Sport Heritage Review

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Conservation of Sporting Venues

In the past two generations, heritage studies – and heritage conservation along with it – have embraced broader notions of what constitutes a heritage worthy of recognition and protection. Although much of the broader understandings of built heritage have included recognizing and conserving vernacular heritage like industrial sites, agricultural locations, and heritages of everyday home life, heritages of sport, leisure, and recreation have too become part of the contemporary conservation movement. Although it may, on some level, be a stretch to position monumental structures like sports venues – along with the elite (and, in recent decades, well-compensated) athletes who now work there – as heritages of the everyday, these “new cathedrals” are nevertheless important symbols in the community and to the people who use or are impacted by them. In particular, they become more than utilitarian places when they are demolished or when a team elects to move venues. As such, sporting venues become remnants like any other form of built heritage: they are symbols of a past, a repository of memory, and a place that, in many cases, is important to conserve. However, unlike a stately home or even an old factory, an abandoned sporting venue does pose a unique conservation challenge, in whether it makes sense to preserve and conserve a sporting venue when its primary use – a place where sport is played – no longer occurs.

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(The former Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, now home to – among other things – a grocery store and university athletics facility. Photo courtesy of Kate Blair)

Although the much of the focus in the conservation and preservation of sporting venues focuses on the grand and famous, many sporting venues have much more local and regional meanings and, often, are associated more with community leisure and recreation than professional and elite sport. In 2002, English Heritage commissioned a report titled A Sporting Chance which looked at the recognition and conservation of a variety of sporting venues, from famous football grounds through to community pools and leisure facilities to factories which made sporting equipment. In 2011, Historic England (the successor to English Heritage) provided an updated prospectus on the preservation of sport heritage venues, arguing that

Sport and recreation play a major role in modern life. Historic buildings in these categories can therefore elicit strong emotional and sentimental responses. At best, buildings for sport and recreation can be structures of architectural elegance, imbued with considerable social history interest. More commonly they are merely functional in appearance. Yet many of those that survive – and the losses have been considerable – transcend mere utility, and have a character all of their own. (p.3)

The report notes that historic sporting venues have come under threat from commercial and real estate development, from changing health and safety initiatives, and from the need and desire for sporting clubs and sport organizations to maximize revenues (and which may threaten the historic integrity – or continued use – of a historic venue). Furthermore, the report provides numerous other forms of sport venue preservation, including locations associated with ancient and medieval sports like cockfighting and real tennis, as well as more community-based sporting facilities such as billiard halls, cricket clubs, velodromes, gymnasia and drill halls, race tracks (horse, greyhound, and auto), and many more.

Although architectural and historic considerations are important in preserving sporting venues, often it is the emotional connections to these venues which are most pronounced. Losing a beloved venue can be a challenging and even traumatic event for fans and supporters, particularly when it is associated with a the move of a team or the end of a particular era of play. The demolition of Ebbets Field in 1957, the stadium where Jackie Robinson became the first African American player in Major League Baseball, following the Brooklyn Dodgers move to San Francisco has been eulogized numerous times, most notably by filmmaker Ken Burns in his landmark 1994 documentary series “Baseball”:

In 1912, construction began. By the time it was completed a year later, Pigtown had been transformed into Ebbets Field – baseball’s newest shrine, where some of the game’s greatest drama would take place. In the years to come, Dodger fans would see more bad times than good, but hardly car, listen to the southern cadences of a pioneer broadcaster, and witness first-hand baseball’s finest moment – when a black man wearing number 42 trotted out to first base.

In 1955, after more than four decades of frustration, Brooklyn would finally win a world championship, only to know, two years later, the ultimate heartbreak, as their team moved to a new city, 3,000 miles away, leaving an empty shell in Flatbush that eventually became an apartment building, and an even emptier spot in the soul of every Brooklyn fan.

The “empty shell” of a venue no longer has a purpose if games are no longer played there, thus the justification for conservation or preservation becomes a challenge. Nothing is so dead as an empty stadium. In recent years, however, the heritage value of sporting venues have been reconsidered – including for venues that, even a few short years ago, would have struggled to be defined as “heritage.” Sites such as the Astrodome, which ushered in the era of the multipurpose stadium, are now considered important representations of a particular form and type of sport heritage.


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