Modern Coliseum

In Modern Coliseum, Benjamin D. Lisle tracks changes in stadium design and culture since World War II. Featuring over seventy-five images documenting the transformation of the American stadium over time, Modern Coliseum will be of interest to a variety of readers, from urban and architectural historians to sports fans.

Modern Coliseum
Stadiums and American Culture

Benjamin D. Lisle

2017 | 328 pages | Cloth $37.50
American History / Cultural Studies / Architecture
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Table of Contents

Introduction. Stadiums for the Affluent Society

Chapter 1. Urban Intimacy, Urban Anxiety: Stadium Culture and the Old City
Chapter 2. Fiction and Function: New Spaces for Sport in the 1950s
Chapter 3. From Tenements to Suburbs: The Domestication of the Modern Stadium
Chapter 4. Past to Future: The Stadium and Modern Progress
Chapter 5. Downtown Playground: The Stadium as Urban Renewal
Chapter 6. Machines for Sport: The Stadium Since the 1970s


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Stadiums for the Affluent Society

Griffith Stadium drew fans from all over the District of Columbia and its suburbs to attend baseball and football games in the 1950s—"like a street lamp draws mosquitoes," one area resident recalled. The park was distinctive. Its stands framed an asymmetrical field; the outfield fence cut and jagged around the far reaches of the lot as if it were a stumbling drunk, just dodging a massive tree and five row houses—property the builders were unable to acquire in the ballpark's first days. The winking, mustachioed mascot for National Bohemian beer peeked above the right-field wall as if he were trying to scramble over it. Like so many other old ballparks, this one was squeezed by the neighborhood, producing an effect of either warm embrace or uncomfortable claustrophobia, depending on one's mood and inclination. It was located on the east end of the U Street corridor—one of the country's centers of African American life and culture. Howard University was blocks away. Ralph Bunche, Josh Gibson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Thurgood Marshall all lived nearby at one time or another. Duke Ellington had once worked at the ballpark, selling peanuts, candy, and cigars.

Griffith Stadium—and U Street more generally—was one of the city's main sites of interracial, interclass congress. Loretta Parker Brown, who grew up in adjacent LeDroit Park, remembered, "The only time that white people (other than policemen and firemen) came onto our neighborhood was to attend events at Griffith Stadium." The area had changed since the end of World War II. Some of its more affluent black residents had left with the loosening of residential segregation in the district and availability of newer, more spacious homes—homes often vacated by whites who fled for the suburbs when Brown v. Board of Education desegregated public schools in 1955. The stadium was more difficult to get to than it had been in the past; the streetcar that once dropped people off at the mouth of the ballpark promenade on Seventh Street, in front of the stucco ticket booths, no longer ran. Those coming from elsewhere in the city or its suburbs could take some combination of commuter train, bus, or taxi to the stadium; more likely, they would drive themselves and endure streets clogged with game traffic. Once there, they would then have to find street parking (unless they were privileged enough to make it into the stadium's two-hundred-spot lot). Stories of slashed tires and scratched hoods were often repeated, though exaggerated. A trip to Griffith Stadium was no doubt a logistical trial, but it was also one charged with urban excitement—and perhaps the most sustained exposure to African American and working-class urban life for most white visitors. It was certainly one of the few times that white people had to walk African American turf.

The new District of Columbia Stadium opened in October 1961, and the experience of attending big-time sporting events in the city changed dramatically. The stadium occupied a symbolic spot in the city landscape—directly east of the Capitol on the Anacostia River, in line with the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Though not far from the city center and the predominantly black neighborhoods of Kingman Park and Lincoln Park, the stadium stood apart from its surroundings; it lorded over its space, an abstract sculpture—750 feet in diameter and 135 feet tall at its highest point—in the midst of parking fields, curving roads, and grassy lawns. Sixty-six massive box girders lifted a signature undulating roof that was designed to provide uniform shade to inhabitants within. Most visitors arrived by car, though that was an ordeal not all that much better than driving to Griffith Stadium; the Anacostia Freeway, which would link the stadium to the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland, was still being assembled across the river. If the roads to games were just as clogged, the chance to secure a "supervised" spot in the parking lot adjacent to the stadium was far more likely; at the stadium's opening, there was space for 9,000 automobiles, with promises of 3,500 more spots by the spring of 1962. Once parked, fans ambled into the stadium shoulder to shoulder with their fellow travelers in from the suburbs, on gradually pitched ramps and down wide aisles, sitting down together in a continuous circle of aqua and tan contoured theater seats that were three inches wider than those in most stadiums at that time. There were no bleachers—the traditional home of cheap seats and beer-guzzling rowdies. And neither were there view-obstructing support posts, thanks to the cantilevered upper deck. It was a stadium made as much for football as baseball—the first of its kind—in which the banks of seats on the lower level could pivot to accommodate both the rectangular gridiron and the fan shape of the diamond. After the opening game for the city's NFL team, a Washington Post reporter claimed that most of the fans, "perhaps recalling conditions at Griffith Stadium, must have felt they were the affluent society."

