CHICAGO — It’s late in the 2017 season, and in the 558 section of Guaranteed Rate Field on the South Side of Chicago — $10 seats — I’m watching the White Sox lose. I’m also sitting next to a spider …
Spiders, you know, favor the places we’ve forgotten about or at least don’t visit as often as we should. This one’s chosen a spot in the upper deck of a major-league ballpark. The strand of gossamer that runs from the folding seat to the armrest is unbroken, which means this seat hasn’t been used in some time. Despite what you might think given the particulars — it’s baseball season in a baseball park — this spider seems to have chosen well.
The White Sox in 2017 ranked near the bottom of the league in home attendance with an average of just more than 20,000 fans per game. That’s not a galling figure, necessarily, but given that they play in a sprawling venue that seats more than 40,000, it can feel emptier than it is. Homesteading spiders can find aid and comfort here, is another way of putting it.
It’s probably too much to say a White Sox nadir has been achieved. The product on the field is bad enough to make such a declaration, but that’s the residue of what looks like a highly successful teardown by general manager Rick Hahn. Things are going to get better on this patch of the South Side, but in the here and now one is free to enjoy the peculiar Zen that is watching a bad baseball team in a mostly empty park. Part of that Zen is the reasonable expectation that we’re not going to miss much if we take a quick mid-game walk.
For reasons I’ll soon explain, let’s make our way along the iron mesh fence that wreaths the upper deck. At a certain point, you get a glimpse of Armour Square Park, or at least the lights of Armour Square Park, just a bit north and west of the spider and across the parking lot where Old Comiskey Park once stood …
In the image, Armour Square Park is just to the left of the far more distant Willis Tower. It’s night so you can’t see all that much. Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow to give you a better view.
That’s better. Armour Square Park occupies a 10-acre swath of green that’s bounded by Shields and Wells on the west and east and 34th and 33rd on the north and south. It dates back to 1906, as the sign says, and was one of 10 related developments that aimed to ease the strains and indignities of tenement life in Chicago, all designed by the luminous architects Daniel Burnham and the Olmsted Brothers. The park was named for Philip D. Armour, philanthropist and paterfamilias of the famed meatpacking family. There’s a story here, which is why I’m going on about it.
The architect Philip Bess was born in the western suburbs of Chicago in 1952, but he moved to Southern California at the age of six. That meant he grew up a fan of the Cubs and the Dodgers, who’d moved to Los Angeles around the same time Bess did. The early love of baseball in tandem with a nascent zeal for the physical structure turned him into a ballpark enthusiast. When he found his calling later in life after earning degrees from Whittier and Harvard (attending the latter afforded him numerous trips to Fenway), he studied graduate-level architecture at the University of Virginia starting in 1978. Thus he burnished that enthusiasm with expertise.
In Bess’ words, architecture school taught him to “see things differently,” and as such he began to divine what made Wrigley and Fenway special compared to Dodger Stadium and the later stadiums of the multipurpose era. “They were smaller and more intimate because they were built into city blocks,” Bess said of those venues from the first generation of steel-and-concrete ballparks built from 1909 through 1923, from Shibe to Yankee. “They were constrained.”
Those constraints of the urban topography would become a vital part of Bess’ ballpark ethos at around the same time that guiding principle was dying out for good and all. By the mid-1980s, Bess was back in Chicago working as an architect. Impressive credentialing mixed with relative youth inclines one toward naivete and boldness — “idealism” would be a word that captures both. So it was with some degree idealistic naivete that Bess decided he would, unsolicited, design a new ballpark for a team to be determined.
He applied for grants to design a prototype ballpark on a constrained site. The idea would be to a demonstrate a dearly held belief of his: “It’s possible to do a new ballpark in the way the older ballparks were done but with the revenue-generating amenities that were the reason for the new generation of parks.”
Originally the Toronto Blue Jays were casting about for new ballpark ideas, and Bess originally thought about designing the project with the Canadian metropolis in mind. Then, however, the nearby White Sox entered the picture.
The architects who did the ballparks in the teens and twenties were better than the architects who did the ballparks in the nineties Philip Bess, architect
Around 1986 or so, the White Sox began angling for a new venue to replace Comiskey, which had been in use since 1910. The premise, which is rather easily denied, is that Old Comiskey was no longer seaworthy and could not be salvaged. As later efforts to save Wrigley and Fenway proved (Bess, coincidentally, helped design those Fenway refurbishments), parks from that golden age are ushered toward obsolescence rather than meeting it as a natural terminus.
As is so often the case when pro teams desire new places of business, the White Sox and owner Jerry Reinsdorf wanted taxpayers to pony up for said new ballpark. Early in the process, the Sox eyeballed suburban Addison, about 25 miles northwest of Comiskey. Eventually, voters in Addison declined to build the Sox a new ballpark by a margin of just 43 ballots (50.3 percent to 49.7 percent). Reinsdorf was soon thereafter courted by Denver, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Tampa, and eventually the Sox saber-rattled very seriously about moving to Florida unless local leaders capitulated. Capitulate they did.
