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Leave it to the Amateurs: Local Stadium Design in the United States

Leave it to the Amateurs: Local Stadium Design in the United States

Bleachers and pressbox at a small Texas high school

By Luke Carothers

Although much of the conversation about stadium design and construction in the United States is focused on the various professional sports leagues and collegiate sports, it is important to also understand that similar conversations are taking place in almost every town, large or small.  While these local decisions to build stadiums, parks, and other sporting facilities may not have the same financial stakes as professional and collegiate sports, they have a relatable impact in terms of the local economy, civic pride, and youth engagement.

In the mid- to late- 19th century, as a new middle class emerged in the United States, so too did the concept of spectator sports.  With a more formalized work schedule and money to spend, many people turned to attending sporting events such as baseball, cricket, and boxing.  By the end of the century, cricket had fallen away in popularity, but it was quickly replaced by the new and exciting sports of football and basketball.  With more and more people coming to watch these amateur athletes compete, the need to seat these people and give them a better view of the action became more pressing.  The first true baseball stadium, Elysian Fields in Hoboken, was constructed in 1845.  It was the first enclosed sporting venue in the United States, meaning it was gated off and admission could be charged.  Those who paid for a ticket were seated on wooden benches around the field while those who didn’t pay sat on a grassy embankment behind the outfield.  The first true football stadium constructed was Feld Field at St. Anthony Catholic High School in San Antonio, which was built in 1910.  Like Elysian Fields, Feld Field utilized a nearby hillside, building a small set of stone bleachers into it.

As the popularity of professional sports continued to grow throughout the 20th century, so too did the popularity of youth and amateur levels.  The rise in popularity at the youth level meant that, for the first time, towns and communities could field athletic teams to compete against other local teams for the point of civic pride.  To compensate for the ever growing crowds and attract more visitors, many towns began building bigger stadiums and arenas.  Shortly after Feld Field was completed in Texas, the Stadium Bowl was finished in Tacoma, Washington.  Like Feld Field, the Stadium bowl also took advantage of a natural change in elevation, cutting nearly 180,000 cubic yards from the sides of a gulch to provide enough space for a playing field.  Once the sides of the gulch were removed, wooden frames were installed along the inclines to pour concrete for seating.  The result was a massive concrete bowl with a seating capacity of 32,000.  What started as a place to host local football games has morphed into a cultural icon, hosting speeches from multiple presidents and appearing in films such as “10 Things I Hate About You.”

The Stadium Bowl was unique in both its size and its utilization of the surrounding landscape, but other communities have to contend with a lack of space.  While the Stadium Bowl has hosted a few baseball exhibitions over the years, its use is limited by design.  Looking to save space and money, many local communities have opted to build multi-use facilities capable of hosting several sports.  Roosevelt Stadium in Union City, New Jersey was built in 1936 and hosted the Union City High School football team for more than 7 decades.  However, when it came time to construct a new high school in 2005, the stadium had to be demolished to make space for the building.  Unable to relocate the stadium because of the same constraints, the school’s athletic complex was built directly on top of the building.  Named the Eagle’s Nest, the 3-acre facility is supported by two floors of steel and reinforced concrete and can support up to 2,100 spectators.

The development of local athletic facilities often reflect the needs of the community and have developed innovative solutions to address these needs.  This development also shows the importance of these spaces in the local community.  As such, the question of funding for local stadiums and arenas is frequently debated in local politics.  There are many who believe that too much money is allocated towards developing and renovating athletic facilities, particularly when it comes to school budgets.  While this is certainly a valid thread of argument based on a historical decline in funding for areas such as the arts, there is also some middle ground to be found.  Large and unique stadiums not only generate ticket revenue through hosting their school or town’s games, but also in attracting statewide and national competitions to the area, which provides additional revenue that is, in many cases, being used to fund other areas of development.

Within the American landscape, there are very few connecting elements that span from coast to coast, in every town and city.  Everywhere you go, in all corners of the United States and in every landscape you will find a football field, basketball court, baseball arena, or soccer pitch.  On any given night, you can drive from town to town and chances are you will see at least one field lit up, with a small crowd of parents and community members cheering on their hometown athletes.  In the pursuit of civic pride and the youthful fun that comes with competing, communities throughout the 20th century continued to erect spaces to hold competitions.  In some cases, these are small spaces, little more than a flat surface with a track around it and some bleachers, set amid the vastness they inhabit.  Still, in other cases, this same pursuit comes to fruition through massive local undertakings that result in large, highly technical, and multi-use stadiums.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.