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Akron Rubber Bowl Comes Tumbling Down

Wrecking crews began dismantling the Akron Rubber Bowl yesterday. The 35,000 seat stadium, long owned by the University of Akron, has not been used in a decade.  City officials decided the decrepit structure was too much of a safety hazard to keep it standing. It’s leaving some memories and some recyclable parts.

When the Akron Rubber Bowl was under construction during the Great Depression it was mostly a project to get men working again in the rubber capital of the world. The stadium was dug into the side of a hill off of George Washington Blvd. by WPA workers as a New Deal Project. Built within five feet of the All American Soap Box Derby track, the Rubber Bowl opened in 1940 and provided Akronites a venue for 68 years.   

Crews will take down the western wall first, mindful of the Derby Downs track just 5 feet away. [Mark Urycki / ideastream]

It was where the Cleveland Browns played their first game – their only exhibition game of 1946. The team would play another 18 there over the years.

This week a large backhoe began clawing away at the lower level seats of the west end. 

“Coming here with my dad to football games on Friday nights,” Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan reminisced at the site. “He traveled a lot during the week so he looked forward to coming to a football game on Friday night. Packing his 2 kids in the car – he had 4 -- but he took me and my brother here. He came with a bunch of friends… But when we came here it was special because it was so big. And it was on the other side of town for us. It was special. I got to spend time with my dad.”  

The University of Akron Zips were its main tenant but the Rubber Bowl hosted over 1500 high school games. The city-series championship game was held there every Thanksgiving.

When the university took ownership of the stadium in 1971 they began holding rock concerts there, starting in 1972 with the Rolling Stones. Stevie Wonder was the warm-up act. Members of the Jefferson Airplane were arrested there that year for a spat with the Akron Police. And in August 1983 Simon and Garfunkel brought national attention when they began their reunion tour at the Rubber Bowl.

Simon and Garfunkel during a sound check at the Rubber Bowl in August 1983. Note scoreboard showing through the scrim. [Mark Urycki / ideastream]

Chicago, Metallica, Yes, Bon Jovi - plenty of Rock Hall Inductees played the cozy, open air stadium. Bob Dylan was on tour with Tom Petty and Grateful Dead. Reportedly, the first time on that tour that he sang with the Grateful Dead was at the Rubber Bowl in 1986.

By 2007 university officials decided they wanted a stadium on campus and gave up on the Rubber Bowl. Five years ago they sold it to a Canton group, Team 1, which was hoping to attract a minor league football team or build a concert venue. But those plans all fell through. 

Mayor Horrigan says today there are no specific plans on what could go on the site overlooking the Akron Municipal Airport.   

“We have an airport group as a planning strategy group to try to come up with some ideas of what comes back out here,” said Horrigan. “It’s definitely an economic development tool with the number of acres out here. There’s a lot of different ideas. It’s just getting one to fruition and taking it forward from there.”

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan says the eastern stands behind him will remain longest to ensure a stable hillside. [Mark Urycki / ideasream]

The Eslich Wrecking Company of Louisville has been tearing down buildings for 60 years. John Eslich was surprised to find local people have some attachment to the Rubber Bowl.

“And that’s powerful. It’s a very powerful thing, memories. People want to hold on to memories and it’s hard for people to see things like this go because of the memories,” Eslich said. “It feels like part of them is dying you know?”  

Eslich suggested selling off parts of the artificial turf but the mayor is reluctant to spend city time on that. 

“I think it would be a nice way to allow the public a piece of the historic Rubber Bowl but also maybe whatever funds it generates could go to a local cause,” Eslich suggested. “The city, trust me, they’re very well aware of it. They’ll make the determination.”

The Rubber Bowl sits in a notable place within sight of the Akron Fulton Municipal Airport, the former Goodyear airdock, and Derby Downs. [Mark Urycki / ideastream]

The 78 year old rebar will be sent to Timken Steel in Canton to be recycled. John Eslich and his father Richard say the concrete will also be reused for projects.

“They use it for roadbeds,” said John, “parking lots, they backfill for footers. Yeah, that recycle plant will put it back to service for the city.”

“The Rubber Bowl is not leaving Akron,” chuckled Richard. “It’ll stay right in Akron.”

Eslich has until October to finish the job but they’ll have to work around the Soap Box Derby races going on all summer at Derby Downs.  

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