In essence, Bess’ project took root as a counterproposal to what the White Sox were planning. He received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (who was perhaps on the lookout for something relatively benign in the midst of the evolving Robert Mapplethorpe kerfuffle) and the Chicago-based Graham Foundation. The SABR Ballparks Research Committee also sponsored his efforts. That support allowed Bess to leave his job and devote himself fully to the project. He worked mostly on his own for 1986 and 1987 and eventually hired a single assistant for 12 weeks or so.
Eventually, Bess settled on Armour Square Park, which we saw above, to be the home to what he’d call Armour Field, a name that was a dual nod to its physical space and the industrial past of its city …
That’s looking south toward Guaranteed Rate Field, across the parking lot where Old Comiskey stood and then across 34th Street. That’s where Bess imagined his ballpark and by extension making his argument — “an argument why the old ballparks were better than the new ones and could be updated and improved.”
When a team these days decides they want a new ballpark, they typically have a list of must-haves, be they practical or aesthetic in nature — spacious clubhouses, heated batting cages, a large video board, luxury suites, expanses of parking, and so on. In essence, here’s what we want; where can we fit it? Or, alternatively: What can we raze and relocate and eminent-domain out of the way in order to fit it? Newer parks tend to be, in Bess’ words, “program-driven,” which means the team decides what it wants in its new park and then finds enough space to accommodate every desire. Thus the street grid-busting “superblocks” on which so many modern ballparks sit.
Older parks, in contrast, were “site-driven,” in that the architects started with the available plot of land and fit what they could into it. That’s why the dimensional idiosyncrasies — think of left field in Fenway or right field in the Baker Bowl — weren’t mere contrivances. Rather, they were essential design elements that allowed the park to fit into those existing city blocks. In the old way, park features grew out of a prioritizing, and that prioritizing was informed by the park’s necessarily limited physical footprint. The old parks were shaped by their neighborhoods.
Wrigley, for instance, is on a site of roughly nine acres, eight of which are covered by the stadium itself. New Comiskey/U.S. Cellular Field/Guaranteed Rate Field, meantime, occupies about 12 acres. The Ballpark at Arlington, somehow already being phased out, lolls across 14 acres. Miller Park soaks up more than 15 acres. Why? “The architects who did the ballparks in the teens and twenties were better than the architects who did the ballparks in the nineties,” quips Bess. This from an architect who, by his own concession, was educated as a modernist.
Perhaps the most acute differences between the Wrigley generation of parks and newer models like Guaranteed Rate, according to Bess, is how the two parks handle vertical circulation — i.e., how fans get to their seats by going up or down — and how the upper deck fits within the overall structure.
Guaranteed Rate is in essence a set of layered rings — an open-air Russian nesting doll of sorts. There’s the playing surface, which is encircled by the lower deck and lower concourses, which are flanked by concessions, team stores, and restrooms, and then comes the upper deck. Outside all of that, you have the concrete switchback ramps tacked onto the exterior of the stadium proper, which provide that aforementioned vertical circulation. All that adds up to a big distance between the lower seating bowl and the furthermost ramp. As for the upper deck in Guaranteed Rate, the columns that support it start at the back of the lower deck. Thus the upper deck is not only above the lower deck but also set further back.
Here, for instance, is the view from home plate as you look toward the left field seats at Old Comiskey. Note the close proximity afforded by those columns …
In the outfield of Old Comiskey, both decks came flush to the point at which the playing surface began, which is likely all but unthinkable to those who have experienced only the modern ballpark. Now compare that to my view from Section 558 of Guaranteed Rate Field …
You can feel the remoteness in the second image, in terms of both elevation and distance from home plate. Also consider that Comiskey in the first photo is 347 feet down the line (which means this photo was likely taken in 1986), while Guaranteed Rate is just 330 feet down the left field line. Moreover, in 2001, when Guaranteed Rate had been in use for a mere decade, the team undertook major and costly renovations — largely paid for with tax dollars and completed in five phases spanning several years — the thrust of which was to make the upper deck a bit less far-flung by lopping off the top eight rows.
At the time New Comiskey was built, its first row of upper deck seating was farther from home plate then the last row of seats in Old Comiskey. That, the thinking went, was the cost of not having supporting columns in the lower deck, the absence of which forces upper decks to span well beyond the borders of the lower bowl and thus increase the overall diameter of the stadium. Very soon, though, the team realized that they’d made a mistake. So the columns went in, albeit not as far into the lower deck as they should have, and upper-deck fans were drawn a bit closer to their reason for being there — i.e., the baseball game below them. Even after that costly alteration, though, there’s no comparison to the intimacy found in older parks.
