Leveling the Playing Field

Stadiums and Superdomes Are Being Replaced by Bigger Ballparks.

The 1922 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., narrowly avoided being altered as an NFL stadium last year.

Credit: Pasadena Heritage

Near the waterfront in downtown San Diego, the new home of the San Diego Padres, PETCO Park, rises gloriously into the clear Southern California sky. Built in the city's formerly dilapidated warehouse district, the new stadium incorporates the historic Western Metal Building and offers sweeping views of the San Diego skyline and San Diego Bay.

A few miles north, amid a tangle of freeways and surrounded by acres of parking lot, sits the Padres' old home, Qualcomm Stadium. Qualcomm was built in 1968, one of many "multipurpose" stadiums built in cities across the country in the 1960s and 1970s.

For now, Qualcomm is home to the San Diego Chargers football team. But the team is asking for a new stadium, and plans to look for a home in another city if it does not get it. A local preservation group, Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) has named Qualcomm to its 2006 Most Endangered List, calling it "a testament to the collective civic optimism and pride of 1960s San Diego."

Qualcomm Stadium represents the 1960s "belief that through art and architecture we were creating a new culture," says John Eisenhart, a San Diego architect and SOHO member. He believes that Qualcomm is significant for its "daring architecture" and elegant but simple design. SOHO hopes that Qualcomm will not join the list of 1960s and 1970s-era multipurpose stadiums that have been demolished in recent years, including Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Cinergy Field in Cincinnati, and Denver's Mile High Stadium.

Initially praised for their modern design, these stadiums fell out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s. Built to accommodate both baseball and football, they were ideal for neither. Too many seats were far away from the action, and the stadiums did not have the club seats and luxury boxes that bring in extra revenue for the teams. In recent years, teams have moved into new single-purpose stadiums, some designed in the "retro" style of Baltimore's Camden Yards.

But are the multipurpose stadiums truly obsolete and ugly, or simply victims of endlessly changing tastes? "Fans and the public are fickle and will tend to want something new and novel every generation or so—unless they've fallen in love with a classic like Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium," says Douglas Kelbaugh, dean and professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, in an e-mail. Still, he says, "Domes, while compromised in many ways, will probably come back at some point."

Seattle's Kingdome, built in 1976, was imploded in a massive cloud of dust in April 2000. Glenn Weiss, a public art and architecture consultant who witnessed the implosion, remembers the Kingdome as a place for people to gather for events from music concerts, to sports, to the Vietnamese New Year's Festival. Today, he says, no such space of diverse common memories exists in Seattle.

The loss of these Cold War behemoths has been largely unlamented. But as the number of multipurpose stadiums dwindles, preservation groups are beginning to look for strategies to save and reuse them. 

Soldier Field's new addition

Credit: Jonathan Daniel

A few older sports stadiums, like the Rose Bowl, have achieved designation as National Historic Landmarks. But the cities and counties that own the multipurpose stadiums are not rushing to nominate them, and at only 30 or 40 years old, they may not be eligible. (Besides, National Historic Landmark status does not necessarily protect sites from radical change or demolition. Chicago's Soldier Field was recently stripped of its Landmark status after extensive alterations.)

In Houston, it was overwhelming public support for preservation that convinced Harris County officials to give the Astrodome a second chance. "Every time the public hears about the potential for the Astrodome being demolished, there is a huge outcry," says David Bush, director of programs and information for the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance. "People here really care about that building."

When it opened in 1965, the Astrodome was called the "Eighth Wonder of the World." It is important to Houstonians, says Bush, because when it was built, it brought international attention to Houston for the first time. "It sort of created an identity for the city," he says.

At the time it was built, the Astrodome was the largest self-supporting dome in the world. It was also the first air-conditioned domed stadium and the site of the first use of Astroturf. But as times changed, the Astrodome fell into disuse.

In 1996, the Houston Oilers left for Nashville, which had promised them a new stadium. In 1999, the Astros moved to Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park), and in 2002, Reliant Stadium, built to house Houston's new NFL franchise, the Houston Texans, opened nearby. Some officials then felt that the best use of the Astrodome property would be as parking for Reliant Stadium.

While most Houstonians wanted to see the Astrodome preserved, not all agreed. An editorial by Bill Schadewald in the Houston Business Journal called the Astrodome "the giant wart on the South Loop" and a "bulbous eyesore" with a public debt of $50 million. But the Astrodome's many supporters argued that the stadium could be reused in a way that would not only preserve one of Houston's defining landmarks, but also create a financially self-supporting asset to the community.

By 2003, the county was considering proposals from developers. Of seven received, only one was deemed feasible. In August 2006, the Harris County Commissioners voted to approve a letter of intent from the Astrodome Redevelopment Corporation (ARC). ARC proposes to convert the Astrodome into a convention center/hotel complex, with 1,200 rooms, entertainment attractions, and restaurants. ARC has until March 2007 to obtain financing. It must also get the approval of the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the tenants of nearby Reliant Stadium.

Until then, the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance intends to keep the Astrodome on its Endangered Buildings list, where it has been since 2003. Says Bush, "It's been a very long process."  

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed