Popped but not forgotten


“I died!” My little sister wailed at the end of the exhibit, scanning the long list of names etched on a wall. She was in fourth grade and was upset that the person she followed during the “Titanic” showing at the Exploradome had perished in the epic disaster of 1912.

Growing up, the Exploradome seemed ripped from outer space; a plush, orbiting craft that landed off Oakland Avenue next to the Science Center. The ivory dome was criss-crossed with squares and to some resembled a golf ball, a marshmallow or a lab to isolate disease-stricken people in an outbreak of a deadly virus.

The structure was wholly impractical. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported today that the dome needed $200,000 a year to heat, cool and inflate.

Inside, however, science seemed exciting. To enter, you passed through ear-popping revolving doors, as you became acclimated to the pressure change. Sounds bounced all around the orb and lights along the walls gave the dark structure a dramatic feel. The place felt cold and the air always tasted artificially fresh. The Exploradome was an entirely new planet.

One of the coolest things to do as a kid was to visit the dome. Sometimes, you’d get to dig up bones in a dinosaur exhibit or see bodies in the Body World exhibit.

Although I attended high school across the street from it, the dome and I sort of fell out of contact after I was a little kid. Then, three years ago, I spent my final time inside during my junior year in high school. I went to a Cor Jesu dance that the Exploradome hosted. I remember having a good time with a girl who wasn’t my date.

It’s sad to think that all of those memories housed inside were popped when the Exploradome was deflated yesterday. The Exploradome’s rise and fall, literally, mirrors many other past attractions along Oakland, a small street on the western edge of St. Louis that runs parallel to I-64.

Decades ago, the grassy land that sat south of Oakland held the Forest Park Highlands, a popular amusement park in St. Louis created in 1896 complete with rides, games and an outdoor pool. I know of a park employee who, before the days of safety regulations, was the first to test one of the roller coasters to see if it was okay to ride. He survived.

Along with many other parks of its kind around the nation, the Highlands closed in the 1960s. The park has since inspired the creation of a book.

Another attraction was “The Barn” or the St. Louis Arena, the old stomping grounds of the Blues, the Billikens basketball team and many other sports squads in St. Louis. Cats used to crawl around the stands and eat mice, and the roof leaked during games when it rained. The Checkerdome was torn down in 1999 and the Blues moved to the Kiel Center shortly afterward.

Many restaurants and bars have dotted the street, including the legendary Stan and Biggie’s, a steakhouse started by Stan Musial. The establishment once refused to admit Curt Flood, an African American who played for the Cardinals.

My Alma mater, St. Louis U. High, rapidly changed the neighborhood on the eastern edge of the street, buying up houses and businesses to expand the grounds of the high school and to build athletic fields. Two years ago, SLUH history teacher Tim O’Neil and St. Louis University professor Tom Finan dug up 19th century household remains outside of SLUH’s Danis Fieldhouse.

It’s interesting to note how a street so small can contain so much history in the last century. When you look at the Exploradome’s death and the coming and going of many attractions along Oakland, the dome’s lifespan fits well with the street.

But I miss the place. Just thinking about that old white orb brings back memories and inspires nostalgia that surely the Checkerdome and the Forest Park Highlands does for older readers.

I smile while writing this piece and I’m grateful for all the memories the Exploradome has given me. Goodbye you weird piece of inflated material. I’ll miss you. But I’ll never forget to tell your story and the countless others that Oakland Avenue has given St. Louis.