The Blue Lady is Back: Appreciating Dodger Stadium Again

March 31, 2013

    FOR MANY YEARS, DODGER STADIUM was an aging afterthought — a loyal servant we all took for granted, that was badly taken advantage of during the dreadful reign of former owner Frank McCourt.

    But now she’s finally getting respect again. For one, her rich, ambitious new owners are not only pumping millions into their team’s payroll (perhaps it will lead to a better result this year?), but they’re putting the finishing touches on a $100 million facelift for the aging blue lady: widening concourses, replacing the old scoreboards with impressive high-definition LED displays, renovating restrooms, installing a new sound system, and building fancy new player clubhouses underground. Meanwhile, rumors are swirling that a new football stadium could accompany the ballpark in Chavez Ravine, perhaps trumping long-discussed plans for a stadium in downtown Los Angeles or in the City of Industry. (Don’t get your hopes up: Los Angeles has proposed more than 10 football stadiums since losing the Raiders in 1995, and nothing has worked.) 

    Yes, people seem to care about this place again. And so it’s as good a time as any to appreciate the old dinosaur, which has had more staying power than all the ingénues in this youth-obsessed town put together. 

    First of all I have to admit: I’m not a Dodgers fan. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and grew up watching the Phillies inside a concrete donut filled with fake grass called Veterans Stadium. But I do love Dodger Stadium, and the fact that I love it so much is proof that effective design can trump team allegiances, especially in baseball, where most of the experience is about being at the ballpark. Often the game is just background to a good conversation, unless you’re one of those types that tracks every pitch on a scorecard. 

    I love that approaching the place feels a bit like stepping back in time, back to a very specific midcentury Los Angeles when technology was the answer, when the future could bring anything, and when optimism wasn’t optional. I love walking through the heavy vegetation and riding up the covered escalator ramps that seem ripped out of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. I love the concrete planters that look like flying saucers and make their way up the steep terraces like strange miniature water towers.

    Dodger Stadium was built at a time when Modernism was king, but it didn’t take itself too seriously. You’ve got to appreciate the hexagon-shaped scoreboard (even though it’s been updated) and the steel butterfly roofs in the outfield that evoke groovy 1960s era Palm Springs or Hawaii. And the structural concrete canopies above the rest of the park, which make me think of a number of Atomic Age World’s Fairs, or of the concourses in various developing countries. These give the place pizzazz, if not very much shade. 

    In 1959, when construction began, it was a time when you could still build a stadium for baseball, not for hyper-engineered profit. This was before countless luxury boxes and loges brought regular fans farther from the action. No seats seem too far away here, and the seating bowl is luxuriously un-steep. And despite the gargantuan parking lot, when you’re in your seat, it seems like you’re enveloped by the epic overgrowth of Elysian Park, one of the city’s most beautiful green spaces. From some spots, on some clear days, you can even see the San Gabriel Mountains undulating in the distance.

    The stadium was built in an architectural sweet spot, right before Modernism got out of hand in baseball (and elsewhere), producing a wave of brutalist engineering feats that author Philip J. Lowry called the “concrete sterile ashtray” look. It all seemed to start in 1965 with Houston’s Astrodome, nicknamed the Eighth Wonder of the World, setting off a wave of grand but failed multiuse experiments. Richie Hebner, in the book Green Cathedrals, describes these parks: “I stand at the plate at the Vet in Philadelphia, and I don’t honestly know whether I’m in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Philly. They all look alike.”

    The proof of which approach worked better is obvious: the ashtrays are basically all extinct, while that old classic Dodger Stadium remains, despite the assumption that everything in Los Angeles needs to be replaced every 10 years. (Its age is also a telltale sign that infrastructure in Los Angeles tends to get a little long in the tooth, but that’s another story.)

    In fact, Dodger Stadium has outlived almost every ballpark in baseball, outside of the true temples of the sport, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park (hell, even Yankee Stadium was replaced a couple years back, which I still can’t believe actually happened). Since it was willed into existence by team owner Walter O’Malley, and completed in 1962, almost every major league city has built, and then replaced, their subsequent ballparks. The new fields sound like names on a stock ticker. My Veterans Stadium, built in 1971, was replaced by the (lovely) Citizens Bank Park in 2004. Here on the West Coast, Seattle’s Kingdome, built in 1977, was replaced by Safeco Field in 1999. San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, built in 1960, was replaced by AT&T Park in 2000. San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium, built in 1969, was replaced by Petco Park in 2004. Even Oakland’s long-surviving Coliseum is set to be replaced with Cisco Field in San Jose in the coming years. The only exception is Angel Stadium of Anaheim, built in 1966, but still, nobody would choose a day there over one at Chavez Ravine.

    The last wave of stadium design, which began in 1992 with Baltimore’s gorgeous Oriole Park at Camden Yards, isn’t new at all: it’s a retro nostalgia for the earliest parks, including old timey signage, faux iron-work, quirky dimensions, and lots of bunting. This continued trend — a fairly effective reaction to the placeless concrete monstrosities — makes Dodger Stadium even more the Modern-era odd man out. 

    For which I’m quite pleased. I don’t want a new stadium here, and I don’t want something that approximates the Dodgers’ old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Nothing could replace the feel of Dodger Stadium. 

    Of course, while I love its shed-like exterior metallic decking, the stadium as a piece of architecture is not breathtakingly beautiful. It was designed by an architect more known as a civil engineer, Emil Praeger, whose other achievements included a concrete floating breakwater used in the invasion of Normandy, the Tappan Zee Bridge, and New York’s Shea Stadium — nobody’s ideal of beauty — which has been torn down in favor of the retro Citi Field. And it still maintains the worst vestiges of 1960s era planning: there is no denying that Dodger Stadium’s construction was precipitated by the destruction of hundreds, maybe thousands of homes in Chavez Ravine. In addition, it still maintains its epic, multilevel, baseball-shaped parking lot, which seems to cover more space than all of Downtown. If the Dodgers and the city had more vision, they could easily replace all that parking with a few structures and replace the rest with green space, or anything besides more parking.

    It still works, though, exactly because this is not a precious place where you go to recreate the nostalgic glory of the early days of baseball. Instead, you are in a place built when Los Angeles was still the future, and when you step inside and look at the palm trees hovering above left field, you start to feel like it could be again. It also speaks to the current ethos, in which re-use and rehab are in vogue for their eco-value, as much as for our desperate attempts to hold on to a past that we’ve all too willingly thrown away in favor of a new recreation of it.

    In Downtown Los Angeles, for example, the city has largely ignored its impossibly beautiful old Broadway movie palaces in favor of building the brand new Nokia Theater, which looks like every other auditorium in the country. And throughout the city we’ve been building sterile simulacra of the past, from Tuscan villas to the Grove, with its vintage trolley and strange mix of Art Deco, Beaux Arts, and any number of other styles. 

    If you wait around long enough, your style, and the vision that it represents (perhaps tempered by experience), will come back, and it feels like this is Dodger Stadium’s time. The old lady, with her impressive makeover — yes, there’s nothing wrong with a good facelift — feels again like what a baseball stadium should be. 



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