Originally created 04/28/97

Omni farewell: `It's like somebody is taking my house away from me'

ATLANTA - The demolition of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium began a couple of weeks ago. Now, the city that never spends too much time dwelling on its past is about to tear down another sports landmark.

The Omni, a gleaming innovation in architecture when it opened downtown in 1972, will be razed after the NBA playoffs to make room for a new arena with club seats, luxury boxes and plenty of elegance.

Certainly, the rusty-looking Omni, whose roof resembles a waffle iron or an upside-down egg carton, is starting to show its age after 25 years of events ranging from Atlanta Hawks basketball to Elvis Presley concerts.

"I have no particular feeling about it being taken down," said Tom Cousins, the developer who built the 16,000-seat Omni. "It has served its purpose and served it well."

The roof leaks. Flocks of pigeons have found a home inside. The narrow concourses are downright claustrophobic when big crowds pack the building. The Hawks complain about their tiny locker room.

But Rachel Styles will miss the old place. She has worked at the Omni since it opened and served as house manager for 20 years.

"I've probably seen more basketball games than anyone does in a lifetime. I've definitely seen more circuses than anyone will ever see. Then there are the things I thought I would never enjoy, the tractor pulls and things like that," said Styles, whose office wall is covered with pictures that chronicle the Omni's history.

"It's like somebody is taking my house away from me."

The Hawks held a ceremony at their final regular-season game last weekend, but for most Atlantans the Omni's waning days are going largely unnoticed. It evokes none of the pangs of emotion that marked the Atlanta Braves' finale at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium last year.

Maybe it's hard to get attached to a building where perhaps the most memorable game was a loss by the home team.

In 1988, Atlanta was on the verge of upsetting Larry Bird and the powerful Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. In Game 6, with a chance to wrap up the series before a raucous sellout crowd, the Hawks lost 102-100 and then went on to lose Game 7 at Boston Garden.

Of course, the Hawks are only part of the Omni's story. Most nights, there was something else going on: ice shows, concerts, wrestling matches, indoor soccer, tennis, hockey, roller derby and even motocross races.

The Omni played host to the Democratic National Convention in 1988, basketball Final Fours for men and women, and the U.S. Figure Skating Championship in 1980.

Its origins can be traced to 1968, when the Hawks moved from St. Louis to Atlanta with the promise of a new building. After playing on Georgia Tech's campus for four seasons, the Hawks finally moved to the $16 million coliseum, built at no cost to the taxpayers.

Cousins, who owned the Hawks at the time, built the Omni atop a mass of railroad tracks in a desolate area of downtown, hoping the arena and an adjacent office and entertainment center - now known as CNN Center - would rejuvenate the area.

"It was just an open no-man's land," Cousins remembered. "It was a real raunchy part of town, very unsafe and very unsavory."

The honor of opening the new building went to the NHL's Atlanta Flames, who tied the Buffalo Sabres 1-1 on Oct. 14, 1972. The Flames left town in 1980.

Half an hour before that first game, workers hurried to bolt down a large section of seats. Fans stepped through mud on the outside and around loose wiring and unfinished construction on the inside. But the catty-cornered seating arrangement provided an unparalleled view, and the facilities were considered modern and plush for that era.

"It had wonderful sound systems and sound proofing, things that really had not been done in arenas up to that time," Cousins said.

The Omni, which now sits next to a giant exhibition center and the Georgia Dome, helped Atlanta become one of the country's leading convention cities. But it has done little to bring Atlantans back downtown - except on event nights.

The area around the Omni is a haven for homeless people and is plagued by crime, though Cousins said it's a big improvement over what he inherited a quarter-century ago.

Hawks officials are hoping the new arena, to be built on the same site, will help spark a renewed interest in downtown.

For the next two seasons, the NBA team will split its games between Georgia Tech's campus arena and the Georgia Dome. Other events may have to bypass the city until the new arena opens.

"There's going to be no circuses, no family shows," Styles said. "The kids are really going to miss those kind of things."

Maybe after the Omni is gone, people will appreciate its contribution to making Atlanta a major-league city.

"I guess it's inconvenient for the '90s because people want new suites and everything," said Hawks guard Steve Smith said. "But I'm going to be sad to see it go."

Omni moments

Memorable events at the Omni coliseum in Atlanta, which will be torn down after the NBA season to make room for a new arena:

  • Oct. 14, 1972- NHL Atlanta Flames tie the Buffalo Sabres 1-1 in the first event held at the Omni.
  • Oct. 15, 1972- Atlanta Hawks play their first NBA game at the Omni, beating the New York Knicks 109-101.
  • March 28, 1977- Marquette defeats North Carolina 67-59 for the NCAA men's basketball championship in Al McGuire's final game as coach.
  • 1979-80- The Flames play their final season in Atlanta, losing to the New York Rangers in first round of playoffs and then moving to Calgary.
  • May 20, 1988- The Hawks have a chance to eliminate the powerful Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, but Cliff Levingston misses shot in final seconds and Atlanta loses 102-100. Boston goes on to win series in Game 7.
  • July 21, 1988- Michael Dukakis accepts his party's nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention.
  • April 4, 1993- Texas Tech captures the NCAA women's basketball championship with an 84-82 victory over Ohio State. Sheryl Swoopes scores a record 47 points.
  • Jan. 6, 1995- Lenny Wilkens becomes the winningest coach in NBA history, surpassing Red Auerbach, when the Hawks beat the Washington Bullets 112-90.
  • July 20-Aug. 4, 1996- The Omni plays host to volleyball competition during the Atlanta Olympics.
  • April 19, 1997- The Hawks play their final regular-season game at the Omni, routing Philadelphia 136-104.

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