The House That Smith Built

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In "Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream," author Peter Richmond takes us back to summer 1991. Construction continues on the new, yet-to-be-named stadium at the Camden Yards railroad site. As the steel rises west of the Inner Harbor, public sentiment about the stadium design is mixed.

The original plan, drawn by Kansas City architectural firm HOK, has the stadium tall, curvilinear and entirely unrelated to the surrounding cityscape. It fails to live up to the vision held by Orioles owner Eli Jacobs and President Larry Lucchino, who want an old-fashioned and inviting stadium. Architect and urban planner Janet Marie Smith is named ballclub vice president and entrusted to craft a reality from their dream.

In this article adapted from his book, Richmond, who was allowed to visit the construction site on several occasions, gives us a glimpse of the powerful personalities whose decisions sculpted the crown jewel of Baltimore's tourist attractions. We join him at the site, where Frank Robinson, the Orioles' assistant general manager who has the final word on player-related matters for the new stadium, awaits Smith, who is the voice of the Orioles' management at the design table.

At the table, blueprints spread in front of him, Frank Robinson has to smile. That's the exact literal truth: He has to smile.

Robinson would prefer not to, though. Smith has left him waiting for 40 minutes, waiting outside his car on a dusty road on the ballpark construction site.

And here, Robinson has squandered 40 dusty minutes -- a man with no hair out of place, a man whose shoes are so polished they reflect the morning sun, out here in the dust and the wind and the scraps of paper from the lunch cart blowing up in little tornadoes. For 40 minutes he has endured various workers looking for autographs, people with less than a great deal of tact ("Could I get your autograph? I couldn't get Brooks' the day he was out here"). When, finally, Smith, wearing a black-and-orange matching scarf and skirt visible at three miles, pulls up in her BMW and jumps out of the car and jams a hard hat on her head, neither exchanges glances.

But now Smith is carrying a cast-iron, ball-jointed, box seat railing, the one she has been looking for for months, and Frank Robinson has to smile. It's a slow-developing thing, that smile, but once it gets going, it gains momentum, until Robinson is shaking his head while he's smiling.

Soon the Frank Robinson dry humor -- it's his favorite mode of social interaction -- is in full stride. She holds a swatch of material that will cover the outfield fence.

"We have a beautiful Camden Green swatch here," she says. "Isn't it beautiful?"

"What if they call it Oriole Park?" Robinson asks, with a Frank Robinson smile.

"It's still Camden Green," she says, and the expression on her face begs no further discussion.

Now, when Frank has finally loosened up enough to see humor everywhere, Smith's smile is waning.

It is often difficult to tell whether Smith has heard you. As we leave to tour the construction site, Smith puts on her construction hat again, and it appears to be too small.

"Your head's gotten larger," Frank says. Smith appears not to hear.

Down in the showers, down in the still-nascent locker room, Robinson, the former player, has a chance to turn the tables. Even in its half-baked state, this is clearly a players' place. Robinson sees that the shower heads are too high up, and -- worse -- are of a design that will spray needles of water instead of gentle showers. With stunningly short words, as if he's biting off pieces of a radish, Robinson snaps, "The tile is beautiful, but the shower head is all wrong! You put that up there? We talked about this."

"I know we did," says Smith. She is not trying to get out of it and she admits making the mistake. It seems an uncharacteristic concession but it's prompted by one of the wisest philosophies she has held on to throughout the project: Always defer to a player (or former player, in this case) in baseball matters.

They poke their heads into the manager's shower stall, which is still under construction. Smith notices several numbers written on a few tiles, a couple of square inches. She wets her thumb and rubs them out. Robinson points out, with a smile, that she has erased the workman's specifications. Smith allows herself a smile at her manic attention to detail.

Above us, the field is still a parched prairie, half the seats have yet to be installed, the lights haven't gone up and there is no scoreboard, yet Smith is agonizing over 3 square inches of a manager's shower stall.

A few minutes later, in the Orioles' locker room, Smith gestures at a wall and explains that mirrors will give an open feeling to the space.

"Mirrors are a good thing," she says, "when you use them wisely and well. The mirrors beneath the bars in the luxury suites give a reflection of the warehouse. In the locker room, men like to pretend they don't care, but they do. You can bet your bottom dollar they stop to straighten their tie."

Well, yes, except none of them wears ties, I offer. But she seems to perceive this mild jab at humor as an effort at contradiction, and her retort is quick and impatient:

"Have you ever seen the men's restroom at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia?" she asks.

Well, yes, I have.

"Then you don't have to ask me about mirrors," she says, as if annoyed.

"Wait a minute," I say, hoping to lighten the mood. "What were you doing in the men's room at 30th Street Station?"

