NEW ORLEANS – When Gov. John McKeithen stepped to the podium at the Louisiana Superdome dedication ceremony 40 years ago today, you could tell even he was impressed.
Videotape footage of the Aug. 3, 1975 ceremony shows the former governor stopping for a moment to look up towards the massive new building’s roof and take it all in. Then, in his speech, he acknowledged the struggle to get to that point.
“The trail has been long. It has not been easy. We have been beset by many things: opposition – vehement – some from well-intentioned public-spirited persons, other from those who sought political advantage. Some with success, some still seeking success. But that is the way all great things are accomplished everywhere,” McKeithen said.
Opening day followed a decade of planning, four years of construction and financial hurdles with a $163 million price tag – not an easy sell for the governor or state lawmakers at the time. Voters approved the project by a huge margin, however, and the open house on Aug. 3, 1975 welcomed thousands of them to the amazing structure the tax vote helped build.
History books record McKeithen as the driving force behind the domed stadium, along with then-New Orleans Mayor Vic Schiro and visionary businessman Dave Dixon.
“I believe that it will be the most famous and beautiful building in the world when it’s completed,” Dixon said in an interview at the time.
It was Dixon’s vision that first brought an NFL franchise to the city, then convinced state and local leaders to build the home for it – a building which would forever change the city’s skyline. The building itself, an architectural marvel later branded the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a 2011 naming rights deal, was the work of architect Nathaniel “Buster” Curtis and the Curtis and Davis firm, with his partner Arthur Q. Davis.
“The people who conceived this building also reflect what Louisiana Is all about,” said former Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris at the dedication. “They came from Shreveport, Crowley, New Orleans and Columbia. They came from every nook and corner of our great state. They were politicians, business and professional people, union leaders, educators and above all else the working men and women who really made this magnificent structure possible.”
You could hear, see and feel the pride and excitement that people all across Louisiana felt when the Superdome opened to the public and was dedicated on August 3, 1975. The ceremony began with the National Anthem from a New Orleans original – Al Hirt. Among those seated on the dais were McKeithen, Schiro and Dixon, as well as the current Gov. Edwin Edwards, the current Mayor Moon Landrieu (chair of the Superdome Commission); and fellow Commission members Billy Connick and Hank Lauricella.
It didn’t take the Dome long to live up to its promise. It hosted the first NFL game 3 days later, on August 6 (when the Houston Oilers defeated the Saints), and then the first of many Bayou Classic and Sugar Bowl matchups later that year. Not to mention five Final Fours and seven Super Bowls.
There were the concerts – The Rolling Stones played there in 1981 and their crowd of 87,500 fans ranked as a record-holder for decades. Essence Fest has been at home in the Dome since 1995.
It’s been a home for Mardi Gras (the annual Endymion Extravaganza) and the Greatest: Muhammad Ali, who during the September to Remember in 1978 defeated Leon Spinks in a huge, heavyweight boxing matchup.
There have also been political heavyweights, with the Republican National Convention in 1988. The year before, in September 1987, Pope John Paul II visited. That’s also the year we first said “Bless You Boys,” since it also marked the Saints’ first appearance in the playoffs. But of course that was dwarfed by the 2009 Saints season which saw the team make the Super Bowl (after a memorable Dome appearance).
The Superdome has of course also seen dark days, none darker than 10 years ago, when Hurricane Katrina struck and the building became a refuge for some 30,000 people with no place else to go. The scars of the storm were easily visible, outside (with the roof’s outer shell torn and tattered) and inside – physically and emotionally.
And speaking of emotion – who can forget September 25, 2006 when the building reopened after more than $336 million in repairs and renovations. And what a game to remember – from the very beginning and Steve Gleason’s blocked punt, a victory over the Atlanta Falcons, and the feeling that the Dome, its city, its team, and its people, were back.
In a way, that takes us back to August 3, 1975, and the dedication ceremony’s opening prayer by Archbishop Philip Hannan.
“It creates a new era in our community life. It is a milestone in construction and communications. May its use contribute to the cause of unity and brotherhood and as this building incorporates the American genius for construction, may its use enhance the spiritual values that created America. It stands as a symbol. We must give meaning to that symbol.”