All this modern progress came at a cost. A Post columnist noted, "Some of the old-line . . . fans complain the new D.C. Stadium doesn't have the 'intimacy' of old Griffith Stadium. . . . It's something like having a party in an austere drawing room after being accustomed to gathering in the kitchen." The sense of urban intimacy and public contact, characteristic of old Griffith, had been lost in a new stadium remarkable for its spaciousness, comfort, and modernist novelty. It was in the city but seemed to share more with the suburbs. The outside world, save the sky above, was invisible to most inside. The circular stadium possessed its inhabitants as though they were in a protective womb. The experience of U Street, and the unpredictable city, had been eliminated.

Variations on this theme were played across the United States, beginning in the mid-1950s, as new modern stadiums were built for major league baseball and football teams—either to replace aging structures or to lure other cities' clubs to new pastures. At the end of World War II, most urban stadiums were privately owned affairs that had been built three decades before for professional baseball; they doubled as stages for professional and college football, political speeches, religious gatherings, concerts, and other big events. At the time of their construction, typically in the decade before World War I, these ballparks had marked a new era for spectator sport. Built of brick, concrete, and steel, their permanence contrasted starkly with the wooden firetraps they replaced. Their architectural flourishes marked them, in the eyes of their builders, as challenges to other forms of middle-class leisure like vaudeville theater and amusement parks. Many were even located in middle-class neighborhoods. But by the 1940s, after years of economic depression and war, most were nestled into materially deteriorating neighborhoods—neighborhoods that, like U Street, were either predominantly African American or becoming so. The ballpark scene had become mixed class, interracial, and often rather rambunctious. These were sites of genuine urban diversity, inside and outside the stadium walls.

The stadiums that replaced them in the decades after World War II erased much of that urban diversity. Postwar modern stadiums relocated sports space from old urban neighborhoods to open sites along freeways, convenient to booming white suburbs or as anchors to clean-sweep downtown redevelopment. Unlike aged ballparks stitched into neighborhoods, modern stadiums stood like monuments alone amid sprawling parking lots. Ballparks had been boxes, filling up every inch of their rectangular urban lots; modern stadiums were circles, allowing an easier (and more symmetrical) adaptation from baseball diamond to football grid. Old grandstands were stacked one atop the other on vertical support posts. New stadiums cantilevered their second decks, eliminating view-obstructing columns; this also allowed these stadiums to "breathe" by pushing fans further from the field and releasing some of the pent-up energies that could electrify an unruly crowd. Employing the stark and monumental geometries of engineered modernist architecture, these stadiums were material critiques of the old city and pronouncements of a new modern era—pronouncements that were always heavily subsidized, if not entirely funded, by public dollars.

