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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.

Heritage and the Empty Stadium

There was an interesting blog post written by Dave Cournoyer at his site daveberta.ca recently about the future of Rexall Place in Edmonton, Canada.  For the initiated, Rexall Place (as it is currently named) was opened in the mid 1970s and, though it has hosted numerous concerts, performances, and sporting events in its 40 year history, it is most famous for being the long-time home of the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League (NHL).  In particular, the arena housed the Oilers during their “Glory Years” in the 1980s and early 1990s when, led by hockey superstars Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and others, the team won five Stanley Cup championships in seven seasons.  The arena, arguably, has significant heritage value, in large part because of the Edmonton Oilers, though perhaps to a lesser extent because of aspects such as its architectural value, it role in other sporting events such as the annual Canadian Finals Rodeo, and its historical connection to the Northlands fair grounds.

From a individual view, Rexall Place has significant personal heritage value to me.  For decades, it was the place I went to see hockey games with my family.  In fact, I actually witnessed two of the Oilers Stanley Cup championships – in 1984 and 1988 – from our family’s season tickets in Section K, Row 14.  A number of years ago, while completing my doctorate at the University of Alberta, I got to play hockey on the “hallowed ice” of Rexall Place – which was exciting and thrilling and wonderful, even to a grown man.  Rexall Place was also where I went to concerts with friends, saw wrestling cards as a teenager, and had my father take me to an occasional monster truck show.  Simply put, the arena was part of the landscape of my growing up and living in Edmonton, and I suspect it has become an integral part of many Edmontonians’ personal heritage narratives over the past forty years.

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In 2016, the Edmonton Oilers will be leaving Rexall Place and moving to a brand new downtown arena. Cournoyer’s blog post explores some thoughts and issues associated with what happens to Rexall Place after the Oilers move.  As Cournoyer points out, there hasn’t been much thought about this issue, and argues that local residents have not been consulted as to the arena’s future or how the arena might be used after the Oilers leave.

I would add that, part of the consultation about the future of Rexall Place ought to address and assess it’s heritage value, in particular whether the arena’s heritage ought to be recognized and how this heritage recognition would take place.

Empty stadiums and arenas, particularly those with a clear heritage value, pose some very interesting challenges.  I argued, in my recent paper “Sport, heritage, and Tourism” in the Journal of Heritage Tourism that, perhaps what makes sport heritage unique is its link to a sense of perpetual play and performance:

…sport heritage appears to be a very distinct form of heritage, perhaps because of its broad dissemination and consumption, though perhaps more because of its corporal nature.  We have to continue to play sport, or support those who play, in order to create future sport heritage. The fact that sport heritage often does not fossilize, that it must continue to be made and remade through play and performance, is perhaps what gives it a distinctive place in the heritage and heritage tourism landscape.”

What this may mean for empty stadiums, in fact, is that they are essentially dead landscapes; that perhaps the heritage isn’t in the building itself but the relationship between the building/landscape, the spectators, and the game/performance.  Without games being played – in essence, generating new heritage – the buildings themselves may have limited heritage value.

Recognizing the heritage value of empty stadiums and arenas has taken different forms, with different levels of success.  In situ preservation is probably the least feasible option. Leaving aside ancient sporting monuments, such as the Colosseum in Rome, preservation for preservation’s sake would appear unlikely for any stadium.  There are places like Rickwood Field – the oldest baseball stadium in the United States – in Birmingham, Alabama which does not have a core tenant and is probably the best example of preservation for preservation’s sake.  That said, the stadium hosts dozens of events each year, from college baseball games and tournaments to memorabilia shows, so it is hardly a “mothballed” stadium.

Adaptive reuse of heritage stadiums and arenas is a popular option.  Both the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens have incorporated numerous heritage elements of the old arenas into new retail, real estate, and education spaces.  However, adaptive reuse is not always an option.  Tiger Stadium in Detroit was slated for a real estate redevelopment that would have incorporated the old stadium in the development, but plans fell through and the stadium was demolished.  Frequently, the old stadium sat adjacent to the new stadium, so some form of heritage markers were often used to denote where the previous stadium was after demolition. The “old” Yankee Stadium in New York is now a park next to new Yankee Stadium, and Fulton County Stadium is parking for the new Turner Field in Atlanta, with both examples denoting important markers from the old stadium in the new space (e.g.: location of home plate, etc.)  Sometimes, artefacts from the old building are incorporated into the new building.  The scoreboard from the old Omni Coliseum in Atlanta is situated in the foyer of the new Phillips Arena, for example.

Of course, many old arenas simply continue on without their core tenants, or perhaps find a different – and often lower tier – sports tenant.  The Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, once the home of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, continues as a concert venue, a site for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and is the home of the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League (WHL), a junior developmental hockey league.  As such, how the venue’s heritage is preserved or recognized may change as well.

In the discussions on the future of Rexall Place, the heritage of the venue should be raised – and, depending on the future use of the building, how the heritage is recognized will be a key issue.  I also think that the heritage of the venue isn’t just the Oilers, but encompasses many different forms – including personal heritages.  I would imagine that the venue will end up in some sort of adaptive reuse project – I simply can’t imagine it being preserved in situ, nor can I see it continue without its core tenant given the population size of Edmonton.  That said, I hope the good citizens of my former hometown consider a broad range of cases in how to use the venue going forward while still recognizing and acknowledging its heritage value.

Not everything is (sport) heritage, but anything could be

During my graduate studies, as I was attempting to sort out all of this sport heritage stuff, a faculty member asked me if domed stadiums could be sport heritage.  At the time, I bristled at this notion – of course they couldn’t!  Domed stadiums aren’t historic, they don’t have a particular heritage aesthetic, they don’t look like heritage!

Of course, I was completely wrong.

Not everything is heritage, but anything could be heritage.  Every building, trinket, event, heirloom, ritual, etc, etc, etc, could enter the heritage cannon, given the right set of circumstances.  Naturally, there are scales to this heritage – not every trinket is globally significant, after all – but we all have examples in our own lives of items, or events, or traditions that we consider part of our own personal heritage that don’t immediately appear to be “heritage.”  In my own life, I have saved the ticket stubs of games my son and I attended – there is nothing inherently heritage about these ticket stubs, but they have come to symbolize something more and, as such, they have become part of my own personal heritage.

In any event, two recent examples – one from the sports world and one from outside of sports – illustrates that heritage can come from most any place and most any resource.

The sport-related example involves the Houston Astrodome – a once futuristic stadium, now both a resource for sports memorabilia and an historic structure that may be subject to adaptive reuse.

The Astrodome was once futuristic, then common, then outdated, then abandoned, then reconsidered, then historic, then (potentially) valuable.

The other recent example is the historic designation of Steve Jobs’ house:

Again, there is nothing that intrinsically says “heritage” about a non-descript bungalow, but it has been infused with meaning and, therefore, has entered the cannon.  Of course, there are many examples of this throughout heritage – birthplaces, etc, are often recognized and enshrined.

Obviously, we don’t yet know what we might consider sport heritage in the future and, as such, it is difficult to plan for such things.  However, as the Astrodome and the Jobs house illustrate, something doesn’t have to look particularly “heritage-y” to be considered heritage.