In Wrigley, there’s a mere 15 feet or so between the last seat in the lower deck and the very edge of the building. Major concessions are hosted underneath the grandstand, and vertical circulation takes place either on the flanking staircases (the best way to access the upper deck, says this writer) or via the ramps within the lower seating bowl that run parallel to the outer wall at first and then shift to a perpendicular orientation. Back and forth those ramps go, housed under the Wrigley dormers (magnified in the image below) that you can see from the outside, until you’re conveyed to the upper deck …
Yes, Wrigley has those columns in the lower seating bowl, which beget the occasional obstructed view, but it’s those columns that allow the upper deck to be so close to the playing surface — just as it was with Comiskey — and help keep the overall size of the park from becoming unwieldy. “This is what I mean when I say the old designers were better,” Bess said. “They were working with such a constrained site, and they had to figure out how to maximize seating capacity while keeping things compact. So they incorporated things like concessions and vertical circulation within the park rather than as a series of concentric layers.”
Thus, Wrigley is eight acres and Guaranteed Rate is 12. Thus, Guaranteed Rate, despite having just a few thousand more seats, is 50 percent larger than Wrigley in terms of square footage. You intuit that difference in scale as you walk up, as you make your way through, and as you sit and watch the game before you.
So after suburban Addison rejected the White Sox, the Illinois General Assembly in 1987 established the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA), whose sole purpose at the time was to build and administer a new ballpark for the White Sox — one built solely with public monies.
Seeking still a better deal, Reinsdorf at around the same time leveled his gaze upon St. Petersburg, Florida, and the under-construction Florida Suncoast Dome (now known as Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays). With the dome already paid for and fast becoming a physical reality, Florida public officials became increasingly desperate to find a major-league tenant. Thus, they became more and more submissive to the demands of the White Sox, which made Reinsdorf’s very public threats to light out for Florida all the more credible. Eventually, the credible grew into the probable …
Tim Nickens is now editor of editorials at the Tampa Bay Times, and as he recalls it the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce in 1988 was selling the t-shirt you see above in anticipation of the White Sox’s move to Florida becoming official. That anticipation was justified, given that the White Sox had reportedly signed a provisional agreement to move to St. Petersburg if Illinois and Chicago public officials didn’t make their offer a bit more toothsome.
As we now know, that shirt became a novelty relic. In the spring of 1988, Illinois Governor Jim Thompson muscled through the General Assembly an 11th-hour bill to fund a new ballpark for the White Sox (local oral tradition — possibly not true — has it that Thompson ordered the clock on the House floor unplugged just before the midnight deadline so as afford him extra precious minutes). It’s no exaggeration to say that the Sox were within seconds of moving to Florida. In the end, though, Governor Thompson, the recently deceased Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, and the conjured powers of capitulation won out. The Sox would stay on the South Side of Chicago. The ISFA was granted powers of condemnation over almost 100 acres of Chicago real estate. There, in uncertain proximity to Old Comiskey, the new park would rise.
Meantime, Bess was putting the finishing touches on his Armour Field project. Out of it came the vision of a ballpark that would have a capacity of 42,500, be open to the air, have a natural grass playing surface, and — relevant to the interests of ownership — include 66 luxury skyboxes. That’s far more than the White Sox had in the latter days of Old Comiskey. (Not long after buying the team with partner Eddie Einhorn, Reinsdorf pledged to remain in Chicago in exchange for City Council funding of 27 luxury suites, which were installed in 1982.) Bess fit all of it onto a 10-acre parcel and at a modest estimated cost of just more than $63 million. Most of all, Armour Field would express, in arresting physicality, Bess’ hopeful thesis: “I realized that baseball fans were a kind of community,” he said. “And the thought occurred to me that you can make this argument about buildings as a form of community and make that point by using baseball parks and advance the larger idea.”
The colored renderings of Armour Field, first seen in the pages of Steve Lehman’s The Minneapolis Review of Baseball and later in Bess’ own book City Baseball Magic, pulse with that argument …
We’re looking north up Wells Street. Armour Field is flanked by mixed-use development and grade-level retail on all sides — near at hand and vibrant, which encourages pedestrian traffic and by extension a more genuine neighborhood feel that in baseball these days is found almost nowhere outside of Wrigleyville and Back Bay in Boston. Really, it’s easy to mistake what you see above in Bess’ imagination with what you see in reality 14 stops north on the CTA Red Line.
The passing similarities to Wrigley Field are no accident. The Cubs’ home for more than a century inspired parts of Bess’ design, but at no point does Armour Field ever feel too derivative. The most important similarity may be the use of columns in the upper deck, which allows Armour Field, in keeping with the lessons of its masters, to put every fan close to the game on the diamond. Then again, Bess designed Armour to correct what he sees as Wrigley’s chief flaw. “In my opinion,” Bess says, “the problem with Wrigley isn’t the column-obstructed seats, but rather the overhang-obstructed seats.”