Frank Robinson smiles.

Janet Marie Smith doesn't.

End of conversation.

We pass a room that was going to be used as a green room for national-anthem singers and pregame performers. Smith explains that they have decided to use it for child care for the players' children.

What, then, will the rock singers get?

"What they deserve," she says, and there's no pursuing that. Or asking what in the world she meant.

Out in the outfield, I ask her why she requested an office on the harbor side of the warehouse instead of on the field side.

"My job isn't to get a good view of the game," Smith says. "My job is to get a good view for 48,000 other people. It's hard to tell people what to do when you're in front of them."

"I'll take the view," Robinson says.

Smith appears not to have heard. The last exchange actually sums up Smith pretty well: She genuinely doesn't care about having a luxurious office, because she'd rather watch a game from the stands any day. But when it comes to some of the concerns of those average fans, she is not so strong an advocate. For example, she did not abolish box-seat railings in the interest of comfort, or insist that the third-base seats curve toward home plate instead of facing the outfield. While she makes every effort to consider the viewpoint of the common fan, she never loses sight of who's signing her paycheck.

The stadium has "taken on the look that she wanted," Robinson says after the tour, as we ride in his car up Charles Street. "Not similar to what she wanted. What she wanted."

I observe that she can be tough.

"She doesn't hit you WHAM!" he says. "She hits you BOP. You say to yourself, 'Did she just hit me?' She comes on all soft and gentle, but she means business. She knows her business, too. With all the traveling she has done, I've gotten to know her chair more than her."

He does a quick pantomime of himself sticking his head into an office and saying hello to an empty chair. And he laughs.

"And you call her Janet Marie Smith," he says, "Not Janet. You call her Janet Marie."

SPECULATION

The agenda for this day is clotted with details: Inspections of the showers. Inspection of the bullpens. Examination of the Camden Green, canvaslike, plastic material that will cover the outfield wall.

Truth be told, Smith is not in a great mood. On this day the state is still talking about building a right-angled extension onto the south end of the warehouse to house the state highway department, against the Orioles' strident opposition.

In addition, the last few weeks have seen the announcements that ticket prices are going to be high -- in all, a 25 percent increase over prices at Memorial Stadium, the highest hike in the majors; reserved grandstand tickets have been eliminated, so that lower reserve moves to the outfield; and some terrace boxes that had been slated for $7.50 are now $12.

The newspapers continue to be full of speculation over the naming of the park. Owner Eli Jacobs is vehement about Oriole Park. Gov. William Donald Schaefer is vehement about Camden Yards. The lease agreement says they have to agree. They can't. It is getting ridiculous and everyone knows it.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL

In 1988, when Janet Marie Smith's application crossed the desk of Oriole President and CEO Larry Lucchino, his first impulse was to send polite regrets. But the combination of details on the resume made it impossible to ignore.

"I thought it was interesting that a woman was available who was an architect and an urban planner," Lucchino says now. "I was convinced we needed someone to shepherd the project. I remember saying to Eli, 'I'm going to hire this woman.' He said, 'Absolutely. What we're doing will be around for 50, 60, 70 years. We have to do it right.' "

Jacobs says, "I wanted someone on the design team to give us parity. I am not an executor. I'm not a technician. We needed a professional. If we'd sent to central casting we couldn't have improved."

Jacobs' thumbnail assessment of the outcome is this: "It was Janet Marie and I. It's my basic vision, and Janet Marie's attention to detail -- luck was shining on us the day she appeared on the scene. She's just remarkable. The strategic part -- the large part -- is mine. The technical is hers."

The resume spoke of a Southern woman armed with degrees in %% architecture and urban planning. What it didn't reveal was the personality: a Dixie facade slathered in Southern syrup, but reinforced by a soul of steel. Smith had never designed a thing in her life -- which makes it all the more impressive and curious that, before the construction was over, a few of the Orioles' employees would be calling the park Janet Marie Smith Stadium.

By Opening Day 1992, her critics would be nearly as legion as her admirers. Her distinctive no-nonsense demeanor would come to incite wildly divergent reactions.

For some, Smith's achievement endures as a manifesto for women in the workplace. Some observers see hers as the story of how a furious work ethic and a headstrong attitude can triumph in the notoriously masculine arena of steel, concrete and sport. For others, hers is a more sobering tale -- of a person driven so hard to succeed, for whatever reason, that no matter how grand her achievement, its significance is forever colored by her bafflingly cavalier treatment of so many in her supporting cast.

It would be accurate to see Janet Marie Smith as one key member in the ensemble -- nothing more, nothing less. But that characterization, somehow, comes up short. Because the truth is that something happened to HOK's original plan, something that changed the stadium from a place that would have evoked nothing more than a yawn from baseball's historians, into a jewel of a park.

