Preserving America's Pastime

Image Credits: 
Dodger Stadium under construction, 1962. Credit: LAPL Herald-Examiner Collection.

By Edith Bellinghausen
Last week’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game was played at Kauffman Stadium, home to the Kansas City Royals. The stadium was designed by Charles Deaton with Kivett & Meyers, and opened in 1973 alongside Arrowhead Stadium (home of the Kansas City Chiefs football team) as the Harry S. Truman Sports Complex. The construction of Kauffman and Arrowhead marked a move away from the multi-use stadium typology popular at the time and allowed each team to maximize stadium-based revenue streams. Other single-use stadiums built during the 1960s and 1970s still in use include Dodger Stadium (1962; Los Angeles) and Angel Stadium (1966; Anaheim). But almost all of the multi-use (so-called “cookie cutter”) stadiums have been demolished, including Shea Stadium (1964; New York), Veterans Stadium (1971; Philadelphia), Three Rivers Stadium (1970; Pittsburgh), and Busch Memorial Stadium (1966; St. Louis). The iconic Houston Astrodome, featured on the cover of Ana Mod’s Building Houston Modern and once called “the eighth wonder of the world”, sits in limbo as owners and city officials decide its fate. The stadium was designed by Hermon Lloyd & W.B. Morgan, with Wilson, Morris, Crain & Anderson and structural engineer Walter P. Moore, and opened in 1965 as the world’s first multi-use domed stadium. The last game was played there in 1999.

AstrodomeSports, as a construct, is built upon tradition and the glory of past achievements. However, the places where these glories unfold are often not treated with the same reverence. Historic stadiums and arenas -- irrespective of demonstrated historic, architectural and cultural significance -- are regularly demolished to make way for the construction of new facilities, often at the public’s expense. With the exception of pockets of local activism, such as seen in the cases of Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena (lost), Boston’s Fenway Park (saved) and Houston’s Astrodome (status tbd), there has been no concerted effort or policy established to address this issue, despite public outcry and criticism of these events by the sporting community itself.

Team owners seek to maximize profits, and sell local communities on the benefits of a new stadium. In turn state governments and municipalities often take exceptional measures to retain sports teams, offering economic incentives in the form of tax breaks and access to public funds for new construction. This has led to favorable conditions for team owners who view their existing facilities as a liability. With government and corporate interests supporting new developments proposed by team owners, and back-room deals completed before projects are publicly announced, the voice of opposition often comes after the fact, and from those far removed from the decision-making process.

Fans are harmed by the loss of a place that has special meaning to them. In a broader sense, members of the community are impaired by the loss of city funds redirected from social programs to stadium construction. It is these stakeholders, who often have little political clout, who suffer the most. When public monies are used to fund construction, infrastructure, and demolition of the old sites, the direct impact on individuals in the community includes reduced municipal services, higher taxes, and increased cost to attend games in a new facility. In addition, tearing down the old stadiums results in high financial costs associated with demolition (often borne by the city), loss of embodied energy, and the negative environmental impact of construction waste materials on already stressed landfills.

Three RiversAt the start of the 21st century, 83 percent of North America’s major professional sports franchises (baseball, basketball, football and hockey) were playing in new facilities, constructing new facilities, or pushing the public to fund the construction of new facilities. Out of the 30 major league baseball teams, 14 have constructed new stadiums since 2000. In almost every case the new stadium replaced an existing stadium, and public funds were applied towards construction. Add to this the unknown number of teams considering new facilities. Alarmingly, what was once a shelf life of 30 to 40 years or more has been reduced to mere teens and less, as reflected in Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Riccardi’s 2003 declaration that the then fifteen-year-old Skydome was “obsolete”. While that stadium was spared following the purchase of the team by Rogers Communications, how many others will soon face the wrecking ball?

Photo (above): Three Rivers Stadium, 1980. Credit: Western Pennsylvania Historical Society

Sports are an inherent and important characteristic of American life. They are part of our societal DNA. Why else would sports be the recipient of so much emotional and economic investment on the part of the fans, owners, and municipalities? And yet stadiums – the sites that witness the great accomplishments of sports – are allowed to be demolished, despite the demonstrated significance and attachment of meaning to these places.

There are over 2400 major sports facilities in the United States. Few are recognized by the preservation community at large, including the National Park Service, who oversees the National Register of Historic Places, and the city preservation commissions empowered to designate local landmarks. The physical representations of our national pastimes are seemingly overlooked. Many sites meet the criteria for significance, so there are clearly other factors involved. Does preservation consider sports populist ephemera, or are the pressures of politics and economic development too great? How will the stadiums of the modern era be allowed to take on the patina of significance if they, too, are not protected in some way?

Our problem is twofold. First, strong economic interests and perceived benefits favor new construction over preservation, resulting in unnecessary demolition and wasteful spending. Secondly, preservation is failing to pay attention to this ongoing demolition of historic stadiums and arenas in a broad, proactive and organized way.

The second problem is essentially an opportunity. This author acknowledges the complicated nature of economic issues related to sports, and does not posit that conservation is always the answer. But rather than ignore the problem, preservation is in a strong position to begin defining the process of addressing it. There is a need to organize and become proactive if we seek to force change in this area. If preservation can begin to preemptively work with stakeholders to view these properties as economic assets rather than economic liabilities, helping to maximize financial and social benefits, the odds that a few stadiums will be saved along the way become much greater.

Edith Bellinghausen holds a Master of Science in Historic Preservation, and served as the Docomomo US intern until May of this year. She explores sports and preservation in her thesis Rehab vs. Rebuild: The Role of Preservation in the Stadium Debate.

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