Indeed, fans in the last several rows of the lower deck at Wrigley can’t see the sky or even follow a fly ball through its full parabola because of the upper deck overhang. In the days when his design was first coming to life, Bess would go to Wrigley and sit in the lower deck and figure out at what point the overhang became tolerable. Row 42 is what he determined to be the cutoff point — below it, you can still get some sense of trajectory and watch players track the ball, but above it some of that is lost.
Bess addressed this in his design of Armour Field. For one, he managed to keep columns out of the lower deck until the upper deck turned, in part because the curve of the upper deck doesn’t follow that of the lower deck. He says today if he could go back, he’d put columns further down into the seating bowl in order to get the upper deck seats behind home plate even closer to the field.
Speaking of the inside of Armour Field …
Natural grass, angled walls, Bill Veeck’s classic exploding scoreboard — Those are all fitting touches. Also note the splendid view of the Chicago skyline. New Comiskey, for reasons sufficient unto the architects themselves, has a southeast-oriented home plate, which means you can’t take in those Loop views in such a manner. Armour Field doesn’t make that mistake. Also, please do amply appreciate the left-handed catcher.
Here’s a fuller view of the outfield dimensions …
That would be perhaps the most compelling set of outfield distances and angles in all of MLB today (400 feet to center, 421 to the alleys, 388 to the first turn in the outfield, and 283 down the lines). Indeed, the “shotgun house” layout bears a great of similarity to the dear, departed, singular Polo Grounds. That deep outfield and those short foul lines are distinctive in a genuine way, as they’re necessary in order to fit the park within those neighborhood constraints. In a rejoinder of sorts to Wrigley Field and Waveland Avenue, you’d probably see a very occasional home run ball sail over 33rd Street and bounce into the hands of a ballhawk, luckily positioned just outside the Cork & Kerry or Turtle’s or the Schnitzel King.
A closer look at the facade and exterior …
It’s a classic looking piece of baseball monumentality, with brick on limestone forming the exterior, a roof of copper, and steps leading up to the main entrance. The exposed nature of the outfield is of course by design. Bess hoped that those living across 33rd Street from the park would be able to watch the game from their balconies or rooftops. Another communal grace note is the 1,600-square foot video board in the center of the south-facing facade. The idea would to broadcast the game going on inside Armour Field for the benefit of those people outside the park. Speaking of those people outside the park, they’d likely be gathered at Old Comiskey, which, as you’re about to see, would blessedly still be with us …
At the bottom of the three-dimensional model, you’ll observe that, yes, the Old Comiskey diamond has been preserved and converted into public park space, which serves as a plaza to the ballpark and is also a functioning ballfield for youth and high school games. The plan’s interruption of 34th Street also allows for easy pedestrian flow between Armour Field and Comiskey. Overall, the repurposing of the old stadium has obvious appeal to the preservationist, and it also “compensates” neighborhood residents for the loss of Armour Square Park, which is of course where Bess’ major-league ballpark stands in this alternate reality. Just across from the Old Comiskey diamond, on the south side of 35th Street, Bess envisioned some kind of civic building — an institutional anchor of sorts for what he hoped would be a bustling retail area. McCuddy’s and Tyler’s Soul Food — more on them in a moment — would still stand there.
Heed how snugly Armour Field fits within this particular slice of the Bridgeport neighborhood, as it’s surrounded on three sides by commercial and residential development, all in six-story buildings. This is an essential element of Bess’ design and a key plank in his philosophical platform. It’s also good for the urban environment surrounding the neighborhood, which distinguishes Bess’ vision from the reality of Guaranteed Rate Field.
When he was done, Bess in the summer of 1987 unveiled Armour Field and mailed copies of his finely detailed plan to each board member of the ISFA, each of whom was appointed by Gov. Thompson and Mayor Washington. Bess also attended an ISFA public hearing at which he was allowed a block of time to present his case for Armour Field. “Polite verging on indifferent,” is how Bess characterizes the ISFA response.
Sheila Radford-Hill, a community organizer working with the residents of Wentworth Gardens in the South Armour Square neighborhood at the time, also advocated for Bess and his plan. “We weren’t advocating to save the ballpark [Old Comiskey]. We were advocating to save the neighborhood. A reason for gravitating toward Philip’s design is that he clearly got baseball,” she says. “but most of all he clearly had a scale and a footprint that the residents liked.”
She also saw in Armour Field the chance to bond stable Bridgeport to low-income South Armour Square by easing the physical barriers that divided the neighborhood north of 35th from the south. “If residents were able to see themselves as one neighborhood, north and south, then this would be something very unusual for the segregated city of Chicago. Maybe around the ballpark there would be jobs, opportunities for a community that was integrated.”
