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J.S. Dorton Arena
The J.S. Dorton Arena (originally called the State Fair Arena) is one of the most celebrated and iconic structures in North Carolina. Originally designed as a livestock exhibition and judging pavilion—sometimes referred to as the “Cow Palace”—for the North Carolina State Fair, the 7,610-seat arena has also been a venue for music concerts, sporting events, circuses, and university graduation ceremonies. Its saddle-like roof approximates a hyperbolic paraboloid that spans 300 feet by 300 feet without intermediate columns. The arena is a heroic, expressive structure based on an elegant geometry that was intended to symbolize North Carolina’s progressive economic and cultural spirit in the mid-twentieth century.
Fair manager J.S. Dorton planned to modernize the fair, which had started in the 1850s. He worked with Maciej (Matthew) Nowicki, then head of North Carolina State College’s (NC State) Department of Architecture, who completed a series of sketches that provided a broad new vision for the arena and grounds. The arena forms the centerpiece of a sprawling midway that draws nearly a million fairgoers during three weeks each October. The fairgrounds cover approximately 340 acres of land located six miles west of downtown Raleigh and feature a midway with Ferris wheels, roller coasters, and other amusements. Other multipurpose buildings on the site host car and boat shows, flea markets, farm expos, and food festivals year round.
Prior to arriving at NC State, Nowicki had prepared designs for the post–World War II reconstruction of Warsaw in his native Poland. He also participated alongside Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and other internationally renowned architects on the design team for the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Nowicki was awarded the commission to design the new capital in Chandigarh, India, and he completed a series of schematic sketches for the project. In 1950, he died tragically in a plane crash en route from India and would never see Dorton Arena’s completed construction. Le Corbusier replaced Nowicki as the lead designer for Chandigarh and William Henley Deitrick carried out Nowicki’s vision for the arena. Deitrick, after receiving his architectural education at Columbia University and working for Raymond Hood, became one of North Carolina’s most prolific architects. Deitrick and his firm translated Nowicki’s expressive sketches into a concise and beautifully detailed set of construction drawings. Severud-Elstad-Krueger Associates of New York served as the structural engineers. Construction of the arena was completed in 1952.
The arena was one of the most daring structures of its era. Two parabolic concrete arches rise out of the ground, tilted at an acute angle and intersecting approximately 20 feet above ground before rising to a height of approximately 80 feet. The concrete arches extend below grade, where a tunnel encases steel tension cables that span between the arch bases. The roof displays an innovative canopy that seems to float lightly and effortlessly above the grandstands and arena surface below. A grid of 94 wound steel cables stretches across the void between the two arches, forming a suspended tension mesh roof—the first cable suspension in the world. Achieving such a great span was just one of the engineering challenges. Preventing uplift on such a thin membrane was an equally significant concern. The architects and engineers designed one set of cables to drape in a way as to hold the roof up while being pulled by gravity into a parabolic shape. Another series of arching cables laid perpendicularly over the draped cables hold the roof down. Wayne Place, an expert in building structures and professor at NC State’s School of Architecture, explains that the wind-resisting cables had to be “counter-tensioned to avoid flutter.” The result is a compound curved surface that forms a spectacular silhouette and symbolic backdrop for the fairgrounds.
A steel-and-glass curtain wall set below the concrete arches wraps around the entire perimeter of the arena, allowing daylight to wash the interior volume. The facade appears crystalline and thin with an emphasis on thicker vertical mullions. Operable horizontal awning windows provide natural ventilation and give the curtain wall a gill-like texture when open. An intermediate concrete beam sweeps around the facade tracing the rise and fall of the grandstand’s undulating form. Entrances, rather understated for such a monumental building, are designated for people and livestock. Thin, flat-roofed concrete canopies (just 9 feet, 2 inches above ground) cantilever over a series of metal doors at each end of the arena and behind the two arch crossings. The arena makes a singular, powerful, formal and spatial statement, made possible by a simple program: one large volume for livestock exhibition and lobbies beneath the sweeping grandstands.
Nowicki called it the “Paraboleum,” and the building received worldwide acclaim for its striking appearance and radical engineering. It appeared in Architectural Forum, Architect and Building News, and Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. The American Institute of Architects named the arena a 1953 Honor Award winner—the first such award in state history. In a 1956 issue, Architectural Record listed the arena as one of the most significant buildings of the last 100 years. In 1973, only 21 years after its completion, Dorton Arena was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2002, it was named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
The arena is open to the public during scheduled events.
Bishir, Catherine W., and M. Ruth Little. “Deitrick, William Henley (1895-1974).” North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary. North Carolina State University Libraries, 2014. Accessed February 12, 2019. http://ncarchitects.lib.ncsu.edu/.
Black, David R. “Nowicki, Matthew (1910-1950).” North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary. North Carolina State University Libraries, 2014. Accessed February 12, 2019. http://ncarchitects.lib.ncsu.edu/.
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