Out of oblivion into oblivion …
—Louis Sullivan 1
When Architecture Stops
From the Vienna Secession’s Sacred Spring to the Utopie group’s “inflatable moment,” the language of modernism buzzed with brisk, bouncy notions: youth and rebirth, dynamism and volition, organicism and élan vital. Yet few architects or critics of this era— Louis Sullivan, Adolf Loos and Jane Jacobs being notably cranky exceptions — gave due regard to the flipside of this talk. All things, however highly charged, eventually run down and fall apart. This is as true for anthills as it is for ants and anteaters. As the playwright John Webster wrote centuries ago, “All things have their end. Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men, must have like death that we have.” 2
But when exactly do they end (or, for that matter, begin 3), and how do we know? Following Webster’s lead, we might think first of human ends, which would seem clear enough (cue TV hospital drama where doctor A asks doctor B if s/he wants “to call it”), but aren’t always so. Up through the 19th century death was wrongly declared often enough to support a modest trade in “safety coffins,” which might include escape hatches, ventilation systems and alarms to assist the prematurely buried. Beyond this, definitions of death vary among cultures and eras — from the flight of the soul to the stopping of the heart to the cessation of brain function — and each might mark a different point upon the clock. 4
What of architecture? When does architecture, once started, stop? Does it end when human occupation or attention terminates, when function or fabric are removed? The cessation of a building’s material presence might be one indicator of building death, but even this is not so clear-cut. Buildings, like people, regularly live on, not in abstract ethereal realms but in human memory and in the technologies and artifacts we use to support those memories. Lost architecture has been mourned and commemorated in photos, films, exhibitions and written accounts. Pieces of demolished buildings are collected, displayed, incorporated into other buildings and sold like commemorative coins from the Franklin Mint, complete with certificates of authenticity. Unlike dead people (outside of fiction), lost buildings have been reconstructed and revivified, both literally (Colonial Williamsburg) and figuratively (the twin towers of light beamed from the World Trade Center site soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001). Moreover, when a building serves an explicitly memorial function, its loss involves not just physical fabric and operations, not just the memories of the place itself, but also the memories the place was made to house and support. These don’t simply vanish with the rhythm of the wrecking ball.
Consider the memorial stadium. Dozens of these were built during the 20th century in cities, towns, and on college campuses across the United States. Designed to accommodate sporting events and other public assemblies — concerts, religious and political rallies, commencements — memorial stadiums also served to honor those who fought and died in the World Wars and other military conflicts. As large-scale venues for popular spectacles, they became themselves the originating sites of significant collective and individual memories. Often they became beloved places, and their loss or threatened loss was widely and deeply felt. Their demolitions — there have been many in recent years — have sometimes been major public events, attended by thousands, lamented on television and in newspapers and books, recorded for posterity on film and digital media. What is it that people mourn, recall, or fear losing when they face the loss of this architecture? What becomes of the memorials removed by these demolitions, the memories these buildings were designed to contain or trigger? How, in some cases, have the buildings themselves been made to live on after demolition, and what is the material nature of their afterlives? The case of Baltimore Memorial Stadium provides some answers to these questions. Built beginning in 1949, demolished in 2001, the building lives on today in some surprising and remarkably tangible ways.
