So to fill up those empty spots he decided to buy a couple of pro sports teams and build a new arena.
Cousins took ownership of the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks and moved them to Atlanta in 1968. While the Hawks spent four years playing at Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum, a new architecture firm worked on designing the team’s future home. In the meantime, Cousins was also awarded an NHL expansion team, the Flames, who ended up christening the arena on October 14, 1972, as workers continued to bolt in seats hours before the puck dropped. The Hawks played their first home game the next day.
If Cousins wanted the Omni Coliseum to make a statement, he certainly got his wish. Tvsdesign went with an imposing, weathered steel facade balanced out by glass-enveloped corners. “The building felt rather light,” says Tom Ventulett (the ‘v’ in the firm's name) who helped create the Omni. “And at night, it glowed.”
Its roof looked like an upside-down egg crate and the multi-colored seating bowl was so unique that an outline of it became the building’s logo. The rectangular site was a tight fit for an arena, which forced Ventulett to get creative. “I finally thought, if you turn the seating bowl access diagonally so that most of the seating was in the corner of the square, it would put higher price seats in there and give the illusion of a much bigger space.”
Ventulett recalls praise and envy from fellow architects around town in the ‘70s. But more importantly, the building was a huge boost for downtown Atlanta, opening up a neglected section of the city for a wave of new development. Some of that, the Georgia World Congress Center, for example, came about thanks to Cousins's lobbying for development that would make a nearby mixed-use complex of his more profitable.
Fans showed up to the Omni in those early years—even for that weird thing where men glide around a sheet of ice with sticks in their hands. “Nobody knew about hockey in Atlanta back then; people would ask where the bases were,” jokes Ventulett.
The Flames sold out their inaugural game and were still averaging over 14,000 fans a night their second season. The team qualified for the playoffs in six of their eight years in Atlanta, but attendance dropped steadily. Eventually the situation got bad enough that in 1976, Flames players agreed to give up 1.5 percent of their own salaries to buy up tickets. The gesture was impressive but the bigger problem was that the Omni wasn't built for what the sports world was becoming.
“It was a great building in which to watch hockey and the atmosphere was second to none in the NHL,” former Flames general manager Cliff Fletcher told NHL.com in 2008, “but it had only 15,000 seats, no standing room and no private boxes.” Cousins had already sold his basketball team to Ted Turner in 1977. In 1980, he sold the Flames for a then-NHL-record price of $16 million. New ownership moved the team to Calgary that summer.
Many of the same problems that plagued Atlanta's hockey team hurt the Hawks. Despite similarly poor attendance, they stayed and watched the Omni quickly fall apart. For visiting opponents, even the most basic amenity couldn't be taken for granted. "We need a locker room that actually has a shower in the locker room, not down the hall," Bulls guard Steve Kerr said of the Omni in 1997 to the Chicago Tribune.
On the outside, its weathered steel facade, commonly referred to as Cor-Ten, was a stylish choice but ultimately a poor one. "We thought it fit the very industrial nature of that site," Ventulett tells CityLab. Weathering steel is supposed to allow the material to develop a resistance to corrosion over time, functioning as a natural protective layer. But that's not what happened in hot and humid Atlanta. The steel rusted through and water leaks plagued the building even though the roof pods were eventually covered with a rubberized material. "If I were doing it again I wouldn’t use Cor-Ten," says the architect.
By the mid-'90s, Turner was ready to bring hockey back to Atlanta. The NHL, under the guarantee that a new arena would be built by 1999, granted him an expansion franchise in June of 1997. A month later, the Omni came down. Unable to bear watching his building get blown up, Ventulett and his wife left town that weekend. Two years later, he made the mistake of going to the new Philips Arena to see the NHL's return to the city: "My son had season tickets for the Thrashers. We went to the franchise’s first game and, of course, they showed the implosion on the scoreboard."
Philips Arena now sits where the Omni once did. And while the newer arena doesn't suffer from a corroding steel facade or inadequate fan luxuries, it's managed to prove that there's a whole lot more to solving bad attendance and revenue issues in Atlanta than just building a better arena.
The Thrashers lasted in Atlanta about as long as the Flames before leaving for Canada just like their predecessors. And despite having one of the more interesting teams in the NBA of late, the Hawks lost $23.9 million last season. (A deal is now in place to sell the team for $850 million, a price that includes the team's debt.) All these years later, the team still struggles to please a sprawled out and diverse region that likes basketball but isn't that passionate about the home team.
Ventulett may regret using Cor-Ten, but he's proud of what his firm gave to Atlanta. "The greatest thing about it was that it was a big, pivotal turning point for downtown," he says. "The convention center, the football stadium, the hotels, CNN Center; all of that has been built since then, all because of that arena."
The man who designed the Omni pauses when asked what he thinks of its replacement, carefully choosing his answer. "The neat thing about the Omni is that it was simple. You could find your way around. It was clean and colorful. Philips seems to be a real success," he adds, "but somehow it doesn’t have the life, I don’t know, it just doesn’t have 'it.'"
Top image of the Omni courtesy Acroterion/Wikimedia Commons