Radford-Hill took Bess to the state capital of Springfield and met with representatives. She pressed them to consider a plan that would require Reinsdorf to invest more of his own money and one that was less destructive to the neighborhood. Bess also tried to interview three dozen or so different parties that he identified as potential stakeholders in Armour Field. He tried to get his design in front of White Sox executive vice-president Howard Pizer (Pizer would later criticize Bess for not reaching out to the team first). “It’s not doable, because of the demands of the Sox,” IFSA chairman Thomas Reynolds Jr. finally said of Armour Field in the summer of 1988. “They’ve got [the plan], and they said they’re not interested. If they’re not interested, we’re not interested.”
Pizer through a White Sox spokesperson recently told CBS Sports that his “recollection was that once the decision was made to build that we looked at a lot of different options. I’m sure that [Armour Square Park] was one that was considered, but it never got to where I would’ve called it serious.”
Other than an underground following and some column in inches in the major Chicago dailies, little came of Bess’ efforts. “I had the notion at the time that all you needed to get something done was a good idea,” the architect says today.
HOK Architects, the firm that’s come to be so strongly associated with the post-Camden Yards ballpark boom, would collaborate with the ISFA on the design of the White Sox’s new ballpark. By all appearances and reportage, though, Reinsdorf and the club wielded determinative influence throughout the process. Nothing vivifies Reinsdorf’s desires quite like what he said when the White Sox were initially eyeballing suburban Addison as a new home.
When the White Sox first settled on Addison, a somewhat inevitable controversy arose: Would they be allowed to call themselves the “Chicago White Sox” if they didn’t play in Chicago? For his part, Mayor Washington was clear on the matter. “Chicago is Chicago. The border is pretty well known,” Washington told reporters in the summer of ’86. “If you go beyond the border, you can`t take nothing with you.”
By that time, the NFL’s Jets and Giants were already playing their home games in New Jersey but still representing New York, at least in name and branding. Chicago, though, has long made a fetish out of ignoring Gotham’s cultural cues. Thus Mayor Washington arrived at his stance with some degree of civic honesty.
As for Reinsdorf, his response to Washington was perhaps more revealing than he intended. “Addison isn’t in Iowa,” Reinsdorf told reporters at a Comiskey Park press conference not long after Washington’s comments. “Addison is Chicago as far as I’m concerned.”
He was talking about geographical distance and the booming population of Chicago’s suburbs and exurbs. However, his blurring of the same map lines that Washington took pains to draw revealed him to be something less than an urbanist owner. The city is the suburbs, the suburbs are the city, is one way to read Reinsdorf’s remarks.
To hear Bess tell it, Reinsdorf was enamored of Royals Stadium in Kansas City (now known as Kauffman Stadium) and wanted for himself a reasonable facsimile. That stands to reason on a number of levels. First, early in their tenure as owners, Reinsdorf and Einhorn commissioned a marketing study, the results of which told them they needed to cultivate the existing fan base in Chicago’s western suburbs because of the shifting population base and higher suburban income levels. So what to do when your plan to move to the actual suburbs comes to grief? Bring the suburbs to you in the form of a suburban-style stadium.
HOK traced its origins back to the Kansas City architectural firm Kivett & Myers, which — you’ve probably already guessed — designed Royals Stadium. So consider the visuals of the Addison stadium that HOK eventually proposed. Here it is under the retractable clamshell-looking roof …
And here’s the ballpark in Addison with the roof retracted …
Now compare the second image to the Royals Stadium plan …
(These mockups come courtesy of Eric Okurowski and the very excellent StadiumPage.com.)
The similarities are apparent. There’s a modern “intergalactic” feel to both designs. You see the vertical circulation ramps positioned in close to the same spots, the long-span upper decks. The outfield light banks look surprisingly alike. You see the symmetrical dimension, the rounded edges, and the slivers of green beyond the outfield fencing. Most of all, you see what the White Sox wanted.
What HOK eventually designed for Reinsdorf and what he eventually got after state and local politicians bowed to his wishes (Mayor Washington would die suddenly of a heart attack in November of 1987, mere months after being elected to a second term, but not before he came to see things Reinsdorf’s way) was such a park — suburban in purpose and execution — plopped down in the middle of a city …
What stands out is the lack of building density around Guaranteed Rate Field. It’s bordered by the Dan Ryan Expressway on the east and some 70 acres of surface parking on all other sides — from a distant remove it resembles a pathogen in the city bloodstream. Above all, Guaranteed Rate Field has a footprint that caters to the automobile, which puts it in stark contrast to the Armour Field design.
