When the White Sox open a three-game series Friday in Baltimore, they will be playing in one of the most influential works of sports architecture of our time — a baseball park that rewrote the rules of design and changed the way millions of Americans experience the game.
And even influenced the way Wrigley Field was renovated.
It is hardly a secret that Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which this year is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its 1992 opening, spawned a generation of deliberately quirky "retro" parks designed specifically for baseball that rejected the sterile uniformity of 1960s multipurpose stadiums.
Nor should anyone be shocked to hear that the White Sox were behind this curve when they opened the architecturally clunky New Comiskey Park (now Guaranteed Rate Field) the year before in 1991. Once derided as "The Mallpark," New Comiskey had to undergo the design equivalent of reconstructive surgery just 13 years later.
It's less well-known that Camden Yards, as the Orioles' home is typically called, influenced the renovations of Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, the very historic ballparks on which it was based.
Or that Camden Yards helped spark a broader trend that turned American downtowns into places of entertainment as well as commerce. Think Millennium Park and Navy Pier. All those ballparks that serve up smartphone-ready views of downtown skylines, from Pittsburgh and Detroit to St. Louis and San Diego, are part of the same trend — the city that plays.
"The legacy of Camden Yards isn't so much the steel trusses and the masonry arches that have been mimicked," said Janet Marie Smith, the architect and urban designer who advised the Orioles on the project. "The real legacy is so many teams ended up going into their urban setting and going back to being a part of the urban renaissance."
It was no accident that this revolution unfolded in Baltimore, which in its Inner Harbor successfully had pursued a different form of downtown revitalization from the "urban renewal" policies that bulldozed neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s.
The departure of the NFL's Colts, who infamously left for Indianapolis in the dead of night in 1984, also proved critical. If the Colts had remained, there likely would have been a fierce debate about the need for a multipurpose stadium. Because they left, there was an urgency to erect an alluring facility that would persuade the Orioles to sign a long-term lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority, the builder of Camden Yards, which they did.
"You need to build something that the fans will fall in love with," said Joe Spear, senior principal at Kansas City, Mo.-based Populous (formerly HOK Sport), Camden Yards' official architects.
Responding to then-Orioles CEO Larry Lucchino, who wanted to combine the charm of an old ballpark with the convenience of modern amenities, Smith assembled a scrapbook that codified the features of beloved old ballparks, including Wrigley and Fenway.
Their facades had a civic character, like City Halls and other important buildings. Their upper decks were set back from the street, diminishing their perceived size. Their layouts were often asymmetrical, creating unusual angles in their outfield walls. They were made of steel trusses, not monolithic concrete. They were intimate, with seating capacities in the neighborhood of 40,000, not the cavernous 60,000 or more of the multipurpose facilities.
"(Lucchino) was fond of saying, 'Don't use the S-word,'" Smith recalled, referring to "stadium."
The Baltimore ballpark embraced the city, an attitude epitomized by a gritty brick B&O warehouse visible beyond right field. It's as much a part of Camden Yards as the three-flats on Waveland and Sheffield avenues that define Wrigley. Graceful brick exterior arches, a big improvement on New Comiskey's ugly ramps, enhanced its street presence.
In the seating bowl, which originally had a capacity of nearly 49,000 (since reduced to just less than 46,000), club seats and skyboxes were restricted to a single level, not the three-leveled combination of premium seats and a press box that jacked New Comiskey's upper deck into the sky and made it frighteningly steep for some fans.
Outfield seating was notably unbalanced — low-slung in right to maintain views of the B&O warehouse, multitiered in left to cut down on the number of upper-deck seats behind home plate.
Special touches that managed to be playful without being cutesy — from Oriole logos in the fencing around the ballpark to sidewalk plaques that commemorated tape-measure home runs hit onto adjacent Eutaw Street — reintroduced a narrative, story-telling quality that had disappeared from baseball design.
"The idea," Smith said, "is that baseball is a leisurely game. There is no clock in the nine innings. ... We asked, 'What could we give people during the nine innings to talk about with each other?'"
That this formula proved influential — and largely beneficial for fans in Baltimore and beyond — is beyond argument. Consider the difference between Pittsburgh's now-demolished Three Rivers Stadium, a multipurpose monster, and that city's gem-like PNC Park, with its intimate seating and striking views of the skyline and river bridges.
Even Wrigley and Fenway have been forced to adapt to the way Camden Yards and its retro brethren raised fans' expectations with its successful marriage of modern amenities and historic charm. Wrigley's new outdoor plaza and office building, which includes a showcase Cubs store, reveal one way to increase the offerings of a historic ballpark without disrupting its architectural integrity.
The new features expand the historic ballpark beyond its original footprint, providing modern amenities fans have come to expect since Camden Yards opened while leaving intact Wrigley's historic integrity. Wrigley's restored exterior ironwork, which replaces clumsy concrete panels, also comports to the Baltimore standard of an attractive, street-friendly exterior.
The trouble is, the Camden Yards formula often has lapsed into formulaic imitation. Retro ballparks with exterior brick arches have become a cliche and commodity — more generic applique than architecture attuned to its specific locale. In some cases, their traditional exteriors are mere window dressing for facilities, such as St. Louis' Busch Stadium, that have grown gargantuan because they're jammed with stores, restaurants and skyboxes. At such places, the promised intimacy of the retro ballpark is more rhetoric than reality.
In response to these shortcomings and to the shifting winds of architectural fashion, new stadiums such as Miami's Marlins Park are unabashedly modern. In essence, they form a counterrevolt to the retro revolution.
For her part, Smith, who now works for the Dodgers and has supervised the renovation of their iconic 1960s stadium, bristles at the term "retro." Camden Yards, she argues, was designed to be timeless and to fit its urban context like a glove.
"It wasn't meant to be Ye Olde Park," she said. "It was meant to be Baltimore's park."