That something was Janet Marie Smith.

She was born and raised in Jackson, Miss., the daughter of an architect, the granddaughter of a track boss on the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad -- the perfect pedigree for work on the Camden Yards project. Her father was a Yankees fan; on a family vacation he introduced his daughter to her first major-league game -- in the Astrodome, of all places. Perhaps that initial dose of Plasticine baseball turned her toward the traditional view of the game that would inform the Camden Yards aesthetic.

There was never any question she'd go to college, or that it would be anywhere but Mississippi State. After earning her degree, she spent a year working for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington before going to New York to work on the renewal of lower westside Manhattan, the Battery Park City project. In her spare time, she'd go to Yankees and Mets games with friends. She preferred the Yankees; a night at Yankee Stadium meant a night in an urban environment. She'd meet friends at a Bronx tavern, have a meal, walk to the park. At the Mets' Shea Stadium, she recalls with disapproval, you had to meet at your seats.

When Battery Park City was finished, she landed a job in Los Angeles as the president of Pershing Square Management Association, where she conceived a design competition to renovate the square, an urban park. Her offices were a mile from Dodger Stadium, her home in Silverlake not much farther away. She started going to Dodgers games with friends and alone: "It was a thing that made me feel like part of a bigger community."

One day back East, after she'd given a speech in Philadelphia, she took a train down to Baltimore to catch an Orioles game, and learned of the team's intent to build a new park.

In her letter to the Orioles, she did not ask if they needed anyone. Instead, she wrote, "You need me."

And they did.

PERSONALIZE THE PARK

Janet Marie Smith's mandate was clear: Find a way to quantify Jacobs and Lucchino's vision of a traditional ballpark, and use her expertise in architecture and urban planning to find ways to personalize the park -- without spending too much money.

For Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman Herb Belgrad had hired Bruce Hoffman to supervise the construction. Hoffman had a reputation for bringing a project in without nonsense and within budget, and he came into town with no aesthetic preconceptions about the stadium. The Albany, N.Y., man had for decades run with huge success a family construction and development business. As far as the Stadium Authority was concerned, Hoffman was to be the immovable object to meet Janet Marie's irresistible force.

Above all, Janet Marie Smith had to find a way to make the park intimate.

She called John Pastier, a friend in Los Angeles.

Pastier had grown up in New York. He earned an architecture degree at Cooper Union College, then moved West and did stints as the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times and as a city planner for Los Angeles. His real passion, however, was old-time ballparks.

When Pastier met Smith in Los Angeles in the 1980s, he was talking about his plans for researching and writing a book on old-time stadiums. He and Smith discovered they had the game of baseball in common. Pastier recalls a game in the late 1988 season, in Anaheim, that he attended with Smith.

"She called and said, 'Feel like going to a game?' We explicitly did a lot of talk about stadiums. She might have already been working on the idea [of Camden Yards] -- I don't know. She doesn't divulge a lot. She was very explicitly asking me about good stadiums and bad stadiums, and why this isn't good, and why is this good. That stuck in my head. It was a funny kind of thing.

"Early in the next year she sort of disappeared from L.A."

John Pastier tries to keep the frustration out of his voice. He fails.

In March 1989, Smith asked Pastier for some help. He began work immediately.

"I gave her the use of my slides -- a visual history of the evolution of ballparks," Pastier says. "I reviewed the plans. I drew a couple of cross sections as alternatives to what HOK had. It was crude -- trying to get things a little lower and closer to the field. I cantilevered three or four rows from the back" -- in other words, by redistributing the weight through redesigning the superstructure, he knocked off some of the back rows and put them down lower.

In truth, his advice was a little more specific. On March 21, 1989, Pastier wrote a memo to Smith comparing the HOK design to other stadiums, outlining the design challenges and suggesting solutions.

"Assuming that intimacy and proximity to the field are important, the current HOK scheme does not come out well in these comparisons. In fact, it usually does the worst of the 10 parks under consideration. In many respects it is a regression from Memorial Stadium. . . . I raise the issue of intimacy at this early stage of my involvement, because it is important and frequently overlooked. In an urban setting its importance increases. It would seem appropriate to build a new park of greater intimacy than other recent stadiums, rather than one possessing less intimacy than its contemporaries."

On March 24, Janet Marie Smith's files show, she returned to Baltimore from a trip to Kansas City to consult with HOK, and her memo to Lucchino reports a successful meeting:

"The building mass itself now takes the shape of old ballparks. The four rows in the upper deck will be moved to the outfield corners. This should help our intimacy issue immensely by creating a sense of enclosure around the foul poles and reducing the scale of the upper deck. And, most importantly, the facade of the building can assume an historical character."