When the Shibe-through-Yankee generation of ballparks were built, there were no freeways at the time, and most people didn’t have cars. They were built with public transportation and the pedestrian foremost in mind. In an ideal world, Bess would’ve planned for very little additional parking. Instead, game-goers would’ve foraged for street parking or taken transit (the Sox/35th Street stop on the Red Line would’ve been a short walk from the ballpark, as it is now with Guaranteed Rate). In a preemptive strike against the criticisms of ownership and to comply with league ballpark guidelines, though, Bess planned for structured parking in the form of four two-and-a-half-story garages behind the streets abutting Armour Field. In all, Bess called for more than 6,000 new parking spaces — all within a quarter-mile of Armour Field but none adjacent to it, blessedly tucked away behind the lofts and row houses. Another 1,000 or so spaces would be available at the nearby Illinois Institute of Technology in the event of overflow. All of that is significant when it comes to encouraging development of commercial and residential spaces right around the ballpark. In all, nine acres of land directly bordering Armour Field and the site of Old Comiskey would have been available for such development. Under the suburban model, all of that would likely have been parking lots, which is, well, precisely what happened.
The economic benefits of new ballparks are wildly (and willfully) overstated, largely to persuade voters or local leaders to approve public funds for the project in question. Indeed, the very text of the Illinois Sports Facilities Act includes this specious claim …
It is further found that the creation of modern sports facilities and the other results contemplated by this Act would stimulate economic activity in the State of Illinois …
Broadly speaking, new suburban-style stadia provide low-wage, seasonal employment and siphon off discretionary income from other local sectors. The funds used to build those stadia also represent an opportunity cost. In terms of spurring nearby growth, it’s hard for ballparks to do that when they’re blanketed by parking lots. It’s a spatial impediment for fans that discourages them from getting out in the neighborhood before or after the game they’ve come to see. Instead, they’re shunted out of their vehicles and into the ballpark and then back into their vehicles after the game. It’s no coincidence that this type of design makes it more likely that fans will spend more money inside the ballpark rather than out in the neighborhood. At some level, it’s a strategy to seize revenue for the team.
Bess’ design compelled fans who drove to the game (i.e., fans who likely don’t live in the neighborhood and perhaps even the city itself) to walk through the neighborhood and down the commercial corridors for at least long to enough to feel its tug and maybe decide to have a drink or a meal. Those are discretionary dollars that probably would not have been otherwise captured by neighborhood businesses. And as the street scenes outside Wrigley and Fenway remind us, even those without tickets will show up for a game just be part of that unifying energy.
In his own words, Bess with Armour Field aimed for “a reciprocity between the inside of the park and the outside of the park.” The proximity of the physical structure of the park to the pleasing tumult of urban life that frames it speaks to such a reciprocity. Drop a stadium down in the middle of acres upon acres of asphalt — a low-value use of city real estate — and those incentives, and that reciprocity, go away.
The White Sox’s insistence upon such a large physical structure and surface parking that sprawled all the way to the railroad yards west of the Dan Ryan and their unwillingness to consider alternative sites north of 35th Street necessitated, in essence, the destruction of the South Armour Square neighborhood. Meantime, the ISFA’s meek acquiescence to the demands of its tenant meant that no one with a say in the process would stand up for that largely working-class, largely black pocket of the 11th ward. In November of 1988, the Chicago Tribune reported that the IFSA’s plans for the White Sox called for the relocation of hundreds of households in the area. A little more than two months later, attorneys on behalf of the South Armour Square Neighborhood Coalition filed suit in U.S. District Court. In that suit, the IFSA, the White Sox, and the City of Chicago with conspiring “to destroy a stable community, South Armour Square, composed almost entirely of Black residents …”
Even so, the plans moved forward. Many of the displaced residents agreed to what can be considered above-market compensation, but they weren’t given much choice in the matter. “The Sports Facilities Authority announced the site as somewhat of a fait accompli,” says Radford-Hill, the former community organizer. “http://www.cbssports.com/”This is it. We have the power of eminent domain, so we’re going to just take out the neighborhood.’ And the neighborhood wanted much more due process.”
Today, those houses are gone, as is McCuddy’s, where lore has it that visiting Babe Ruth would sometimes guzzle a lager between innings. Gone is Tyler’s Soul Food run by the widow Johnnie May. Gone are 178 housing units and 12 neighborhood businesses. Expelled were almost 1,000 residents. The last traces of South Armour Square are found in the Wentworth Gardens public housing project just off West 37th, where Radford-Hill drummed up a movement and where the Gangster Disciples and Black P. Stones street gangs once feuded. All those losses aren’t surprising once you consider the sprawl of New Comiskey compared to that of Old Comiskey …
In contrast to that actuality, Bess’ plan ensured that the politically vulnerable neighborhood of South Armour Square would be mostly spared by displacing just 50 households. Those residents, however, would’ve received replacement housing within two blocks of 35th Street and eventually benefited from any growth spurred by the new, unique-to-its-era ballpark. Again, because of Armour Field’s smaller footprint, the upheavals would’ve been far less jarring to the neighborhood.
