The arena is eliptical in shape with a saddle-shaped roof supported by two intersecting parabolic arches. Enclosing walls are vertical bands of rectangular windows set between concrete columns. In plan the building measures approximately 300 feet each direction on the exterior; the interior floor measures 221 feet long by 127 feet wide. In addition to the main floor there are north and south lobbiesas well as two lower level concourses that in total provide about 25,000 square feet of exhibition space. Seating capacity ranges from 5,110, in 4,750 fixed seats and 360 box seats, to 7,600 with portable seats and a stage installed. Support spaces include concessions, restrooms, locker rooms and shower areas.
Parabolic arches, floor and tiers below fixed seating are concrete. The cable-suspended roof is corrugated metal decking covered with a bonded roofing membrane. Perimeter columns are concrete-encased steel. Windows are steel framed with tinted, glare-reducing glass.
The J.S. Dorton Arena is located on the North Carolina State Fairgrounds. The site is flat and the immediate context is limited landscaped areas to the north and south of the building with parking lots beyond. To the east and west are low-rise exhibition buildings which form a relatively neutral visual background to the dramatic form of the arena. Further to the north is a dirt racetrack.
An early surface-stressed structure, the arena has a roof suspended on a network of cables strung between two parabolic arches. The arches, which lean away from each other and reach a height of 90 feet, intersect approximately 26 feet above the ground before going below the surface into concrete footings. The footings at the ends of each arch are tied together by steel cables running through a concrete tunnels on the east and west sides. The design approach was technically quite innovative for its time.
The arena was originally intended to be just a livestock pavilion. By completion, however, it was given expanded use reflecting the ongoing need for flexibility in the design of indoor venues.
The tent-like, saddle-shaped roof is considered the first use of doubly-curved suspension form in architecture. In this case, where the tiered seating of the arena and the line of the roof rise in parallel, the building's shape also perfectly compliments the needs of the functions taking place inside.
By the early 1950s there was increased interest in the structural possibilities and resulting forms of tension structures. Dorton Arena represents a breakthrough in the design of such buildings and was the largest catenary, cable-supported roof constructed in the United States since the Chicago World's Fair of 1933. While Matthew Nowicki was killed shortly after designing the arena, other architects - notably Eero Saarinen also working with Severud's engineering firm on the Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale University - were influenced by the forward-thinking design.
The arena continues to well fulfill its original function. When new the building integrated structure into a dramatic architectural design that set a precedent for the development of later buildings with unique tension-structure designs.
"Parabolic pavilion." Architectural Forum 97 (October 1952) p. 134-9, 162.
Wood, E. "Radical settles down in Raleigh, N.C. AIA Journal 69 (September 1980) p. 54-81.