A routine inspection 90 minutes before the gates opened at JFK Stadium in July of 1989 revealed a large number of fire law violations and safety hazards, confirming a report that warned the city a year earlier about the condition of the 63-year-old stadium in South Philadelphia.
But there were already 20,000 Grateful Dead fans waiting outside. So, officials – who fear riots like the one they faced a few years ago during a Rolling Stones party – let the show go on.
The Dead froze for three hours, 19 songs played, and the doors to JFK Stadium never opened again. Mayor Wilson Judd closed the stadium after six days, and eventually announced that it would be demolished because the repairs were too costly.
Horseshoe Goliath Stadium can seat over 100,000 fans and has hosted everything from the 1926 Jack Dempsey and Jane Toni heavyweight fight to the 1985 Live Aid. Soon it will meet a wrecking ball.
It didn’t take long to decide what could be built on the 55-acre site as Flyers owner Ed Snider was in the early stages of planning a new home for his team to share with the 76ers. More than seven years passed between Jerry Garcia walking off the stage and the opening of the CoreStates Center—first called Spectrum II and now the Wells Fargo Center—on the site of JFK Stadium.
Planning, negotiations, and construction moved with the pace of the Grateful Dead party as the process never seemed to end. There were disagreements between the Flyers and Sixers, a New Jersey attempt to build a track and attract teams from South Philly, and years of stop-and-go planning. In August 1996, it was finally opened.
And the road to that night began with a Grateful Dead concert in a historic stadium that was crumbling. It’s a track worth revisiting as The Sixers announced plans earlier this month to leave that arena in 2031 for a new home on Market Street.
The fiftieth anniversary – America’s 150th birthday – is largely remembered as a fiasco as the celebration lost millions of dollars to the low turnout of the fair-like World Fair in Fairmont Park.
But the event gave birth to JFK Stadium – initially called Sesquicentennial Stadium – and the largest sporting event to attend in the city’s history when 120,000 people watched Tony top Dempsey in September 1926 for the heavyweight title.
The stadium is similar to the LA Coliseum and was designed by the same architect behind the Strawbridge Building on Eighth and Marquette Streets. JFK has hosted Army and Navy games for decades, the Eagles for a few seasons, and huge rock concerts every summer.
JFK Stadium was an essential part of the city but eventually started to collapse due to lack of maintenance. A report commissioned by the city in 1988 said the repairs would cost $4.5 million. But none of it was completed when The Grateful Dead came to town.
“It was terrible. This place was hard to run,” said Jay Snyder, whose company Spectaguard provided security for JFK concerts in the ’80s. We had wars at that place. I remember with the Rolling Stones, it was sold out, and tickets kept selling. There were like thousands. So many people outside trying to get in and fortunately we had good relations with the Philadelphia Mounted Police and they were doing their best and everything they could.
But they were rushing to those gates, and the old gates were iron bars going up. They were throwing bottles at them and they exploded. We had a guy who lost his sight from the glass in his eye. was bad. They rushed to the gates and smashed them, and we were trying to close them again. That place was ready to go. It has not been renewed.”
The Spectrum opened in 1967, and “America’s Showplace” began appearing in the late 1980s. New buildings in Detroit and Orlando have redefined what arenas could be, and rising player payroll costs have created the need for more revenue streams like luxury chests.
So Snyder realized – even before the city shut down JFK Stadium – that he needed a new building.
“Like Spectrum, a lot of buildings were built as the NBA and NHL expanded in the 1960s and early 1970s,” said Snider’s son, Jay, who was then the Flyers president. “But 25, 30 years later, everything has changed dramatically. Revenue, corporate funds, food service, all the upgraded amenities you can offer fans. Just to keep up with the financial situation, it has become a necessity rather than a luxury.”
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” — was already talking to New Jersey about building a plaza on the Camden Waterfront. Soon, Jersey started talking to the Flyers, too. Perhaps the two teams will move together from South Philly to South Jersey.
Jay Snyder said the Jersey show was great – financially much better than the build in South Philly – but in the end, Flyers decided to stay home. They appealed to the Cates, knowing they needed the 76ers as tenants and didn’t want to compete with a rival building.
“Maybe it wasn’t better, they were better,” Jay Snyder said. “The plaza was actually built 100 percent with private money. As I recall, there was between $12 and $15 million by the state in infrastructure and maybe a small, low-interest loan. But basically, we didn’t charge the city or the state for anything.
“It was a really great deal, but my dad was loyal. Although we had a lot of Flyers fans and Spectrum fans who attended all the other events from New Jersey and in Delaware, he was loyal to Philadelphia about being the home of the Flyers.”
Plans were announced at a City Hall press conference in June 1991 to open a 21,000-seat arena in the fall of 1994. They said the new arena would also include a parking garage and a shopping center that would connect the Spectrum. New neighbor. Those plans were eventually scrapped, but Jay Snyder and other executives traveled to Disney World and Disneyland, looking for inspiration because they wanted to build more than just an arena.
“We had a lot of ideas,” Snyder said. “We had all that space. I thought of a major entertainment center, Universal Studios style.”
JFK Stadium was destroyed in February 1992 with the cornerstone being laid in May. But that day passed without the bulldozer touching the dirt. The deal that was announced at City Hall had failed in October 1993. Cutts wanted out because he believed it was being shortened and began speaking back to New Jersey.
With plans on hold, Ed Rendell – who became mayor in 1992 – told Eagles owner Norman Braman that he could build a football field only on the JFK site if Snyder was unable to build his new yard. The Eagles launched a feasibility study in December 1993, and Braman said he wanted to build a stadium like the one used by the Buffalo Bills.
The pressure was on the Flyers and Sixers to band together as their South Philly lands seemed to vanish.
Snyder and Katz, four months after their deal broke down, reached an agreement in February 1994. A month earlier, the Sixers’ move to Camden had been crushed by Governor Kristen Todd Whitman, who wasn’t convinced the stadium could be tempting enough. Basketball events from Philadelphia to consultation with Jon Bon Jovi. For the Sixers, he’s back at Philly.
The building – which was supposed to open in eight months – will open in three years. By that time, Katz no longer owned the Sixers as he sold the team to Comcast before the team left Spectrum with Snider being the managing partner.
The arena has not hosted a heavyweight title fight like JFK Stadium, but it has hosted two political conferences, WrestleMania, and the NBA and NHL Championships. Comcast, which still owns the building, is nearing completion of a years-long renovation and says it will make the plaza “a fundamentally new facility.” The company referred to the 26-year-old arena this week as the “New Wells Fargo Centre”.
But these renovations don’t seem enough to keep the Sixers, who plan to head north to Market Street instead of east to Camden. To do so, they would have to demolish some of the old Gallery Mall, a historic venue just below JFK Stadium. The new arena is still nine years away, and if the last new arena is an example, getting there can be a long and strange journey.