Friday, January 27, 2006

A historic preservationist's perspective on Yankee Stadium

I firmly disagree with the findings of the Parks Department that Yankee Stadium has no historical value. Yankee Stadium is as iconic in the New York City landscape as the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge and was constructed with the intention of being “a skyscraper among baseball parks.” It has become an integral part of the collective memory and cultural heritage of New Yorkers and baseball fans worldwide. Our memories of the place enhance its character and meaning.

Yankee Stadium does have some architectural significance, including the exterior wall that still has decorative tile work and cast stone ornamentation. Built in 1923, the Stadium was not only the largest sports arena in the world since the ancient Roman Coliseum; it was the first triple-decked ballpark and the first to be called a “stadium.” Simply put, it began a new era in the history of sports stadia. The Stadium is not outdated. Buildings around the world that are much older than Yankee Stadium are being preserved Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are eleven and nine years older, respectively, and they have been preserved. The Red Sox and Cubs are to Fenway and Wrigley what the Yankees are to Yankee Stadium. What elements of our cultural heritage do we lose if and/or when the Stadium is demolished?

For 83 years, the site at East 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx, New York has been home to the New York Yankees, the most successful team in professional sports who have won an unparalleled 26 World Championships and 39 American League pennants. When the Stadium was renovated from 1974-75, a new chapter in the Stadium’s history began. Although the grandstand posts were removed, a revolutionary cantilevered cable system was installed in order to preserve the upper deck’s proximity to the playing field. This structural component has allowed fans in the upper deck to continue to be close to the action, as opposed to more recent ballpark designs (including the proposed new Yankee Stadium) where this section is set back. In addition, Monument Park was created to commemorate exceptional retired Yankee players and to compliment the original monuments honoring manager Miller Huggins and players Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.

When historic preservationists deem sites significant, we also consider historical and cultural value (they are part of the criteria for a structure to be designated on the National Register of Historic Places). Yankee Stadium has these in abundance. The Stadium was custom built for sports megastar, Babe Ruth, who not only revolutionized the game of baseball, but also christened the new stadium on opening day, 1923 when he hit the first home run there to beat the Boston Red Sox, 4-1. Past generations of fans listened to a dying Lou Gehrig declare himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

The Stadium has also hosted several boxing fights featuring Joe Louis and Max Schmeling and football games such as the one between Army and Notre Dame, in which Knute Rockne made his famous “win one for the Gipper” pep talk to the Fighting Irish at half-time. The New York football Giants also played at the Stadium from 1956 to 1973. On October 4, 1965, Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit North America, and he celebrated mass in front of 80,000 people at baseball’s grandest cathedral.

The post-1974-75 Stadium has witnessed many historic events that only enhance the overall significance of the ballpark. The championship teams of the late 1970s and 1990s, including the performances of players such as Don Mattingly and Ron Guidry, have enhanced the Stadium’s importance. In 1979, Pope John Paul II gave mass as part of his tour of the United States. Just four and a half years ago, a memorial for those victims lost on 9/11 was held at the Stadium.

Renovation of the current stadium makes sense. The Red Sox are renovating the much smaller Fenway Park (~35,000 seats compared to Yankee Stadium’s 57,000) during the off-seasons so that the team can still play there. Strip away the light grey paint from the Stadium’s original 1923 limestone exterior wall and one will find the colorful decorative ornament underneath. The elongated arch windows that were meant to resemble cathedral windows will stand out better. Luxury boxes can be accommodated. This was proven possible at Tiger Stadium (built 1912), through an advocacy group’s efforts detailed in the “Cochrane Plan” of the early 1990s. Even during the Tigers’ worst seasons baseball fans included the Detroit park as part of their historic ballpark tour. Similar to current events at Yankee Stadium, however, Tiger management did not understand the true value of their ballpark and decided to build a new one instead.

By staying in the current stadium, the Yankees will provide fans with closer connections to the subway, the ferry, and a potential Metro North station. The new stadium site is much farther away from these points. Eighty-five percent of fans are commuting from Connecticut, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley. If the Metro North station was completed, this would help alleviate auto traffic. In addition, as a lifelong Yankees fan, I am appalled and disappointed in the Yankees’ declaration that a new ballpark will benefit the local South Bronx community. This is not true. With the construction of a new stadium over Macombs Dam and John Mullaly Parks, residents in this densely-built neighborhood will lose twenty-two acres of actively-used parkland. Proposed parkland replacement will be scattered, causing residents (including children) to be disconnected from parkland they desperately need for recreational and health purposes.

Yankee Stadium does not need a plaque or tour guide to tell you that this place is special. Baseball fans and players just know. This historic stadium continues to attract record crowds and tourists who include it as part of their New York City tour. It would be a great cultural loss to the City of New York and, on a more worldwide scale, to the sport of baseball should we lose Yankee Stadium.

-Amanda Davis, Historic Preservation graduate student, Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation


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