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Dwarfing the buildings around it, the Garrett Coliseum is the undisputed centerpiece of the 118-acre Alabama Agricultural Center complex. It is also one of the state’s icons of mid-twentieth-century modernism. Conceived as a venue for agricultural fairs and other activities related to the state’s burgeoning livestock industry, the Coliseum was also envisioned as a locale for sports competitions, concerts, and other public events. The arena’s innovative design was nationally recognized at the time, garnering awards for both its architects and its engineers.
Shortly after the end of World War II, the Alabama Legislature appropriated $500,000 for the construction of a livestock coliseum. Governor Chauncey Sparks appointed a five-member committee to recommend an appropriate location for Alabama’s new “cow coliseum.” The committee, consisting of newly elected State Senator W. W. Garrett, State Agriculture Commissioner Joe Poole, and legislators from Montgomery, Birmingham, and Decatur, selected the capital city of Montgomery in September 1946. Although Birmingham, the state’s largest city, had vied for the prize, Montgomery won out because of its location in Alabama’s premier agricultural region—the rich Black Belt, so named for its dark, prairie-like soil. Traditionally devoted to cotton production, the Black Belt had transitioned to cattle beginning in the early twentieth century. By the late 1940s, Montgomery was recognized nationally as a livestock center and saw more cattle sold than any other city south of Louisville, Kentucky, or east of Fort Worth, Texas. Soon after Montgomery’s selection, the State began acquiring land for the project in an open area on what was then the semi-rural northeastern outskirts of the city.
Groundbreaking for the Alabama Agriculture Coliseum took place on August 31, 1948, but the structure was not finished for five years, at a cost of three million dollars. The local firm of Sherlock, Smith and Adams developed the architectural plans after designer Richard Adams visited a dozen enclosed arenas across the country in the company of H.H. Houk of the State Building Commission’s Technical Staff and Tom Reid, Director of the Alabama Agricultural Center. As Adams later explained, the plans for Garrett Coliseum profited from an analysis of the design mistakes of these structures. Square and rectangular coliseums contained underutilized space; columnar roof supports blocked the view from some of the seats. Careful consideration was also given to the acoustics and lighting of such a massive, enclosed space.
As the design process commenced, one of the firm’s employees, Elizabeth Nicrosi, suggested a circular structure beneath a vast overarching roof. The circular scheme would concentrate rising tiers of seats on the long sides of the oblong-shaped performance arena and offer spectators an uninterrupted view from virtually anywhere inside the Coliseum. With 8,500 permanent seats and space for an additional 4,000 temporary seats, principal architects Richard Adams and Chris Sherlock developed plans for what was then among the largest indoor arenas in the country.
Rising a hundred feet from the arena floor to the apex of its curved concrete roof, the Coliseum measures 340 feet in diameter—more than the length of a football field—with a center arena measuring 130 by 260 feet. Reporting on construction progress, local journalists awkwardly described the building as “egg-shaped” or resembling a “concrete turtle.” Each soaring rib carrying the Coliseum’s roof rests on a pair of enormous, buttress-like braces of reinforced concrete, somewhat resembling an inverted, lopsided letter “V.” The result is a structural system obviating the need for both interior columnar support and load-bearing walls. Expansion joints in the ribs allow the roof structure to expand and contract without damage to either the roof or the enclosing curtain walls.
A giant, arching scaffold built of half a million board feet of lumber was used in the construction process. Mounted on rails to be portable, the scaffold carried the forms used to pour the eleven reinforced concrete ribs and the sections or bays of roofing in between. As each bay was completed, the scaffolding was moved slowly forward to work on the next set of ribs and bays until all ten sections of the roof were poured. Consulting engineers for this portion of the project was the New York firm of Ammann and Whitney, nationally recognized for their expertise in concrete construction. In total, more than two thousand tons of steel and fifteen hundred cubic yards of concrete went into the construction of Garrett Coliseum.
The Coliseum has three concourses, each about twenty feet wide, encircling the arena and its seating area. Offices and rooms illuminated by large plate glass windows line the outer edge of the concourses. A series of zigzag ramps on each high side of the exterior provides access to the concourses at multiple levels. Beneath these ramps are ground-level main entrances, augmented by secondary entrances including those for ticketed events through an admissions wing jutting from the eastern elevation of the building.
Above the dirt-floored interior arena soars a two-acre concrete ceiling that was coated with an inch of asbestos insulation to give it the appearance of a stuccoed concrete finish. Thirty-five tiers of long concrete steps rise seventy-five feet above the arena floor, with individual theater-style seats on either side. Over ninety percent of these seats are on the high sides of the Coliseum with very few seats on the two short ends. A portable wooden floor can be put in place over the arena’s dirt floor when needed for dances or other events.
Creating an adequate sound system for the arena proved challenging. Colonel C. E. McBrayer, an officer stationed at nearby Maxwell Air Force Base, donated his time and expertise in electronics to the project. McBrayer consulted with acoustics experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and engineers at Altec-Lansing before developing a revolutionary design for the Coliseum’s sound system. The chief sound engineer for RCA-Victor, the company that installed the system, predicted it would be a prototype for sound systems in comparable spaces. To facilitate maintenance and repair of the lighting system, which consists of 208 individual lights, engineers installed an oval steel catwalk that hangs from the ceiling and is accessed by a steel stairway.
Temperature control in Garrett Coliseum was also carefully planned. Before the Coliseum was air conditioned in 1969, the rising humidity in the large area contained under the roof caused it to “rain” unless seven large ventilators turned on automatically when the dew point inside the Coliseum reached a certain density. An additional seven fans, though not powered by electricity, also helped cool the building. Nine furnaces kept it warm in cold weather.
After its completion, Garrett Coliseum gained regional and some national attention. In 1953, the Gulf States Regional Council of the American Institute of Architects awarded Sherlock, Smith and Adams an honor award for the Coliseum’s design. And in 1949, the American Concrete Reinforcing Steel Institute gave an award to engineering firm Ammann and Whitney for its “outstanding contribution to the advancement of concrete design” as evidenced by the Coliseum and other notable projects. A few years later, the same engineering firm would work with Eero Saarinen to construct the famous TWA Terminal at what became John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.
In 1963, the Alabama Agricultural Coliseum was renamed Garrett Coliseum to honor the chair of the committee that launched its construction. Though presently in need of reconditioning, the Coliseum is structurally sound and still serves its original purpose.
“Coliseum, Montgomery County.” Vertical Files Collection, SG6899, Folder 19. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, AL.
“Program for Coliseum Opening and Dedication.” Alabama Agricultural Center Board Administrative Files, 1946-2000, SG35008. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, AL.
“History.” Garrett Coliseum. Accessed April 1, 2017. http://www.thegarrettcoliseum.com.
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