Sports Architect Heinlein Has Retired

His portfolio includes big-league arenas in Detroit, Chicago, Miami and Toronto

  • by Don Muret
  • Published: May 14, 2018

George Heinlein, most recently of architecture firm HOK, stands at Detroit's Little Caesars Arena, one of his most recent designs. (Courtesy HOK)

George Heinlein, a sports architect responsible for developing premium seat trends including bunker suites and theater boxes, has quietly retired. Heinlein, most recently a senior vice president at HOK, spent over 30 years designing arenas and stadiums before calling it quits at the end of 2017.

Heinlein, 54, says he stepped down to focus on his health and family. Over the past several months, he has enjoyed spending more time with his wife, Jan. They live in Kansas City and have been traveling together, Heinlein said.

After coping with the stress of designing sports facilities over the past four decades, some of which cost more than a billion dollars, Heinlein is happy to step away from the industry.

“I’m exercising more and cooking and eating healthy foods,” he said.

It’s been a stellar run for Heinlein. His final projects included Little Caesars Arena, the new home of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings and NBA’s Pistons, plus major renovations to Philips Arena in Atlanta and Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., and a new practice facility for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.

His portfolio also includes high-profile buildings such as MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Chicago’s United Center; Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena; Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio; Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.; Toronto’s Air Canada Centre; and Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.

Over the years, Heinlein and his longtime partner and KU fraternity brother, Brad Schrock, remained hands-on designers, unlike other architects who turn to business development later in their careers. On his own, Heinlein’s portfolio reflects his long-term relationship with developer Jay Cross. Together, they were on the front end of developing new premium seat concepts now common at many pro and college venues.

“He’s a fabulous architect and I think his retirement is a loss for the industry,” said Cross, president of Related Hudson Yards, a subsidiary of Related Cos. that is developing Hudson Yards on New York City’s West Side, and formerly of the NFL’s New York Jets and NBA’s Miami Heat. “He’s uniquely creative when it comes to understanding sight lines and product type.”

The bunker suite trend gained traction at AmericanAirlines Arena, which opened in 1999 during Cross’ tenure as the Heat’s president of business operations. (Five years earlier, George W. Bush had his own bunker suite at Globe Life Park at the time he owned the Texas Rangers.) In Miami, Heinlein designed “star boxes,” the name describing private hospitality spaces hidden beneath the seating bowl. The 20 star boxes, with views that include Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline, are the only suite product at the NBA arena in a South Florida market saturated with suites.

Loge boxes, groups of four portable seats with counter space and small TV screens, were another premium product Heinlein designed at AmericanAirlines Arena, as well as Air Canada Centre, the Toronto arena where he came on board late in the project to design a seating bowl with the flexibility to accommodate both hockey and basketball.

“He was a really strong observer of what makes a seating bowl work well,” Cross said. “It’s like a fourth sense of dimension, and it makes him special.”

Through those ties with Cross, Heinlein crossed paths with other sports executives, which led to multiple projects, including Hard Rock Stadium and Philips Arena.

Thad Sheely is one example. Sheely, the Hawks’ chief operating officer, worked with Cross in Miami and in New York, where Heinlein worked on the old West Side Stadium project before the Jets and Giants switched sites to the New Jersey Meadowlands. About two years ago in Atlanta, HOK won a design competition to revamp Philips Arena. The focus was to eliminate the original suite wall with unsold inventory and create new premium products as part of a $193 million renovation.

Heinlein had a fierce desire to win the job, Sheely said. Under the architect’s guidance, HOK’s proposal had 30 ideas for refreshing premium seats. The team incorporated eight of those concepts into the final design, including Hawk Bar, the NBA’s first open-air courtside lounge, situated behind the north baseline.

The idea came from the field level clubs at MetLife Stadium, which opened in 2010, one year after the Dallas Cowboys introduced the concept at AT&T Stadium. At the time, Sheely was the New York Jets’ vice president of stadium development and finance and Heinlein was designing the facility.

“It wasn’t a great place to watch the game, but it was a great place to experience the game,” Sheely said. “We were talking about how to bring that [experience] to basketball. Hawk Bar answered that question. George took that concept from a football stadium and applied it to an arena. He understood … the revenue behind the baseline is not that great but we’re giving courtside seat holders something that nobody else has.”

In Chicago, Heinlein developed the theater box concept at United Center as a retrofit, launching a trend that grew rapidly across NBA and NHL arenas by shrinking traditional suites into smaller groups of premium seats with supporting lounge space to meet the shift in market demand.

Heinlein had the good fortune of being part of United Center’s original design team during his days at the old HOK Sport, which later became Populous. It was his first big-league arena project. The arena opened in 1994, and about 20 years later, United Center came back to Heinlein to plan upgrades and design new practice facilities for the Bulls and Blackhawks down the street from the venue.

“The ease of working with George made that the logical choice for us to do that,” said Terry Savarise, United Center’s senior vice president of operations. “He’s a very talented guy. There’s always a practical side to his ideas and thought processes, which as on ownership group, we’ve always appreciated.”

Heinlein’s departure from HOK comes three years after the firm acquired 360 Architecture, which Heinlein and Schrock founded in 2004. HOK’s current projects include renovations to Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena; improvements to the NFL Chicago Bears’ practice facility in Lake Forest, Ill.; and the design of new practice facilities for the Arizona and South Florida college football teams.

Separately, the firm is pursuing the Nashville MLS stadium project and Arizona State University’s new hockey arena. As those projects unfold, Heinlein feels the company’s sports practice remains in good hands with strong designers such as Nate Appleman, Ryan Gedney, Chris DeVolder and Micheal Day.

“They’re the next wave of leaders at the firm,” Heinlein said.

  • by Don Muret
  • Published: May 14, 2018