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Monday, May 01, 2006

So what if we were punked? Soldier Field should have been bulldozed

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

On an autumn weekend in 1958, we St. George High School "Dragons" filled 500--to be charitable--seats in Soldier Field. Far across the gridiron were the fans of another Catholic League football power, whose name I forget, filling another, say, 500 seats.

That left 99,000 empty seats. Well, not seats. Benches, with places to put about 100,000 butts.

Which is how I remember Soldier Field: A pile of concrete rubble getting in the way of a perfectly good ride on the Outer Drive. A place so unattractive, dysfunctional and unwanted that it had been reduced to hosting high school football games.

St. George, late of Evanston, played there only because it didn't have its own football stadium. So we always were on the road, pretending that this or that stadium gave us home-field advantage. Gately Stadium or Lane Tech Field, for example, where a crowd of 1,000 actually looked big.

If you haven't seen a few hundred fans spread out loosely between the 47-yard lines at Soldier Field, then you don't know the meaning of the word "empty." Empty meant Soldier Field. The Bears played elsewhere. So did the Cardinals.

Soldier Field was so desperate that it even booked stock-car races. I remember them in the late 1940s, the jalopies not exactly speeding around an asphalt track on the field's perimeter, just inside the stands. I can't remember how large the crowd was, but I doubt that anyone was in that 100,000th seat at the far north end of the then-horseshoe-shaped stands. Actually, that seat might not have been occupied since the celebrated 1927 Dempsey-Tunney world championship boxing match, one of the events that supposedly made Soldier Field a national treasure.

This was a pathetic, miserable place, and some of us native Chicagoans wish for an end to the constant carping about the conversion of what we're told is a venerable landmark into a yucky, discordant playhouse for the Bears. The latest lamentations were heard last week when the world awoke to the awful news that some obscure committee of the U.S Department of Interior had yanked Soldier Field's designation as a "national historic landmark."

For a while, we had been warned that Interior Secretary Gale Norton, on the advice of the National Park System Advisory Board, was about to de-designate Soldier Field. As if it were our last chance to repair our mistake.

But the expected de-designation came anyway, meaning that Soldier Field no longer was one of the nation's 2,500 most-hallowed sites, as historically significant and possessing "as much exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States" as--get this--the White House. For years, some of us were unaware of the Rock Pile's historical luminescence. But please, don't make us laugh so hard that it hurts.

The de-designation of Soldier Field now is being read as a comeuppance to Mayor Richard M. Daley and the rest of us Chicago provincials who, well, just don't care and no longer deserve this great honor. I guess we're supposed to say: "Oh, gosh, we're really sorry now that we didn't listen to the landmark preservationists when they blistered the idea of any alteration or removal of the Lakefront Blemish."

It was explained to us that the loss wasn't just Chicago's, but the entire nation's. Said Carol Ahlgren, architectural historian of the U.S. Park Service's Midwest regional office: "If we had let this [designation] stand, I believe it would have lowered the standard of National Historic Landmarks throughout the country." Here's news for her: Just including it on the list lowered the national standard.

Years ago, I suggested that the best way to settle the fight over Soldier Field was to bulldoze the entire mess, start from scratch and construct a memorial stadium befitting the 120,000 American military personnel lost in World War I. But no, the heat was on, and the designers of the remodeled facility had to accommodate the absurd demands of the preservationists. The result? An absurd compromise that indeed may be the ugliest structure in the city, if not the nation.

Well, perhaps, this will assuage the preservationists: Yes, Soldier Field was expelled from the landmarks list, but we got something better added: Lincoln Park's "exquisite" hidden Alfred Caldwell lily pool, which "symbolically celebrates the history of the Midwest." Which, according to the list's creators, puts it in the company of the U.S. Capitol.




Dennis Byrne said...

Dear Readers,

Through all fault of mine, a couple of comments on this posting about Soldier Field have been attached to a following item on foie gras. If you have a comment on one of those, I'd suggest you post it here, if Google allows it, and it they don't kick me off their blog network for blog incompetence. Sorry. And thanks for your understanding.

Anonymous said...

sounds like someone's a little mad he didn't have any clout to get heard when it mattered........hahaha

Anonymous said...

It isn't fair to characterize the St. George crowd as typical of Soldier Field attendance. I have many memories of a packed house for the Prep Bowl in the 50's and the 60's. No other venue in the city could accomodate the numbers attending those games. Don't forget the College All-Star Game during August. I actually saw the all-stars beat the Lombardi coached Packers. I also witnessed the last All-Star game, which was halted by a thunderstorm and on-field antics not seen again until Disco Demolition Night.

JJW said...

You're right, of course, but it wasn't just the "preservationists,"
was it? I could be wrong, but were not the demands of the "veterans' groups" just as strident?

ND said...

Mr., Byrne,

Normally I enjoy your commentary. But you seem to be much more wound up about this that one would expect.

There’s no question:

1. That the stadium built in 20’s had outlived its usefulness as a stadium for the use in 21st Century.

2. That the design of the renovated stadium, which pretended to preserve the original structure, ultimately did not and resulted in a huge eyesore.

3. That the resulting structure should be removed from the list of national landmarks.

However, I note at least two assumptions that seem to underlie your comments. In the interest of journalistic honesty, let's make them explicit:

1. Your comment that the stadium should have been bulldozed to make room for a modern stadium assumes that a stadium suitable for large sporting events should exist on the lake.

2. Your comments regarding national historic landmark designations seem to indicate that you believe everything desiganted a national landmark should be of equal importance.

Let’s look at these two assumptions. First, the desire of the Bears to stay on the lake resulted in the attempt to cram a modern stadium into Soldier Field. They could have gone elsewhere, or they could have chosen to push for demolition to build a “proper” stadium. They didn’t. So the problem, it seems, lies with them, at least with regard to this assumption.

Second, your attempt to assert that National Landmark Designation equates the Lincoln Park Alfred Caldwell lily pool with the White House is disingenuous. Surely you can understand that even a structure as poorly suited to modern needs as Soldier Field could still provide “exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States,” which varies from place to place. I would expect, based on my reading of previous columns of yours, that you can grasp the idea that the range of structures or other naturally occurring features similarly illustrating our heritage could include things as diverse as a lily pool or a building as massive (and potentially useless) as the pre-renovation Soldier Field. The fact of variety in these landmarks doesn't presume that each landmark is of equal importance.

Should the space-ship-like addition have been allowed to “land” on an early 20th-century structure like Soldier Field? Probably not. (I think you would agree.)

Should the Bears (and Mayor Daley) been more honest and demanded Soldier Field be bulldozed for a all-new stadium? Perhaps. (You would seem to agree, though it's doubtful they could have succeeded with this approach.)

This analysis would indicate that your beef is with those that built it, not those, like the National Park Service--which revoked the designation--that are simply describing the building.

Anonymous said...


Though I didn't expect to when I read the headline, once I read your piece; I found myself agreeing at least with the nuttiness of those bellyaching about the present design.

To elaborate on the Prep Bowl crowds, the late 30s saw more than 100,000 attend annually, with the Leo-Austin games of particular legend - and confirmed by a microfilm search of the Trib archives at the Chicago Public Library. I was born in the 60s and my father and uncles still talk about those crowds.