The architect and the structural engineers had wanted to create something daring and visually spectacular when they designed the Civic Center Coliseum in Hartford, Conn. So they included in their plans "a delicate roof that would appear to float high above thousands of spectators," as one of them wrote in Civil Engineering magazine. Late last week independent engineers were examining the rubble that once was the Coliseum's "delicate roof," a roof that appeared to have floated 85 feet straight down, shattering into a million pieces under the weight of a huge layer of snow and ice.
Providentially, no one was injured. Nearly 5,000 spectators had been in the building six hours earlier to see the University of Connecticut basketball team play Massachusetts, but the Coliseum was empty when the $2 million roof collapsed at 4:19 a.m.
The 1,400-ton lattice-type space frame roof had been composed of 4,455 small steel pieces and lightweight gypsum concrete, supported solely by four concrete posts. Three years ago hydraulic jacks raised the 2½ acre lid onto the Coliseum, the centerpiece of a $70 million Civic Center complex designed to revitalize downtown Hartford.
Since the first of the year a series of rain, sleet and snow storms had dumped the equivalent of 4.71 inches of water on the roof. The weight of the ice and snow was approximately 24.54 pounds per square foot, less than the 30 pounds per square foot the roof reportedly had been designed to withstand, according to The Hartford Courant.
The New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association were the Coliseum's prime tenants and they have shifted the rest of their games for this season and next to a 7,449-seat arena in Springfield, Mass., 24 miles away. Whaler crowds had been averaging 9,701 in the 10,507-seat Coliseum, an increase of 12% over last season. For Howard Baldwin, the managing general partner of the Whalers and president of the WHA, the experience was somewhat similar to one he had in 1968, when he was ticket manager of the Philadelphia Flyers: portions of the Spectrum roof blew off, and the team finished the last month of the season in Quebec City, where it operated a farm team.
Baldwin was philosophical, even confident, that from the shambles in Hartford would come a better and bigger Coliseum. He said he hopes the Whalers will be back in their home in 18 months and that seating will be increased to a minimum of 13,000, possibly to more than 15,000. "We'll lose some more money in Springfield, but we expect a lot of our season-ticket holders to stay with us," Baldwin said. "We have a solid partnership [including several Hartford insurance companies], and there's no question this franchise is one of the best. Everyone has been wonderful about the commitment to rebuilding."
And what effect would the collapse have on a possible WHA merger or consolidation with the National Hockey League? "Absolutely none," Baldwin said. "Last summer when we were talking to the NHL we knew we would have to expand our seating and we were planning to do it. New England will be part of anything that happens between the leagues. Nothing will go together if New England isn't a part of it."