War Minus the Shooting
If you, like me, have never painted your naked skin with a team’s colors or worn something unnaturally large and made of foam rubber (e.g., cheese wedge, hand with index finger asserting primacy, etc.) while bellowing at television cameras, you might not fully appreciate the delicate weave of pride and shamelessness that goes into truly devoted sports fandom. Such devotion is born of real passion and because of this it has its downsides, one of them being the ever-present potential for violence. We all know how quickly a meeting between two teams and their supporters can turn ugly, how rivalry can shift to rage and a metaphorical battlefield become a literal one. 5 No one expressed this potential more pungently than George Orwell who, in his 1945 essay “The Sporting Spirit,” wrote, “Sport is frankly mimic warfare … bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words, it is war minus the shooting.” 6
Orwell’s observations were part of a venerable tradition of linking young men’s preparedness for war to sport. Analogies between war and athletics have been common since ancient Greece, though in contrast to Orwell’s bleak disdain, others have treated sport as a productive peacetime discipline that fosters the teamwork, physical fitness and competitive spirit required for mortal combat. In the early 19th century, the Duke of Wellington is famously supposed to have quipped, “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” 7 More recently, in 2003, University of Miami tight end Kellen Winslow drew headlines when, after a loss to the University of Tennessee Volunteers, he told a reporter, “It’s a war out there. They’re out there to kill you, so I’m out there to kill them…. I’m a fucking soldier.” 8 The editorial outrage that followed focused mostly on Winslow’s exaggeration of his own bravery — a posture seen as disrespectful to real soldiers in a time of war. Few questioned the appropriateness of the sports-as-warfare analogy writ large. 9
It’s unsurprising, then, that stadiums became a prime building type for commemorating wars and the men and women who fought them. Beginning with the City Beautiful Movement early in the 20th century, several large municipal and university memorial stadiums and arenas were built around the United States. 10 A few, such as Harvard Stadium at Soldiers Field in Boston, built in 1903, pre-date World War I, but most appeared after the war, when Americans sought to create functional, “living” memorials to veterans and war dead. Taxpayers were promised that the new public-funded stadiums would boost their cities’ economies and their national or international profiles by attracting professional sports teams and major events like the Olympics or political conventions. Like public parks, pools and playgrounds, these stadiums were also geared toward enhancing the lives of immigrants and the working classes, many of them veterans, while reducing the potential for urban chaos that many others feared would come with waves of immigration. Such places would build community and foster citizenship. They were sites for people to come together, to share in civic pride and engagement, to assimilate and integrate while screaming at one another. 11
If the new stadiums memorialized recent conflicts and lives lost, they also provided space for the production of new collective memories. During the mid 20th century, before multimillion-dollar players’ and television contracts, exorbitant ticket prices, and the rise of corporate naming, stadiums were centers for a working-class culture that thrived in the United States. They were a “third place,” a term used by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe a special physical location apart from home or work for informal public life, “a great good place” of community interaction. 12 Their architecture and the events they housed could spark the ideas, emotions and relationships that motivated, stabilized and secured individual and community identity. This point is made powerfully in Charles Cohen and Joseph Matthew’s documentary The Last Season, which features the testimony of fans grieving the final days of Baltimore Memorial Stadium. 13
Time Will Not Dim the Glory of Their Deeds
Located on East 33rd Street between Ellerslie Avenue and Ednor Road, north of the city’s downtown waterfront, Baltimore Memorial Stadium was home field for Major League Baseball’s Orioles, the National Football League’s Colts and, briefly, in the late 1990s, the NFL’s Ravens. With a capacity of around 50,000, BMS was the site of six World Series, an NFL championship game, and performances by legendary athletes like Johnny Unitas, Cal Ripken, Jr., Joe Louis, and Pelé. A writer for The Chicago Tribune, referring in 1959 to the frenzied devotions of Baltimore’s predominantly working-class fans, called the stadium “the world’s largest outdoor insane asylum,” and the people of Baltimore proudly adopted this title as their own. 14
The horseshoe-shaped, two-deck, reinforced concrete structure, designed by the L.P. Kooken Company, engineers, and Hall, Border, and Donaldson, architects, replaced an earlier, larger municipal stadium that stood on the site since 1922. 15 The new stadium’s first deck was completed in 1950, when the first games were played there; the second deck opened four years later, in 1954. With its open-air upper deck, BMS was promoted early on as the only stadium of its kind in the country. We can see it today as transitional between the classic ballparks of 1910s and ‘20s, such as Wrigley Field in Chicago, and the super stadiums of 1960s and ‘70s, like Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers or St. Louis’s original Busch Stadium. 16
Along with the upper deck, 1954 also saw the completion of the building’s 116-foot-tall brick and cast-stone exterior façade and memorial wall. (That year was also the Orioles’ first in Baltimore, following the team’s renaming and their move from St. Louis. Vice President Richard M. Nixon lobbed the opening pitch that year, dooming the place. 17) The memorial wall featured Baltimore’s city seal and distinctive stainless steel letters designed by Francis Tarlowski. These letters ranged in height from twelve inches to ten feet and spelled out the following: 18
ERECTED BY THE?
CITY OF BALTIMORE?
THE MAYOR AND THE CITY COUNCIL?
