Jim Tolle, Mile High Stadium stands engineer
Reporter Irv Moss writes about stars from the past
Posted: 08/17/2010 01:00:00 AM MDTBy Irv Moss
The Denver Postdenverpost.com
Jim Tolle, at his home in Broomfield, was the designer of the remarkably movable East Stands at Mile High Stadium that enabled football and baseball to be played there. The stands moved 145 feet on a sheet of water about one-third of an inch deep. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post )The scene at Mile High Stadium on April 11, 1977, was reminiscent of old photographs showing doubting spectators watching as some pioneer tested a new contraption that would fly through the air or move down a street without horses pulling it.
In this case, Jim Tolle, a project engineer and designer, was the pioneer. The company he worked for, DMJM of Denver, had taken on a project at Mile High Stadium that sounded impossible.
Tolle's contraption was a huge structure that would become known as the East Stands. It was 450 feet long, 200 feet wide, 13 stories high and weighed 9 million pounds. The amazing catch was that it would move 145 feet on a sheet of water about one-third of an inch deep.
"I believe there probably were more naysayers than believers in the crowd," said Tolle, now retired. "I never had any doubts myself. Mayor Bill McNichols asked if we had any doubts and I said I was 100 percent sure it would work."
Members of the media were there, some hoping for a chance to poke fun at a shipwreck. City officials crossed their fingers in hopes that this part of a $25 million project to enlarge the stadium's seating capacity would work.
The departure time was 2:37 p.m. Sure enough, when the controls were switched on, the structure began to move. The initial distance was 6 feet to allow an inspection of the apparatus. Later in the afternoon, it was moved another 72 feet and the next morning engineers completed the full 145-foot distance.
"It was designed to move about 2 feet per minute," Tolle said. "We actually had three positions, one for baseball, another for football and a third for soccer. The soccer position never was used."
When in the baseball configuration — as it was April 9, 1993, when 80,227 fans packed Mile High Stadium for the Rockies' inaugural home opener — the outfield distances were 335 feet down the left-field line, 375 feet to left-center and 423 to center field. When in the football configuration, fans in the East Stands were right behind the visiting team's bench with some of the best seats in the house.
How did it work? Tolle explained that there were 163 water bearings spaced out underneath the stands. He said when not in use the bearings would look as if they were deflated tire inner tubes. When water was pumped into the bearings, they would lift the structure off of its foundation. A thin sheet of water formed under the structure and two well-placed hydraulic jacks connected to the bottom of the structure and pulled it 6 feet per connection. Once operational, the complete move took four to six hours.
"We never had a problem with it," Tolle said. "We had to replace the bearings from time to time. I think one year, they moved it in and out 25 times."
When the Broncos and Denver's minor-league baseball team shared the stadium, it was necessary to move the East Stands just a couple of times a year. But when the Denver Gold played during the spring in the United States Football League, the East Stands were in and out almost weekly.
Tolle decided on the water method to float the structure into place after researching other facilities. A stadium in Honolulu had movable stands, but its use of an air system was not dependable. He visited a ship-building site in Oregon and witnessed new ships being moved from the building site to the water on a system similar to what he designed for Mile High Stadium.
Tolle and DMJM were
Tolle involved in the design of all of the expansion projects that transformed little Bears Stadium to 75,000-seat Mile High Stadium. Tolle believes the East Stands being in baseball configuration was a factor in Denver getting a major-league team.
Now with Mile High Stadium gone, Tolle only has pictures to remind him of what once was looked at as a miracle.
"I was very pleased that first day," Tolle recalled. "I went up to the top of the stands as it was moving. I never had any doubts that it would work. It was an engineering feat that received at least three national awards."
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