Alas and alack, Bess’ Armour Field project strained to arrest a trend that was simply too powerful. After Yankee Stadium rose up in 1923, the pace of ballpark construction dropped steeply and remained at low levels until the mid-1960s, when the era of the multipurpose stadium took hold. In some ways, the scarce post-golden age and pre-multipurpose parks like Dodger Stadium (1962) had already responded to the ebb of the walkable, mixed-use neighborhood that occurred after World War II by prioritizing automobile access. The multipurpose era took that underpinning and added to it tacky novelty that hastily became drab conformity. Stadia like Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Shea Stadium in Queens, the Astrodome in Houston, Three Rivers in Pittsburgh, Veterans in Philadelphia, and Riverfront in Cincinnati had in common uniform playing dimensions, curved outfield fences, and at various points football-playing co-tenants. Artificial playing surfaces the color of a billiards table felt abounded, as did third decks and the structural “doughnut” shape. Most of all, public funding for all of it surged to previously unimaginable levels.
The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, built in 1923, was the first major sports venue built with any level of public funding, but in that sense it remained something of an outlier until the mid-1950s. In part because of widespread urban-renewal policies, tax dollars paid for roughy 75 percent of new stadium costs for a period of two decades. That period made it accepted practice to fund professional sports teams’ stadia and arenas with the public dime. So when the White Sox insisted that taxpayers pay for their new ballpark, they did so fully in keeping with longstanding trends and with sanction of a kind. So none of that is odd.
What is odd is the level of kowtowing on the part of public officials. The White Sox’s new park was funded with the usual mix of bond offerings and hotel taxes, and the team leveraged the threat of moving to negotiate highly favorable lease terms and then renegotiate even more favorable lease terms. By the time it was all done, the White Sox had secured a clause that allowed them to pay no rent at all if they failed to sell a certain number of tickets. According to a 2011 Crain’s Chicago Business story, the team didn’t pay any rent at all for the first 18 years. Only when the lease was renegotiated in 2008 did the White Sox begin paying the IFSA, and even then their rent was one of the lowest in baseball. Given the level of public investment, you’d think terms could be dictated to the team. You know, we’ll build you a park, but it’s going to be modest in size, it’s going to fit within the neighborhood with minimal disruption, and it’s going to be designed so that the neighborhood has a better chance of recognizing ancillary benefits. That’s not what happened, though.
Politicians are always loath to be the one to lose a beloved local sports team, and that was especially the case for Mayor Washington. He was clawing for reelection during one of the serialized crisis points of the White Sox saga, and at one point his chief opponent in the Democratic primary, former mayor Jane Byrne, readied a campaign commercial that charged Washington with losing the South Side’s baseball team. Around this same time, the Cubs were at loggerheads with the city and neighborhood groups over whether they could install lights at Wrigley Field for night games. The league insisted that they do so, and as such relocation to a Chicagoland suburb, all in the name of light towers, became a viable threat. So the desire to retain power may have made Washington more willing to wield it in short-sighted ways.
In the end, the New Comiskey construction costs of $137 million were borne entirely by the public. The public also paid for the subsequent renovations, which almost doubled the initial construction tab. If anything, those are conservative estimates of the total costs of the New Comiskey project. Armour Field, in comparison, would’ve cost an estimated $140 million, and that’s including construction, infrastructure improvements, land costs, relocation of affected residents, parking development, and the conversion of Old Comiskey into a public park.
Over time, some of those who were aware of Bess’ project began to draw connections between his Armour Field design and the influx of retro-seeming ballparks around Major League Baseball, which is a trend that began with the 1992 opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore. It’s become an article of faith that the White Sox, because they built the last ballpark before Camden Yards launched that “neoclassical” era, missed an opportunity to distinguish the franchise in that Orioles kind of way. There are reasons to doubt this, though.
HOK, the architectural firm that designed New Comiskey, also designed Camden Yards. What we think about when we think about Camden, and what in large part entrenched the idea of HOK — now known as Populous — as the author of retro park boomlet is the old B&O Warehouse on Eutaw Street. However, it wasn’t HOK’s idea to incorporate the longest brick building on the East Coast into the Camden Yards design. Here, for instance, is a 1986 HOK design for the new ballpark in Baltimore …
It’s a multipurpose stadium with plenty of ramps and surface parking and a staggered upper deck — nothing particularly innovative or striking, in other words. This early plan also called for the demolition of the B&O Warehouse, as implied by its dominating absence in the sketch above.
As detailed in Peter Richmond’s book Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream, the idea to incorporate the B&O came from a competing proposal. Eric Moss, an architect with the Baltimore firm Ayers Saint Gross, urged the club to keep the warehouse and even make it part of the playing field. While HOK won the bidding, it was only after Moss’ idea received widespread attention that they co-opted it. At first, they proposed keeping only part of the warehouse, but before the final Camden Yards design was approved they came around to the idea of preserving the B&O in full. As such, Bess describes HOK as, “modernists who were dragged into doing postmodern buildings.”