Whereas the old urban ballparks were rough around the edges, the new stadiums were idealized as playgrounds for the affluent. Promoters pitched the sporting experience to the casual consumer with money to burn, applying the exuberant "populuxe" styling of postwar consumer culture. They integrated new consumer spaces, like exclusive restaurants and private luxury boxes, into the stadium. Attracting women was a crucial strategy in marking these spaces as "classy" and appropriate to a modern mode of living. New technologies like video boards assured that there was never a dull moment for inexpert observers, who were the ideal customers in the eyes of promoters; these were people who wouldn't come to the stadium for sport alone but needed to be seduced from their suburban television sets with other in-stadium distractions. Postwar stadiums reconstituted sports spaces as modern, suburban, and technological, fundamentally altering stadium experience by shifting emphasis from games on the field to entertainments and consumption opportunities around it.
This book examines how such stadium changes unfolded after World War II, focusing particularly on the shift from old stadiums to new ones from the late 1940s through the early 1970s—from the "classic ballpark" to the modern stadium (dubbed the "superstadium" or "concrete doughnut" by its many critics over the years). I investigate why and how new, modern stadiums were built across the United States and the effects these structures had on how people experienced sport and public space. This study attempts to square national trends in stadium design and culture with more particular accounts in specific urban settings. The postwar modernization of professional sports space—as modernization is wont to do—regularized the form of the modern stadium in city after city. Critics of the modern stadium, who surely outweigh its advocates since the 1970s, often cite Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Richie Hebner, who observed, "I stand at the plate in Philadelphia and I don't honestly know whether I'm in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Philly. They all look alike." However, this modernization and standardization occurred in specific urban contexts. The peculiarity of the local always shifted the circumstances of stadium debate, planning, and construction, as well as the conversations about what these new structures meant and how they meant different things to different people.

Why do stadiums matter? Few other structures are so costly or so controversial as public investments. Stadiums are massive components of urban landscapes and since the mid-1960s have played an important role in the reordering of central business districts. They are weapons in an arms race that pits city against city—part of the "cultural capital" that might attract corporate investment. They are iconic structures, often symbolizing entire cities. No other buildings host such large and captive audiences so often—over four and a half million people attended events at the Houston Astrodome in 1965 alone. Sports have long been among the most immediate ways Americans cultivate a relationship with place: the names of cities are written right there on the players' chests. Sports can also connect us to fellow rooters across time—others who have sat in the same stadium seats, across generations. The stadium is where relationships in place and across time are anchored and staged, where people experience a version of "the public" uniquely. At a very personal level, they are places etched into the fiber of who we are, where many people register some of their most memorable moments. Altogether, the design of stadiums and the stadium experience—and debates over each—tell us a great deal about who we are, who we aspire to be, and who is seen to matter as a part of the stadium public.

Roy Hofheinz, the driving force behind the Astrodome's planning, execution, and management, understood quite clearly that stadiums are much more than concrete and plastic or mere containers for sports entertainment; as he put it, "You've got to have tangibles to sell intangibles." What "intangibles" were being sold in the modern stadium? Stadiums like the Astrodome celebrated an era of consumption-oriented, technology-based comfort and convenience for a swelling middle class of white Americans. They packaged the present in the guise of the future—promising these Americans that a utopian future of democratic luxury was immediately available. They erected stages on which this vision of "progress" could be enacted in material form again and again, solidifying it as the way things were and should be. More than just reshaping the way sports were understood and experienced—significant in its own right—the modern stadium played a crucial role in shaping Americans' conceptions of the public, a narrowing that has had consequences for sport and society and whose legacy we witness today.

Stadiums are, like any built environment, social blueprints that order human experience and actions, marking what is appropriate and shaping people's senses of themselves. Society is defined and shaped through space; it simply cannot exist without places in which to exist and reproduce itself. The built environment is a particularly effective mechanism for naturalizing dominant ideas and behaviors because it seems so stable. The solid brick and ancient girders of the old parks suggest permanence, as do the great concrete ramps encircling the modernist stadium saucer. The stadium is thus both medium and message. It is a place where people define themselves through their experiences; it is also a symbol upon which people project their anxieties and aspirations about themselves, their cities, and how each fits into the broader world.

A place like a stadium is many things at once. It is material and spatial, empirical and mappable, constructed of concrete and plastic. The stadium is also something that exists in people's eyes and imaginations, which can be represented and interpreted in different ways. Architects and engineers draw plans and sketches, politicians and sports club owners make speeches and plant stories with chummy reporters, columnists celebrate or critique, and club marketers publish souvenir guides and distribute press releases. Together these groups—often in league with local newspapers and businessmen—produce dominant or official meanings for these structures. Fans, players, and journalists know, interpret, and represent stadiums in their own ways, sometimes embracing the dominant meanings, at other times partially accepting them, and at still others rejecting them outright. They all live stadium spaces as embodied analysts, collecting memories and experiences of the place that become layered atop one another. Stadiums are thus material, representational, and lived. They exist within broader structural and historical contexts—economic, political, social, and spatial—that influence how they develop, are represented, and experienced. This study connects these different threads and scales together, intersecting close readings of the language and visual representations of stadiums in the postwar era with previous work in sports studies, cultural and economic geography, and urban history.

