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Sports Venues and Historic Preservation: What the Astrodome tells us about heritage

One of the major issues facing historic preservation appears to be making the case for the preservation and protection of relatively recent sites and structures. I think this is particularly the case for buildings that were, at the time, considered futuristic or having a space-age design, or represented some kind of forward-thinking, progressive age – in fact, the polar-opposite of heritage. A recent non-sport example would be something like the site of the Kennedy Space Center, which seems to be much more about the glorious past of the US Space Program than about any kind of future discovery. Seemingly overnight, the site went from a symbol of the future to almost a relic of the past, although in some respects it still exists in a kind-of liminal space where there are still echoes of a future to come. Of course, the Kennedy Space Center still has a purpose, primarily as a tourist attraction as well as the site of occasional launches from private firms, and as such is probably spared from any real threat. However, most recent historic structures aren’t so fortunate, and it can sometimes be difficult to position them as worthy of preservation and protection.

Many sports stadia and venues from the recent sporting past also exist in a kind-of liminal space, particularly as cities and communities struggle with whether the multi-use, multipurpose venues built in the 1960s and 70s are worthy of designation, protection, and repurposing. I have argued many times – both in this forum and in academic publications – that nothing is so dead as an unused and abandoned stadium. A stadium can’t often simply exist to exist, as other historic properties might. In many cases, such as in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Philadelphia amongst many others, multipurpose venues were simply demolished. However, the case of the Houston Astrodome, and the current debates over of what to do with it, might add to the broader debate about the preservation of recent sites and buildings.

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The history of the Astrodome is well documented, though needless to say it has arguably been the most important sporting structure – in events, design, and legacy – in the US in the past 50 years. It is undeniably an important building in telling the story of American sports since the mid 1960s, and if it were a more conventional building the debate over its preservation wouldn’t be in doubt. However, because it is a large, abandoned sports venue, it becomes a little more complicated. There remains an ongoing debate about what to do with it, from the unusual suggestion of maintaining it as site for “ruin porn” tourism to the more conventional adaptive reuse options, but the fact that it hasn’t been torn down and that there are various proposals about what to do with it is encouraging – not just for those who value the building itself, but for proponents of a much broader understanding of historic preservation. The idea that sports venues are not only icons of place but repositories for memories and intergenerational bonding, sites where spectacular feats happened and amazing people performed, and sources of all kinds of artistic inspiration, are not new. However, the notion that the much-riducled multipurpose sports venue also possess heritage qualities is unique, and might make us re-think all kinds of structures from our recent past. Of course, we probably don’t want to save every stadium or every building built since the early 60s – this is simply neither feasible nor desirable. But, the example of the Astrodome demonstrates that historic properties come in all shapes and sizes, and that heritage value is much more than simply a case of a structure being particularly old or particularly ornate.

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.