AND THE PEOPLE OF BALTIMORE CITY
IN THE STATE OF MARYLAND
AS A MEMORIAL TO ALL
WHO SO VALIANTLY FOUGHT
AND SERVED IN THE WORLD
WARS WITH ETERNAL
GRATITUDE TO THOSE WHO
MADE THE SUPREME
SACRIFICE TO PRESERVE
EQUALITY AND FREEDOM
THROUGHOUT THE WORLD
TIME WILL NOT DIM THE GLORY OF THEIR DEEDS
Two years later, on May 30, 1956, the building’s formal dedication took place. On that day the Orioles played the Boston Red Sox. A parade and memorial service were held, and Army General Raleigh B. Hendrix presented the stadium’s overseers with a bronze urn, later encased in the memorial wall, filled with soil from every American military cemetery on foreign ground. The Orioles beat the Red Sox that day, 2-1.
The years passed. Games were won and lost, records broken, oceans of beer cycled and recycled. Despite several renovations and expansions, the aging building became dowdy and decrepit. Owing to its layout, BMS was said to be a good place to watch baseball but a terrible place to see football. 19 Frustrated in their efforts to have a more accommodating new stadium built in Baltimore, the Colts, in 1984, infamously stole away in the dead of night for Indianapolis’s sprightly new Hoosier Dome. 20 The Orioles stayed on but they too were weary of the building known — affectionately but tellingly — as “the old gray lady of 33rd Street.” Improvements were made in 1985, but still the Orioles demanded a new stadium. They got it in 1992 when the trendsetting Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened along downtown Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Camden Yards was the first of the postmodern retro baseball parks — structures evoking the classic parks of the 1910s and ‘20s, but with all the modern amenities, the skyboxes and sushi bars and so on — that have dominated stadium design ever since.
The Orioles played their last game at BMS on October 6, 1991. The Ravens — i.e., the former Browns, lured away from Cleveland — played their first two seasons there while awaiting completion of the new stadium at Camden Yards (originally called Raven Stadium, later PSI Net Stadium, now M&T Bank Stadium); their final game at BMS took place on December 4, 1997. The building then stood empty until 2001. Photographs made during this time show a rutted, overgrown field, rows of vacant seats facing the absent action, banks of lights unlit, the big board forever scoreless. Marylanders debated what to do with the building and its 33-acre site. A property report filed by the Maryland Historical Trust found in 2000 that BMS lacked “those qualities of integrity and exceptional significance” that would qualify it for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. 21 The organization Preservation Maryland countered, recognizing the stadium’s deep and widely felt emotional and memorial significance, but strategically emphasizing the bottom line: “taxpayers are being asked to pay $10 million to demolish an asset that would end up being worth three times that if it were adaptively reused.” Proposals for the stadium’s reuse included residential, office, recreational, retail, research and manufacturing programs. 22 But still demolition loomed.
Fan reaction to the threat of loss was intense and highly personal. Humanized in life, “the old gray lady” was likewise mourned in death, like a friend or family member finally laid out in the parlor where she’d long sat fading. People emphasized their connection to the place, the effect of its decay and possible destruction upon themselves, the ache they felt in watching these things occur. “You never thought you could get so attached to a building,” said one person interviewed for the documentary The Last Season, “but it’s going to be hard seeing this thing going down. … it’s like losing a friend.” “Memorial Stadium is just like a family member,” said another, “and watching it be demolished is like watching a close family member going through a long and painful death.” For still another fan the loss was like a quicker kind of death, one no less brutal or difficult to witness. “I don’t think it could be any sadder to watch someone executed. To have so many memories erased in seconds.” Memory and its erasure were often noted, and losing BMS was said by many to be like losing a part of one’s self. “It’s not just a building they’re tearing down,” one man said, “it’s memories, it’s my childhood.” 23
In March 2001, 52 years after construction there began, Baltimore Memorial Stadium was demolished. As part of a compromise brokered by Mayor Martin O’Malley between those wanting to clear and redevelop the site and those wanting to preserve it, the memorial wall was left standing. The state of Maryland spent $750,000 to reinforce it. 24 The compromise was not a popular one.
For five months the reinforced memorial wall stood on its own, tall as a ten-story building, surrounded by roads and empty lots, disconnected from everything around it, like a defunct drive-in movie screen rising from a field of weeds and trash. Said former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer, in an opinion published in The Baltimore Sun on November 11, 2001, two months after the attacks of 9/11: “We should all be ashamed for the travesty that has been created out of the opportunity to redevelop Memorial Stadium, a monument to those who served our country in a time not unlike that which we face today…. [the wall is] a forlorn vestige of the proud landmark.” 25 Neighborhood activists saw the freestanding wall as “an incongruous eyesore without the rest of the stadium.” Veterans’ groups and the Baltimore City Council agreed and, opposition from local preservationists notwithstanding, the wall’s destruction was approved. 26 It came down just after Christmas in 2001.