This story of the modern stadium starts in Brooklyn, at the iconic urban ballpark, Ebbets Field—the focus of the first chapter. Central Brooklyn underwent tremendous racial and economic change in the decade after World War II, and Ebbets Field was located amid much of that change. Though unique in many ways, Ebbets Field exemplifies the circumstances facing the prewar ballpark and central cities in a period of suburbanization and urban disinvestment. It is also where new possibilities for stadium design were most actively imagined—novel proposals that would dramatically reinvent the stadium, making it safe, convenient, and attractive to a new generation of affluent suburban consumers. Chapter 2 explores how postwar stadiums were being imagined and constructed as the national sports landscape shifted dramatically in the 1950s. Walter O'Malley, owner of the Dodgers, played a pivotal role in reshaping that landscape and redefining what a stadium could be. He garnered headlines nationwide by employing celebrity designers and futurists Norman Bel Geddes and Buckminster Fuller to reinvent the urban stadium as a mixed-use community center in Brooklyn. Ultimately O'Malley turned his back on Brooklyn, moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles, where he built one of the first—and certainly one of the most economically successful—modernist stadiums in 1962. O'Malley and the Dodgers weren't alone, as other major league clubs were also lured to new cities—or convinced to remain in old ones—by publicly built stadiums. Three subsequent chapters explore adaptations of the modernist stadium in places with different civic, economic, and sporting cultures: Shea Stadium in Queens (opened in 1964), the Houston Astrodome (1965), and Busch Stadium in St. Louis (1966). While these three stadiums were similar in many ways, they also reflect how the stadium meant various things to different communities. In each place, the modern stadium took on distinctive symbolic meanings in the hands of politicians, businessmen, and everyday citizens; through language and imagery, people projected their anxieties and aspirations about their places in the world onto these new monuments to sport. The final chapter considers the development of the modernist stadium in the 1970s and its influence on subsequent stadium design, culture, and urban life, from the 1990s to today. What was once an adventure quickly became routine, as functionalist multipurpose stadiums popped up like concrete mushrooms in city after city throughout the 1970s. These modernist monuments—outfitted in plastic seats and synthetic grass, swelling with televisual scoreboards and luxury suites, often topped by domed roofs—soon seemed a decade behind the times, out of place in a culture increasingly concerned with heritage, ecology, and authenticity. When cities had mustered the political and economic capital to build again, they made a seemingly dramatic departure from the modern form. Most commentators celebrated what seemed a rebuke of modernist stadium design, announced with the opening of Baltimore's Camden Yards in 1992—a baseball park outfitted in brick and steel, seemingly stitched into the cityscape not far from the popular Inner Harbor entertainment district. The modern concrete cylinder was splintered apart, revealing carefully framed vistas of skyscrapers downtown. Asymmetrical and idiosyncratic, it recalled the old classics like Boston's Fenway Park and Cincinnati's Crosley Field. The stadium, it seemed, had returned to its roots. Modernist universalism was replaced with local identity, history, and accents of authenticity. Inspired by Camden Yards, politicians and business elites across the country drove a new wave of stadium construction throughout the 1990s and 2000s, tearing down modernist stadiums that were deemed old and obsolete, replacing them with sporting monuments that seemed to celebrate a new spirit of democratic localism and diverse urbanism.

Washington had once been at the forefront of stadium redesign. When it opened in 1961, District of Columbia Stadium was the first of the multisport concrete cylinders. But by the end of the century, the stadium's only regular tenant was D.C. United of Major League Soccer, a league whose name was more aspirational than accurate. The original Senators, who had played all those seasons at Griffith Stadium, had flown west to the Minneapolis suburbs in 1960 Their replacement club, also known as the Senators, had lasted just eleven seasons in Washington before leaving for Texas. The city's NFL team had departed for the Maryland suburbs in 1997.

