NEW ORLEANS — When the winds of Hurricane Katrina were ripping their way through New Orleans, damaging the roof and exterior of the Superdome among other structures, Doug Thornton wasn’t thinking about what the iconic building would look like more than six years down the road.
“I remember the day that I was told by the architect that it could be put back together,” Thornton said. “It was Sept. 30, 2005. It was only 28 days post Katrina. It was hard for me to imagine what it would look like. Initially you’re just thinking about repairing the building.”
Now, less than seven years later, the Superdome is up for two awards – the Excellence in Live Design award given by Live Design magazine and the Sports Facility of the Year award given by the Sports Business Journal.
And it has been quite the year for the facility, once seen as a refuge of last resort all around the world. Since January 2011, the Superdome has gone through extensive renovations that had to be finished by early July, when Essence Fest was held in it.
It hosted 10 home Saints games, Tulane home games and the Bayou Classic along with the New Orleans Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and the BCS championship game. The Saint hosted a home playoff game and the Final Four was held there in early April.
Add to that the naming rights being sold to Mercedes-Benz and the addition of the intricate and ever-changing LED light display and it’s easy to see why it was nominated for both.
The lights, though, are the most visible part of the $336 million put into the structure since Katrina, especially right now when it’s lit up in an array of colors on a nightly basis.
The permanent lighting was an idea of Thornton’s, one born when the facility hosted the 2002 Super Bowl, the first one following 9/11. It was patriotic, the colors red, white and blue emblazoned on the siding.
“It was so powerful and made such a statement,” said Thornton, senior vice president at SMG, the company that runs the Superdome, New Orleans Arena and Champions Square among other local venues. “I always felt that we could illuminate the Dome and change the look of it at night, change the skyline. That stuck with me. I’ve always been intrigued by that.”
Using local firm The Solomon Group, the Superdome went about an optic transformation that was completed in October. Nearly 290 specially-designed fixtures help illuminate four “quadrants” of the Superdome. Additionally, projectors can show animated images.
“That we could have some small part in that rebuilding effort and rebranding of it, it’s pretty incredible at the age of our company to have such a project to look to,” said Gary Solomon Jr., president of the nearly four-year-old design company. “It has given us an ability to really be proud every time we look at it.”
One of the advantages to Solomon’s system is the low amount of power used to constantly light the Dome at night.
“I know what I spend on my bill with Entergy every month in my home,” Solomon said. “It’s about what the Superdome spends on the lighting. That’s what’s kind of amazing to me – here at my little house, I’m spending as much as it takes to light this huge façade.”
He added, “It does outside the dome justice to what they’ve done inside the Dome. Inside it, it’s totally rebranded. It’s beautiful and it’s world class. For being a 35-year-old stadium, it’s brand new and world class.”
The Superdome is now vying for Live Design award because of the state-of-the-art lighting. It can win, however, only by fan votes. The citation can be found at Live Design’s magazine website, which also where people can vote through the April 27 deadline.
As for Thornton, the Dome is a second home. But he still thinks about where the facility was in those days and months after Katrina and about something former NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told him.
“He said it can’t be the same old Saints, the same old Dome,” Thornton said. “You have to do something different and now is your opportunity. That was a challenge in many ways and he was right. I look back on that statement – it was so inspirational and motivating.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would have the Dome, the Arena, Champions Square in the shape that is in today. I just never really imagined that. It was so hard in those after Katrina to think about four, five, six years down the road.”
And now the Superdome is nominated for two awards, something Thornton and Solomon are both proud to be parts of. Thornton will find out on May 23 whether the building won Facility of the Year in a banquet in New York City.
“It means that people recognize the effort we’ve put into this place,” Thornton said. “It means that they’re recognizing the excellence we stand for and the standards that we stand for. It means that they recognize the city of New Orleans has been able to fully recover. It’s great to be nominated for an award like this because it shows you that people are paying attention.”