Vital Links
The destruction of Memorial Stadium
By Neal Shaffer

In Baltimore, Maryland the final stages have recently been completed in the demolition of Memorial Stadium. The ground where it once stood will be cleared and redeveloped, and someday soon it will be home to a retirement community. There are bricks for sale. The seats and other items have been auctioned off or shipped to museums. The stainless steel letters that formed the homage to veterans at the main entrance will be moved and displayed. This will be the extent of its posterity.

The structure itself has been in retirement since 1998 when the Baltimore Ravens left for greener pastures. The Orioles haven’t played there since 1991, and the only other recent tenants were Canadian football and Double-A baseball. To be fair, this is as it should be. Memorial was old (built in 1954), and it simply did not provide the comforts (or sight lines) fans paying $40 or $50 a ticket deserve. Its time had passed.

So the argument in favor of redevelopment is that the land itself is valuable, and that the city and community do not benefit from having a giant, unused mass occupying it. There is some truth to this, of course. But there’s something else to it, something that even many preservationists fail to mention. It’s not simply that history gets cheated by altering the space, it’s that by removing the structure the history is fundamentally altered.

Memorial Stadium was home to some of the greatest football and baseball teams the world has ever known. Johnny Unitas, Art Donovan, Cal Ripken, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, and a host of other greats all played there. Between the Orioles and Colts the stadium was home to six championship teams. These facts are significant in their own right, but they extend beyond themselves. Sports (and sporting events) are a yardstick of the culture. Every major historical event has a touchstone in sports that reveals something more. The fact, for example, that Willie Mays took time off from his playing career to spend time in the armed forces is a window into the values of that time. Sports have a way of serving as shared memory for disparate groups of people whose paths might not otherwise have crossed.

That history does not disappear when a stadium gets closed down the same way it doesn’t disappear when a player retires. It’s the natural progression, and certainly nobody will deny that Oriole Park at Camden Yards is one of the premier stadiums in baseball and a significant upgrade. The difference here is that a stadium doesn’t have to die the way a player eventually will. People pass on, and the history they knew goes with them. With physical structures such as a stadium that history does not have to disappear.

Take, for example, Washington D.C.’s RFK Stadium. While it has been several decades since baseball was played there, and several years since football, the structure itself remains. It is now home to professional soccer and the odd festival or concert, but it hasn’t really changed. The names of great athletes who once played there still grace the facade, and to be there is to consider the past. If and when RFK stadium is torn down, that physical history will go with it.

Dirt and air do not constitute space. When you move into a house you do not consider it yours until it is filled with your things, and it is in much the same way that events are bound to the brick and concrete that surrounded them. Memorial Stadium, every event ever held there, every fan who ever attended a game there, and every piece of history tied to it are all compromised by the decision to replace it with a waiting room. Worst of all, there’s no good reason for it.

One of the proposals for the site was a park which would preserve large parts of the structure as well as its function as a veteran’s memorial. Another called for it to be a mixed-use commercial center built into the structure itself. With a little bit of thought one could imagine several such scenarios where the structure is preserved while the space is put to use. It’s a problem that vexes urban planners all over the country, and they almost always make the wrong decision. If a given structure is fundamentally sound and historically significant there is never a good reason to choose demolition over modification. This is doubly true with stadiums. Brick by brick we’re giving away vital links to experience.