So even if Reinsdorf, Einhorn, and the White Sox had been open to something outside the Royals Stadium model — and there’s little reason to think they would’ve been — there would’ve been no Eric Moss to prod, via a competing bid, HOK in such a direction. Simply put, the peculiar conditions that led to Camden Yards weren’t present in Chicago when the White Sox’s new ballpark was being dreamed up.
As for the idea that Armour Field in some way presaged Camden Yards generation of ballparks, Bess pushes back and draws some necessary distinctions. While pointing out that the newer parks are “more interesting architecturally” than the modernist ballparks that preceded them, Bess also notes the post-Camden parks are still program-driven and as such have large physical footprints, even those in downtown locations. Most don’t have columns supporting the upper deck, and some are in the middle of parking lots. While 20 of the 21 ballparks built in the Camden era and after have irregular outfield dimensions (Chase Field is the lone exception), that’s more affectation than necessity. That’s because just five of those 21 parks have outfield dimensions that conform to adjacent streets or bodies of water. “When the new generation of retro parks came into being,” Bess says, “they tended to be anchors of entertainment districts in their respective cities. The old ballparks were just part of the neighborhood.”
Here’s an aerial view of Camden Yards that illustrates some of the differences …
Again, there’s adjacent surface parking (not pictured are two other at-grade lots just beyond the one in the photo), there are the vertical-circulation ramps attached the main structure, and there’s the upper deck set back from the lower deck and thus farther from the playing surface. Camden Yards is in many ways a beautiful and important ballpark, but it’s a downtown ballpark and not “just part of the neighborhood,” to repeat Bess’ words. Unlike Armour Field, Camden isn’t a neighborhood ballpark. And that is the revival the White Sox could’ve started had they chosen Armour Field.
In doing so, the White Sox could’ve turned the course of ballpark history into a forking path. Armour Field would’ve opened the year before Camden Yards and presented the post-Camden generation of parks with a choice: the neighborhood model or the Camden downtown model. The vast majority of parks that followed Camden Yards owe at least something to Camden Yards, whether it be the city-center location, the throwback design touches, or the heavy levels of tax funding. The presence and likely embrace of Armour Field, though, would’ve shown those with access to the public coffers that there was another way. More than a quarter-century later, would we be talking about a different, more elemental stadium renaissance?
If you’re a White Sox fan and granted such plenary powers, would you go back and choose Armour Field over what came to pass? Do you trifle with a reality that yielded a long pined-for championship season in 2005? There’s no good reason a change in ballpark should produce ripples strong enough to change that, but do you take the chance that it does? Is there an argument to be made that Guaranteed Rate Field and its gauche imperfections are somehow better suited to the White Sox and the “civic underdog” veneer they’ve cultivated? Would a “Wrigleyville South” identity perturb the fan base’s sense of self? If you have a family, then Guaranteed Rate — with the Fundamentals exhibit in left field in which kids can run, hit, pitch, field, and throw — is a vastly better environment than Wrigley for young fans disinclined to sit politely through three hours of baseball. Modern comforts are modern, yes, but they’re also comfortable. These are all reasonable questions and counterarguments. Would the transportive charms of Armour Field and throbbing Bridgeport street scene leave room for $10 seats and spiders in upper reaches? There’s something to be said for those, you know. “I hold no grudges against the White Sox,” Bess, now a professor of architecture at Notre Dame, says today. “Why would they listen to a 35-year-old kid at the time?”
Despite its pastoral creation myth, baseball has been a city game all the way back to those misunderstood origins. In that sense, it seems fitting that the game’s canvas — the ballpark — should conform to the city and not contrariwise. That’s the argument that Armour Field made. It seems we found that argument wanting, or perhaps we didn’t listen to it closely enough. We should always listen to things like this because baseball is the chamber piece among sports. The setting matters, sometimes more than we know.
Sources: Philip Bess, author’s interview; Sheila Radford-Hill, author’s interview; AfterBurnham.com; Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream by Peter Richmond (Simon & Schuster, 1993); Chicago Sun-Times archives; Chicago Tribune archives; City Baseball Magic by Philip Bess (Knothole Press, 1989, 1999); Clem’s Baseball Blog; “A Conversation with Philip Bess,” George Bova, White Sox Interactive; Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit by Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan (University of Nebraska Press, 2015); Green Cathedrals by Philip J. Lowry (SABR, 2006); StadiumPage.com; (70 ILCS 3205/) Illinois Sports Facilities Authority Act; Laramore v. Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, 722 F. Supp. 443 (N.D. Ill. 1989); “A New Old Ballpark,” Paul Botts, Chicago Reader, June 2, 1988; Playing the Field: Why Sports Teams Move and Cities Fight to Keep Them by Charles C. Euchner (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993)