But the old stadium got another shot at the big leagues. Major League Baseball relocated the Montreal Expos to the nation's capital in 2005, after the mayor promised that Washington would build the club and its owners a new baseball park. As the politics and planning for the new ballpark were worked out, the newly christened "Nationals" played three seasons at old D.C. Stadium (which had been renamed RFK, after the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, in 1969). Baseball at RFK provoked some sentimentality among the city's older fans—those who could remember summer games played there over three decades before. But many treated RFK with scorn. Reporters called it a "heinous, mausoleum-like" stadium and a "dilapidated multi-use facility" that was "baseball's equivalent of a shack." When the initial designs for a new Nationals ballpark were publicized, columnist George Will hailed it as "the complete reverse of those dual-purpose monstrosities." Most other cities had slain their modernist monsters, but Washington's stadium, the original multipurpose monster, remained.

The District of Columbia arrived to the new ballpark party unfashionably late when it opened Nationals Park in 2008. City officials hoped to distinguish their new park from those that had been built over the previous fifteen years—ballparks that had taken their cues from nearby Baltimore's much-celebrated, retro Camden Yards. Planners and politicians asked the architects to abandon what one journalist called the "trademark red-brick throwback style" and "create something fresh to symbolize the national pastime in the nation's capital." They hoped to design a building that would feel "indigenous" to the city—a reflection of the two faces of Washington, the federal and the local. Stone was meant to echo federal landmarks like the Capitol Dome. Glass façades were supposed to express the "transparency of democracy," as the lead designer put it. The Capitol Dome and Washington Monument would be visible from upper-deck seats along the first-base line; the Anacostia River could be seen through the stadium's south-facing glass wall. The chief executive of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which oversaw the project, said, "We want to create a piece of architecture that when people see it on TV, they immediately associate it with Washington, D.C." If the concrete cylinder of D.C. Stadium had obliterated a sense of place, Nationals Park was quite consciously designed to produce it.

One of the most popular markers of authentic localism was Ben's Chili Bowl, where fans stood in line for over half an hour on opening day to order Ben's famous chili dogs and "half smokes." The original restaurant had opened in 1958 on U Street, mere blocks from Griffith Stadium. Ben's had witnessed the shuttering of the old stadium in 1961; it then helped open the new ballpark nearly a half century later. This seemed only fitting, as the new park and its setting so actively gestured to the old stadium and neighborhood. Nationals Park was loaded with nostalgic references to Griffith Stadium: statues and placards of legendary players, memorabilia plastered on the walls of clubs and restaurants, old-timey pennants hanging from rafters, and baseball history posters lining the concourses. The stadium's very structure—with stands hugging the field and views outside the seating bowl—was a throwback to the form of the traditional ballpark. The new park acknowledged its debt to the old grounds by replicating its outfield dimensions—their shared asymmetries a direct rebuke to the standardized outfield of D.C. Stadium. But Nationals Park didn't just conjure echoes of Griffith Stadium; it also signaled a return to its brand of urban life. The new stadium was intended to anchor vast redevelopment of Washington's Near Southeast neighborhood, reproducing it in the image of a pre-World War II urbanism—a dense streetscape of housing, retail, and entertainment.

But, of course, Nationals Park isn't Griffith Stadium. If we look past the themed celebrations of place and simulations of urban diversity, we see that today's stadiums differ starkly from those they pretend to emulate. Glass façades might suggest a "transparency of democracy," but only the people inside the stadium enjoy the view. Some of those in the upper deck can see the Washington Monument, but only because those stands are perched atop three levels of exclusive clubs, luxury suites, and premium seating. The public paid over $736 million for this; the Nationals and Major League Baseball pitched in just $31 million. In spite of the public investment, the cost of non-premium tickets went up 30 percent with the new stadium's opening. And those seats were smaller than RFK's. Meanwhile, the Nationals' operating income went from $19.5 million to $43.7 million. Team owners paid $450 million for the team in 2006; it is now valued at $1.28 billion. Private profits from public costs.

How did we get from Griffith Stadium to Nationals Park, from U Street to a gentrified Near Southeast? That road passes through D.C. Stadium and many stadiums like it, built across the country throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The modernist stadium has been dismissed as a strange functionalist failure in our sports and architectural history. It has thus been largely neglected. But these modern coliseums tell us a great deal about who we were, who we aspired to be, how we experienced space and the city, and how we conceived of ourselves as a public. We see the legacies of these beliefs and behaviors in the disingenuous simulations of democracy that our stadiums have become.