A roof on Soldier Field may be possible, but cost and tradition make it unlikely

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Built in 1924, Soldier Field is the oldest stadium in the NFL. But when it was remodeled at the beginning of the new Millennium, you could say the builders left a little something off the top.

Since it doesn't have a roof (or enough seats), Soldier Field is out of contention for major sporting events like the Super Bowl. Which is why Michael from Schaumburg asks: could they ever put a roof on Soldier Field?

To get a sense of what's possible in the future, it's helpful to take a look at the recent past.

Author Lee Bey was Mayor Richard M. Daley's "eyes and ears" on Soldier Field's renovation in the early 2000s. While the Bears play in the stadium, it's actually owned by the Chicago Park District, as it has been since it was built in 1924. So it falls on the city to take the lead in any major renovations.

"By the 1990s it began to show its age. I mean the building itself was beginning to crumble," Bey said.

Lee Bey and Mike Lowe stand outside Soldier Field

So conversations began about how to maintain the historic nature of Soldier Field, but make it a modern home for football. Competing proposals, like one to build a new stadium near the White Sox park on the South Side, were shelved in favor of making something new out of Soldier Field.

"You could build a stadium someplace else but then this would've continued to crumble, while a new stadium a few miles south would have thrived," Bey said.

As far as a roof is concerned, Bey said there had been conversations in the 80s and 90s about adding a dome, or lowering the field so more seats could fit below a roof on top of the existing shell.

A view inside Soldier Field before demolition began in 2002

But when it came time to remodel Soldier Field in the early 2000s, Bey said there was never a serious discussion about including anything on top. Fall in Chicago is considered Bears weather, he said, and playing in the elements is part of the tradition of the team.

"You can think of Wilber Marshall and the Rams back in the Super Bowl run, him recovering that fumble and running in the snow, escorted by the Fridge and Otis Wilson into the end zone," Bey said. "These things become part of our folklore, and the idea was to retain that with the new stadium."

The plans for the new addition were drawn up by Boston-based architects Benjamin T. Wood and Carlos Zapata of Wood + Zapata, in partnership with Dirk Lohan, the grandson of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

A sketch shows the original concept of the Soldier Field remodel

Lohan is no stranger to adding something new to something historic. He also worked on the expansions of the Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium.

"From day one, I was interested in a solution that would maintain the historic character of the old stadium, and in order to make that work, you have to study whether the geometry of a modern stadium fits in there," Lohan said.

Squeezing a modern stadium into one originally designed in the early 20th century — and not designed for football at all — was complicated by the fact that there's 80 feet missing in the width.

"We said oh, we can make the the seating a little steeper and move it a little more in," Lohan said.

Architect Dirk Lohan outside Soldier Field

Lohan said another consideration in the design was how quickly it all had to get done: 18 months, from the end of the season in 2002, to opening day 2003. He said they accomplished the rapid pace of construction by moving everyone involved, including architects, engineers and contractors, to trailers in the shadow of the stadium.

"We started demolishing what needed to be demolished the day after the last normal season game," Lohan said. "We had two playing seasons to get it done."

Demolition begins inside Soldier Field in 2002

The finished product was controversial, to say the least. Sure, fans in the seats were closer to the players than in any other stadium at the time. But many architecture critics lambasted its blend of post-modern and neoclassical architecture.

Additionally, the final capacity of 61,500 makes it the third-smallest stadium in the NFL. Lohan said fitting the stadium inside the existing shell limited the number of seats, and the number was further reduced by height concerns from the city, and alterations made so soccer could be played there.

Still, like many pieces of architecture the controversy has faded over the years. What hasn't changed is the stadium remains too small to host a Super Bowl. But a roof could help draw some big-ticket events to the stadium.

A view inside the renovated Soldier Field, 2015

What do Bears fans think about the possibility of adding roof? Here's what a few had to say:

"The Bears are known to play in the cold weather, I mean negative degree weather, snow, everything; you can't take that away from Chicago," Chris Bodsidilk said.

"I'll go with a solid maybe because I'd like to enjoy every single game," Katie Ferrari said.

"I think that probably will give us the opportunity to host the Super Bowl one day," Alfonso Perez said.

"Forty-five years, my whole life, there's never been a roof. Bears want to play in the snow, let them play in the snow," Kareem Muhammad said.

Bears fans tailgate outside Soldier Field, 2019

So is it even possible to put a roof on Soldier Field?

"You can always add a building to another if you have the right amount of money," Lohan said.

While it's technically possible, Lohan said it would very expensive because support commons would have to go up outside of the stadium to keep from blocking views of the game. But that of course could block views of the historic shell as well.

Lee Bey suggested lighter materials like fabrics moved by hydraulics could provide an option, but agreed it would likely cost too much for the team or the city to consider it.

"The stadium is asymmetrical, so from the east side is a little lower than the west side, so to build a mechanism that can cover that up... might rival the cost of a stadium to get it done," Bey said.

So it seems a top on Soldier Field is certainly possible but it's not probable, given the cost and all the different entities — veterans groups, the park district, the team and the public — that have to live under one roof.

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