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Rising Above the Field
Richard Sandomir
August 05, 1991
In a golden age of stadiums, the houses that Osborn built were nonpareil
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August 05, 1991

Rising Above The Field

In a golden age of stadiums, the houses that Osborn built were nonpareil

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A third linen depicts the main gate's huge terra-cotta panel, upon which was depicted a bald eagle resting on a nest of crisscrossed bats. In a rather weird mix of sports and patriotism, behind the bird is the figure of a kneeling catcher.

Fenway's designs are in another drawer. At the top of the pile is a 58-year-old rendering of a wall made of two dozen 10-foot-wide panels. The drawing seems a relatively simple representation of columns, supports and bricks. There is little elaboration. But this was the genesis of the Green Monster itself, one of the country's famous structures. Swearingen, who has seen the drawing often, observes it as if for the first time, exclaiming excitedly, "Landsdowne Street is here." He points. "The field is right here." Landsdowne Street was renamed Ted Williams Way earlier this year, and seeing in this drawing how close the Kid actually stood to the street each game makes that seem an especially fitting tribute.

Small details catch the eye. Accompanying the design of Fenway's hand-operated scoreboard are penciled-in instructions to create one-by ten-inch peepholes for the scorers and to "provide hooks on the back wall for plate [number] storage...three rows of hooks in the work area."

Frank C. Osborn founded his firm in 1892 not far from its present location on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. Osborn had been the chief engineer of the King Bridge Company, and his aptitude for dealing with large steel structures proved invaluable when ballpark work came his way early in the new century. Baseball's growing popularity required ever larger, sturdier stadiums to replace the ballparks of the 19th century, some of which had downright rickety—not to mention combustible—wooden bleachers. Osborn, a man who was genuinely excited by the prospect of building ballparks, quickly became the national pastime's foremost architectural player.

His company kept this status for several decades, but in recent years a few big architectural firms—including Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, Inc. and Howard Needles Tammen & Bergendoff, both of Kansas City—began to dominate the stadium-design field. Osborn saw its client list among big league teams diminish. Osborn's once solid link to the Yankees—the firm designed all improvements at the Stadium through the 1960s—didn't bring the company a contract for the massive renovation of 1974-75. "To our regret," says Swearingen.

Swearingen leads a visitor back to his office, where a stained, black-and-white blowup of the Polo Grounds sits on an upper shelf. Swearingen carries the photo to his drafting table. The photograph of the cavernous old structure reveals where eagle sculptures once rested atop an ornate frieze, gazing down on John J. McGraw's Giants. "Did you ever see a frieze like this?" Swearingen asks. In later photos, Swearingen says, the frieze is gone. "They probably covered it with paneling," he says with contempt.

He shifts his attention and strides briskly from his office to a photograph in the design studio. It is of Cleveland's League Park. The ancient edifice, the Indians' home until 1946, was a two-deck stadium with exterior archways and rooftop cornices. The oddest feature of the structure was a rightfield wall that was 290 feet from home plate. The 20-foot-high wall was topped by a 20-foot fence. Swearingen points to the rightfield corner. "This is where Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run," he says, brushing his finger over the intersection of Lexington Avenue and East 66th Street. "It was a simple park. It had human scale and blended in with the local area. It was made of brick and had those arches that people felt comfortable with."

The desire for that kind of comfort is, as mentioned, back in style. New ballpark designs seek to revive the classical style while incorporating modern needs—luxury suites, wider seating and unobstructed sightlines. Terry Miller, an associate and director of sports architecture with HNTB, says today's architects would like to "capture the aura and atmosphere of the old parks." He says the new classicists once again want to build baseball stadiums that are, above all else, baseball stadiums. "The movement these days is against making those football-baseball places that try to serve both games," he says. "It's best to build a park for one or the other, because if you don't, one sport will always suffer."

Designers try to capture the unique feel of the game in the overall designs of the new parks and in the details as well. The roof of the new Oriole stadium, which is set to open next year on the site of the defunct Camden Railroad Yards, will be supported by steel trusses constructed to look antique. The park will have a brick exterior, dominated by large archways that are designed to blend stylistically with an adjacent railroad warehouse. The new Comiskey has an exterior that features arched windows with colored glass. Its precast concrete supports have been tinted to look like old-fashioned masonry.

Pilot Field, the Triple A minor league park in Buffalo that launched the new-old ballpark trend when it opened in 1988, boasts arches along its exterior, wall sconces, rooftop cupolas and a green metal roof mounted on steel trusses.

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