As any number of dead celebrities might tell you, having a Facebook page does not indicate life ongoing; but if it did, Baltimore Memorial Stadium would count among the living. There remains a brisk trade in BMS T-shirts, posters and other souvenirs of the place. The building and the events it housed remain present in the memories of many, despite its long absence from 33rd Street. And if the building as an active whole is gone, it nonetheless survives physically in artifacts and echoes scattered in and around Baltimore and beyond.
In 1998, some 50,000 square feet of turf was transplanted from BMS to the new Ravens Stadium downtown, providing players and fans alike with historical continuity at ground level. 27 Signs from the old stadium were installed at the new YMCA built on the BMS site. Around the time of its demolition, other pieces of the stadium — seats, lockers, even urinals and dirt from the field of play — went on sale, snapped up by buyers eager to own a piece of Baltimore sports history, however rank and nasty. 28 (Sacred relic the place where Boog Powell once peed or spit or tossed his dirty socks may be, it must hold special challenges for even the most ardent and capable curator.) Many of these items can still be purchased, complete with certificates of authenticity. The going price for an authenticated BMS seat is currently around $650 — the price of a new La-Z-Boy recliner, no choice of fabrics but a better backstory.
Other artifacts, some less mundane than those just noted, wound up at Camden Yards, where they can be seen today. Inside the Sports Legends Museum next to Oriole Park, one finds original seats, light fixtures, signs and fencing from the old stadium, along with the building’s 1954 cornerstone and dedication plaques. Nearby, at one end of a pedestrian mall outside Oriole Park, as if it might be too depressing for the boisterous crowds entering the stadium, shops and restaurants at the other end, is a low, curving granite wall bearing the original steel-lettered dedication: “TIME WILL NOT DIM THE GLORY OF THEIR DEEDS.” Atop a granite pedestal next to this, encased in glass, is the bronze urn General Hendrix presented years before. A photo of Memorial Stadium and a brief statement on its history are laser-etched beneath, along with the declaration that this new memorial at Camden Yards is dedicated to “veterans who served in all American military conflicts” (my emphasis; more on this in a moment).
So far I’ve been speaking of fragments, but what about the building as a whole? It lives on in replicas large and small. As with other significant landmarks, there are countless miniatures, visual aids and souvenirs, starting with the detailed scale model inside the Sports Legends Museum and moving out into the world beyond with the lumpy BMS snow globes on sale at the museum shop and available online ($39.95). More discriminating buyers may purchase 7 ½ x 6 ¾-inch scale-model “sculptures” from the Danbury Mint, makers of fine Betty Boop figurines and other “Heirloom Collectibles.” Selling for $75, these “limited edition collectors’ items” are licensed by Major League Baseball and made of porcelain and — relics that they are, like a piece of the True Cross or a KISS comic-book printed with traces of the band members’ blood — crushed brick from the old stadium’s walls.
At the other end of the scale, in the early 1990s Baltimore’s Babe Ruth Museum floated plans for a major expansion of its facilities that would have included a two-story replica of Memorial Stadium — oddly, since the Babe never played there — but this didn’t pan out. 29 An architecturally more modest proposal that did stands in Aberdeen, Maryland, where former Orioles great Cal Ripken, Jr. runs a baseball empire that includes a 6,000-seat state-of-the-art minor league stadium and several reduced-scale youth practice fields. These last are modeled on the fields of famous American ballparks, including Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Boston’s Fenway Park, and Baltimore’s lost Memorial Stadium. Ripken’s company also leased from the city of Baltimore the 15 letters spelling out “MEMORIAL STADIUM.” The plan was to add these to the BMS field in Aberdeen, but at last check the letters were still in storage in Aberdeen. 30 They might one day return home to 33rd Street.
Following BMS’s demolition, its 33-acre site became home to a mixed-use development named Stadium Place. This included retail shops, a youth center and YMCA, a senior-housing community (at first dubiously billed as a “tribute to the World War II generation” expected to expire there 31), playgrounds, and a public park overlaying the oval footprint of the old stadium field. Initially, Memorial Stadium Park was to include a baseball field — complete with the old MEMORIAL STADIUM letters poised in the outfield 32 — but the oval was filled instead with a stone-paved labyrinth ringed by a semi-circular wood pergola.
