Sunday, December 20, 2015

What Might've Been on the South Side

I was reading about Orioles Park at Camden Yards recently when I came across a mention of Phillip Bess, a Professor of Architecture at Notre Dame who in 1987 and '88 was the director and principal designer of the Urban Baseball Park Design Project of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). In 1986 and '87 Bess and his associates conceived of a ballpark to replace Comiskey Park ("The Baseball Palace of the World"), the decades-old Chicago White Sox home which was slated for demolition at the end of that decade. The White Sox, after securing $200 million in public financing, and aided by some legislative jostling by then-governor James R. Thompson, chose to go with the design firm HOK Sport—currently named Populous—which famously designed Oriole Park and, more recently, the new Yankee Stadium, Minneapolis' Target Field, San Francisco's AT&T Park, Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, Houston's NRG Stadium, and the recent renovations of Chicago's Wrigley Field.

Baseball fans are well aware of the criticism that the new Comiskey Park received when it opened in 1991, the year before the beloved Camden Yards opened its gates. (Comiskey was renamed U.S. Cellular Field in 2003.) Recent changes and renovations notwithstanding, "The Cell" will likely always suffer from comparison to the more aesthetically-pleasing, nostalgia-inspired ballparks that came after it. Bess's proposal would have been—was—an intriguing blend of old and new, what he imagined as a "neighborhood ballpark" for the 1990s and beyond. He proposed constructing a field on the grounds of what is currently Armour Square Park, just north of the old Comiskey (with home plate facing north toward the Chicago skyline), surrounded by mixed-use residential and commercial properties. What's more, the old Comiskey field—it's now a parking lot between Armour and U.S. Cellular—would've been saved and re-purposed in and as a new public park.

Here's an image of Armour Square Park in relation to U.S. Cellular:

I'm coming very late to Bess. I vaguely remembered his proposal. I moved to Illinois after the new park opened, so I missed the local angle, and, regretfully, I never caught at a game at the old park. Many have written about him, and in reading more I'm struck, as many have been, by the opportunities missed by the White Sox and the city of Chicago in passing on the plan, flawed as it was in places. (Bess later wrote City Baseball Magic, published by Knothole Press in 1999, in which he expands on his baseball park design ideas.) In a 2001 interview with White Sox Interactive, Bess said, "Most of the developers and city officials I spoke to thought I was crazy to be proposing this kind of development in that neighborhood,"
but in light of Chicago's housing boom of the past decade I don't think they would find it so crazy now. It would be near a ballpark, and was convenient both to the expressway and to public transportation that takes about 10 minutes to the Loop. This works pretty well at Addison and Clark, and I thought it could work at 35th and Shields.
He added:
Armour Field or something like it would have been better for both the White Sox and for the South Side. There's been a lot of new residential development east of the Dan Ryan around IIT, and Armour Field and its proposed ancillary development would have meshed neatly with all this activity without blowing away the neighborhood to the south of 35th street the way the New Comiskey did. But unfortunately, there was little or no thought given to how New Comiskey might fit into its neighborhood.
I've written before about enjoying watching games at U.S, Cellular, especially since renovations lowered the upper deck, added a canopy, and introduced other pleasing changes; much of the criticism against the park is exaggerated and spread reflexively. But after looking at Bess's proposal, I can only imagine how rich and extraordinary his park might've been had his vision been embraced and executed by Jerry Reinsdorf, the White Sox owner. The feel and the culture in the streets surrounding the park might've been greatly massaged, encouraging more of a pre- and post-game desire to stroll the neighborhood and soak in the heady, warm zones between family and game, home and park, front porches and turnstiles. I drive in from DeKalb for Sox games, escaping the congested, place-less I-90 as soon as I can and take a pleasingly slow, left-turn/right-turn drive through surrounding neighborhoods to U.S. Cellular, but the journey is a brief one, and ends in a giant parking lot next to rows of Porta Potties. After the game I'm on the Dan Ryan Expressway before I know it, sitting in a car, surrounded by other cars, pointed west.

Here's Roger Angell from his "Midterm" essay in the July 16, 1990 issue of The New Yorker, on the coming new Comiskey:
In recent summers, the Cubs have been successful on the field but vastly more so in the national media (they may now be looked upon as the sun-dried tomatoes of baseball), with homages everywhere to their ivied walls and fanly folkways, and then a great national hand-wringing over the desecration of the shrinelike Wrigley Field by the infliction of night games and floodlights. Sox fans, in the same interval, saw their franchise very nearly snatched away to Florida, and, indeed, kept in town in the end only by means of a deal, worked out between the owners and the city, and the Illinois legislature, that will deprive them of their own ancient and beloved ballpark at the close of this season. The new Comiskey, a tan concrete pile now looming over the old park like an aircraft carrier moored beside a frigate, is being plugged by the Sox ownership as “an old-fashioned ballpark wrapped around state-of-the-art customer conveniences,” but my quick visit to the half-finished construct was not reassuring. Old Comiskey, which went up in 1910, may be beyond saving, but its strong flavor—part settlement house, part gazebo—will not travel easily, even across the street. Some of the While Sox rooters to whom I made inquiries about the new project expressed mild optimism, delivered with an accompanying shrug—a gesture suitable to a two-game winning streak in April. Sox fans never expect the best. 
Oh well. One can wonder.

The old tenement house coming down in 1991. (Top photo via Ballparks of Baseball, bottom photo via flickr.)

Here's a site devoted to the Armour Field proposal, and some images from Bess's plans.
Drawing by Rael Slutzky, and at top of post (1987)

Comiskey Park at 35th & Shields looking northwest
Armour Field and Comiskey Park looking north

All images except Google Maps via After Burnham.

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