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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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"People want a return to the nostalgic basics of baseball," says Rick deFlon, an architect who lives outside Kansas City. He was a senior vice-president of HOK Sports Facilities when it designed the new Chicago, Baltimore and Buffalo stadiums. "There's also an acceptance today of classical forms in architecture, and that wasn't there in the '60s and '70s."

But not even the most faithful back-to-the-past designs have the crucial feature that links all of the old Osborn creations: structural columns. Before precast concrete, upper decks were supported by columns. These made for a more steeply built stadium than the sloping arenas of today, and gave fans on high a more intimate view of the action. The removal of support columns forced stadium designers to move their upper decks farther back from the field; it simply wasn't structurally feasible to build a steeply vertical stadium without columns. So while there are no longer obstructed views for the fans below—some of whom used to have to crane to see around the posts—the fans above now need binoculars to catch the action.

Swearingen feels warmly toward columns. On a scrap of paper he sketches a scheme for a park with a reduced number of columns, and with steel trusses along its exterior shell. "Why shouldn't thousands of fans in the upper deck rejoice in an intimate view?" he asks. "Just because several hundred would be blocked by pillars?"

But columns earn harsh words from deFlon. "We talked about columns on our stadiums," he says of his days at HOK. "But we said, 'Don't do it.' It's a step backward. We showed the people in Baltimore and Chicago that columns give intimacy, but they also make the upper decks too steep."

John Pastier, a Los Angeles architecture critic who visited more than 80 major and minor league ballparks while researching a book on stadium history, is among those who contend that no-column designs place upper-deck fans too far away. Pastier says new stadiums, while not slavishy aping the old, might try a cautious use of columns to improve the lot of those in nosebleed land. "The front row of the upper deck of new Comiskey is further from home plate than the last row of old Comiskey," says Pastier.

Though stadium architecture hasn't retreated all the way back to 1910, the fact that new ballparks are taking design cues from the past would please the old engineer, Frank Osborn. If he could see the present—if he could walk through the archways of today's Comiskey, or under the steel trusses supporting tomorrow's new park in Baltimore—he would feel that he had come home again.

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