Still, visions of baseball remained. In 2010, baseball fan and former Mayor, now Governor O’Malley called the BMS site “hallowed ground,” and in December that year baseball finally returned there: the ribbon was cut on a $1.5 million, scaled-down replica of the old Memorial Stadium field. Developed by brothers Bill and Cal Junior’s Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, with state and private funds, Youth Development Park was the flagship of the foundation’s Swing for the Future program, which “aims to build baseball fields for at-risk youth and serve as a catalyst for redevelopment in low-income neighborhoods.” 33 The new field is designed primarily for baseball, with home plate at the same location as at BMS, but it can also be converted to a football gridiron with the same orientation as the old Colts’ field. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, former Colts lineman Joe Ehrmann, stepping back onto the site for the first time since his playing days, told reporters that he could “hear the band playing in the recesses of [his] mind. It’s great to reclaim this field.” 34
But reclaim it for whom? The stainless steel MEMORIAL STADIUM letters might still one day be removed from storage and installed there, but so far this hasn’t happened. A bronze plaque on the site honors the old stadium and the teams that played there but provides scant mention of the stadium’s memorial function. The first of its eight sentences reads: “Memorial Stadium formerly stood on this spot and was named in honor of those who did not return from World War I and II.” The other seven sentences immediately move on to discuss the stadium’s lifespan, the Colts and the Orioles, and the new park dedicated by the Ripkens. There is no other on-site indication of what, specifically, BMS once called on people to remember. A shift in temporal orientation is evident here, as the young players for whom the new field was built are asked not to recall “the glory of [an earlier generation’s] deeds,” but to “swing for the future” and build the fabric of their own memories.
“We may live within [architecture],” John Ruskin said, “and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her.” 35 The case of Baltimore Memorial Stadium complicates this picture. Disconnected from artifacts and the sites where events occurred, memories become ever more remote and intangible, ever more challenging to recall, to preserve or utilize. We may need objects and buildings in order to remember, but the efficacy of our memorials diminishes even when they are carefully preserved, thoughtfully presented, and well attended. Like food or batteries, memorials have limited shelf lives. Their capacity to connect us to experience or events, to heal or reconcile, rarely lasts more than two or three generations. After that they become a sort of urban furniture, sparking an increasingly vague awareness of the past but little direct connection to it. Old memorials inspire the recollection of stories passed along, stories learned from words and images, rather than stories lived and drawn from direct experience. Their ability to nourish or recharge us winds down.
So it’s understandable that a youth ballpark opening in 2010 would evoke a stadium removed from its site nine years before, and all but ignore the wars that stadium once commemorated, the last of which ended 65 years earlier. There is also a kind of tragic, practical sense in the fact that the memorial artifacts removed from BMS and reinstalled at Camden Yards would no longer be dedicated to those who served in World Wars I and II only, but more inclusively, more open-endedly, to “veterans who served in all American military conflicts,” including more recent wars, and future ones too. After all, the lived memory of the World Wars is fading fast, receding as its veterans age and die off. The last living U.S. veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, died in February 2011 at 110. Surviving veterans of World War II — my father is one — are in their 80s and 90s. For most people reading this, the wars they fought are history, not memory. The redesigned memorial works just as well for those who fought in Kandahar as for those who served in Cambrai or Corregidor — no need for costly updates or additions.
Until its demolition in 2001, Baltimore Memorial Stadium served not only to maintain memories and stories of the two World Wars for local veterans and their people, but to generate new postwar memories of lives lived on and off the field of play — of seasons begun and ended, of hopes fulfilled and dashed, of triumphs and defeats witnessed and shared by thousands in a specific place and time. Many of these memories are still very much alive today, but they too will fade in time. The stadium’s absence will make them that much harder to maintain.
It can be as difficult to let go of buildings as it is to say goodbye to the people we love. Like the loss of a human life, the loss of a beloved building raises intense emotions. Demolition may indeed mark the end of a building’s utility and its presence as a cohesive physical fact. But buildings have afterlives, carried on in intricate ontological and memorial relationships with the documents, discourses and people surviving them. It is for ourselves that we mourn — for our own fragile and diminishing connections to the people we once were inside and around them — when we mark their passing.
We tend to think of architecture as solid, stable, enduring, something that at its best will outlast us and possibly say something about us to future generations. Demolition makes powerfully evident the vulnerability, the mortality, of all things standing.