A routine inspection 90 minutes before the gates opened at JFK Stadium in July of 1989 revealed fire-code violations and safety hazards, confirming a report that had informed the city about the condition of the 63-year-old stadium a year earlier. was warned. South Philadelphia.
But 20,000 Grateful Dead fans were already waiting outside. So the officers—fearful of instigating a riot like they faced during a Rolling Stones concert a few years ago—let the show go.
The Dead jammed for three hours, played 19 songs, and the gates of JFK Stadium never opened again. Mayor Wilson Goode closed the stadium six days later, finally announcing that it would be torn down because repairs were too expensive.
Goliath, Horseshoe Stadium could have more than 100,000 fans and hosted everything from Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney’s 1926 heavyweight title fight to 1985’s Live Aid. And soon it will be met with a wrecking ball.
It didn’t take long to determine what could be built on the 55-acre site as Flyers owner Ed Snyder was already in the early stages of planning a new home for his team to share with the 76ers. More than seven years elapsed between Jerry Garcia’s descent from the stage and the opening of the CoreStates Center – formerly called Spectrum II and now known as the Wells Fargo Center – on the site of JFK Stadium.
Planning, negotiation and construction proceeded with the pace of a Grateful Dead concert as the process never ended. There were disagreements between the Flyers and the Sixers, New Jersey’s attempts to build an arena and lure South Philly teams, and years of stop-and-go planning. In August 1996, it finally opened.
And that night’s path began with a Grateful Dead concert in a historic stadium that was falling apart. It’s a path worth revisiting as the Sixers earlier this month announced plans to leave that area for a new home on Market Street in 2031.
The Sesquicentennial – America’s 150th birthday – is largely remembered as a flop as low turnout for exhibitions such as the World’s Fair at Fairmount Park caused millions of dollars in festivities to lose.
But the event spawned JFK Stadium—initially called Sesquicentennial Stadium—and the largest sporting event in the city’s history, when 120,000 people watched Tunney Top Dempsey for the heavyweight title in September 1926.
The stadium resembled the LA Coliseum and was designed by the same architect behind the Strawbridge building on Eighth and Market Streets. JFK hosted Army-Navy games for decades, the Eagles for some seasons, and mega-rock concerts every summer.
JFK Stadium was an important part of the city, but eventually began to collapse due to lack of maintenance. A report commissioned by the city in 1988 stated that the repairs would cost $4.5 million. But none of that was accomplished when the Grateful Dead came to the city.
“It was terrible. The place was hard to manage,” said Jay Snyder, whose company Spectaguard provided security for JFK concerts in the 1980s. “We had wars at that place. I remember That with the Rolling Stones, it was sold out, and tickets just kept selling out. There were thousands of people outside trying to get in and luckily we had a good relationship with the Philadelphia Mounted Police and they were doing their best and what they were doing. could.
“But they were running those gates, and the old gates were iron bars that had gone up. They were throwing bottles at them and they exploded. We had a boy who had lost his sight from the glass in his eye. it was bad. They would break the gates and break them, and we would try to close them again. The place was ready to come down. It was not renovated.”
Spectrum opened in 1967, and “America’s Showplace” began to show its age in the late 1980s. New buildings in Detroit and Orlando redefined what areas could be and the rising cost of players’ salaries created the need for more revenue streams such as luxury boxes.
So Snyder – even before the city closed JFK Stadium – knew he needed a new building.
“Like the Spectrum, a lot of the buildings were built as the NBA and NHL expanded in the 1960s and early 1970s,” said Snyder’s son, Jay, who was then the Flyers’ president. “But after 25, 30 years, everything changed dramatically. Revenue, corporate boxes, food service, all the advanced amenities you can give to fans. Just to be financially healthy, it has become a necessity, not a luxury. Went.”
The Flyers wanted to keep the Sixers as tenants in the new arena, but owner Harold Katz – who said he had the “worst lease in the NBA” – had already talked about building an arena on the Camden waterfront from New Jersey. Was doing. And soon, Jersey started talking with the Flyers, too. Perhaps both teams will move from South Philly to South Jersey.
Jersey’s offering was great—much better financially than manufacturing in South Philly, Jay Snyder said—but ultimately, the Flyers decided to stay home. He appealed to Katz, knowing that he needed 76 people as tenants and did not want to compete with the rival building.
“It’s probably not better, they were better,” Jay Snyder said. “The arena was built almost 100 percent with private money. As I remember, there was $12-15 million by the state in infrastructure and maybe a tiny low-interest loan. But basically, we didn’t give anything to the city or the state. not kept for
“It was a really sweet deal, but Dad was loyal. Even though we had a lot of Flyers fans and Spectrum fans who came from New Jersey and Delaware to all the other shows, he was very kind to Philadelphia about being the Flyers home. were loyal.”
Plans were announced at a City Hall news conference in June 1991 for a 21,000-seat arena that would open in the fall of 1994. He said the new area would also include a parking garage and shopping mall that would connect the spectrum with it. new neighbor. Those plans were eventually shelved, but Jay Snyder and other executives traveled to Disney World and Disneyland, looking for inspiration as they wanted to build more than just an area.
“We had a lot of ideas,” Snyder said. “We had all that space. Thought of a major entertainment hub, LA Universal Studios.”
JFK Stadium was razed in February 1992 with a groundbreaking event scheduled for May. But that day passed without a shovel touching the dirt. The deal that was announced at City Hall failed in October 1993. Katz wanted to drop out because she believed she was being petted and started talking to New Jersey again.
With plans stalled, Ed Rendell – who became mayor in 1992 – told Eagles owner Norman Breman that if Snyder was unable to build his new arena, he could only build a football stadium on JFK’s site. . The Eagles began a feasibility study in December 1993, and Braman said he wanted to build a stadium similar to the one used by the Buffalo Bills.
The Flyers and Sixers were under pressure to come together as their ground in South Philly seemed to be slipping.
Snyder and Katz came to an agreement in February 1994, four months after their deal broke. A month earlier, the Sixers’ move to Camden was dismissed by Governor Christine Todd Whitman, who wasn’t convinced the stadium could entice enough non. – Basketball events from Philadelphia and even consulted with Jon Bon Jovi. For the Sixers, it was back in Philly.
The building – which was originally scheduled to open in eight months – will open three years later. Until then, Katz did not own the Sixers as he sold the team to Comcast, before the team left Spectrum with Snyder being the managing partner.
The arena has not hosted heavyweight title fights like JFK Stadium, but it has hosted two political conventions, WrestleMania, and the NBA and NHL championships. Comcast, which still owns the building, is nearing completion of a year-long renovation it says will make the area “essentially a new facility.” The company this week referred to the 26-year area as the “New Wells Fargo Center.”
But those renovations don’t seem to be enough to keep the Sixers, who plan to head north of Camden to Market Street, rather than east. To do so, they have to demolish some of the old Gallery Mall, which is a slightly less historic venue than JFK Stadium. The new arena is still nine years away, and if their last new arena is an example, getting there can be a long, awkward journey.