Subsequent memos detailed the appeal of the sunroof on Cleveland's League Park; the parallel-to-the-street orientation of the old Wrigley in Los Angeles; the street-building facade of Ebbets Field; the advertising in various parks (in Cleveland: "Nightly Steamer to Buffalo"); the steel truss of the Fenway roof and its artistic integrity; the right-field, inner-pointing seats at Fenway. Attached copies of pictures of old stadiums revealed the world Smith was now immersed in. The aesthetic was coming together. She felt most strongly about wrapping the outfield seats around to face home plate; the integrity of the signs and design of the sunroof were not far behind on her priorities.

Smith was on her way.

Pastier, however, was finished.

"It turns out I never did as much as I should have," he says. "It's been very frustrating. This is the first time she's ever mentioned my name to a journalist."

Pastier originally expected to work on the project for three phases. "We did the first phase and some dribbling around with the second. But I don't think she wanted to get me involved too much because she wouldn't have looked good -- she would have been paying someone and people would have said, 'This is what we hired you for.'

"For someone who is so charming, she is very private," Pastier says. "She doesn't divulge a lot. She is a very eccentric person, at the same time a very in-control person."

In Baltimore, Smith took control immediately. Prodded by Jacobs, and immersed now in the data and schematics, and Pastier's slides and other images of old stadiums, Smith began to chip away at the ungainly mass of HOK's original stadium design, which was tall, steep, curvilinear and entirely unrelated to the surrounding cityscape.

In the next several months, armed on the one hand with Jacobs and Lucchino's blessing -- and on the other with her by-now vast knowledge of ballpark design history, Smith, through perseverance, prodding and not-so-gentle persuasion, molded Camden Yards. Element by element, foot by foot, she reinvented a baseball stadium.

TRUMP CARDS

Smith is working her way through the maze of concrete deep in the half-finished ballpark basement. A few walls of cinder block signify what will soon be the team's dentist's office in the middle of the locker-room complex. On this day, Janet Marie has HTC decided she doesn't like the dentist's office. She thinks the space should be used as a foyer into the players' lounge.

"One of the things we're concerned about, because the space is so huge, is we could lose the camaraderie of the clubhouse spirit," she says. "I don't want to segregate the environment and make it feel like a schoolhouse. See, I don't want to lose that sense of openness."

She walks back to the construction-office trailer. She asks a Maryland Stadium Authority assistant to find keys to the one luxury box that's finished; in a few minutes, she has to choose carpeting colors. No one can find keys. Smith bites back her impatience.

In the office of Tom Rogers, the chief contractor's site supervisor, Smith sits down with Rogers and developer Bruce Hoffman. Stray ions shoot around the room. But everyone seems accustomed to the tension, long grown used to it, like a nagging cold that won't go away.

Smith tells Hoffman that she wants to knock down the cinder-block wall of the dentist's office. It would be a good idea to do it today, she says; the appropriate work crew is here on the site. If they wait, they may have to wait months.

As usual, Rogers senses the need for levity: "It's just another nail in my coffin, that's all."

Hoffman isn't smiling. A moment of heavy silence.

The pause is filled by a sense of showdown. Smith's mouth is set in a straight line, and her eyes are at their most blankly impassive -- they are bottomless, empty. Quite suddenly, this is not Janet Marie Smith and Bruce Hoffman; it is the Orioles vs. the state of Maryland.

"We're backsliding," Hoffman says.

"It's player-related," Smith says, playing a trump card; player-related changes are a priority.

"So's not having a stadium," Rogers says.

Point, Rogers. A pause.

"We're tearing down finished work?" Hoffman asks.

Smith nods.

"It's demoralizing," Hoffman says.

He and Rogers exchange glances.

"We'll do it later," says Hoffman -- whereupon Smith's face hardens still another degree. She appears to be contemplating a response, then thinks better of it, jumps out of her chair, pivots and whips out of the room so quickly that she leaves a tangible empty space. It's a prickly void, too; its very silence is like a scream. Hoffman and Rogers exchange a careful glance.

In the adjacent trailer, Smith tracks down the assistant entrusted with finding the suite keys. The keys cannot be found.

"I'm leaving," she barks, making it clear that they have failed. "I'm gone."

As she walks to her car, someone on the site whistles. If she hears it, she doesn't indicate it.

PETER RICHMOND, a staff writer at Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine and former Miami Herald sports reporter, has written extensively about baseball. His new book, "Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream," (Simon & Schuster, $23) is due in bookstores this month.* May

Copyright 1993 by Peter Richmond. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.

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