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White Sox Interactive EXCLUSIVE

A Sox Park for Chicago's South Side

A conversation with Philip Bess

by WSI editor George Bova

The 2001 baseball season is significant for two ill-fated reasons. First, the White Sox are coming off a division championship season. Chicago's fans haven't been this primed for a baseball championship since the ill-fated 1994 Sox campaign--the one that ended in a players' strike and our Sox in first place. "Ill-fated Sox campaign" is practically an oxymoron. The Sox have had nothing but ill-fated campaigns since 1917.

Philip Bess's Armour Field.

Facing north, the view behind homeplate would feature the Chicago skyline, including Sears Tower.

(Photos courtesy Philip Bess)

Another ill-fated campaign will also be celebrated in 2001: the one to build a better home for our Chicago White Sox. After years of stonewalling the issue, the White Sox have taken steps to renovate New Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox the past ten seasons. Younger Sox fans don't know that an important initiative was launched in the 1980's to build a better ballpark that would have avoided the need for costly renovations that the New Comiskey now requires.

The Urban Baseball Park Design Project of the Ballparks Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research was directed by Philip Bess, a professor of architecture and the principal of Thursday Architects in Chicago. The project was conceived in 1986, executed in 1987 and 1988, and published in 1989 as "City Baseball Magic:  Plain Talk and Uncommon Sense about Cities and Baseball Parks".  At the heart of the project was a proposal to build a new neighborhood ballpark for the White Sox directly north of the old Comiskey Park on the block currently occupied by Armour Square Park, which was called Armour Field. Now ten years after the 1991 opening of the new Comiskey Park, White Sox Interactive asked Mr. Bess for his views on the ballpark that wasn't built, and the one that was.

"My idea," says Bess, "was for a ballpark that would be different than the suburban model that the White Sox were proposing, one that would provide the White Sox with the greater revenues they were seeking, but that would do so on a smaller and physically constrained site. This would have had beneficial effects for both the interior and exterior features of the ballpark, as well as for the immediately adjacent neighborhood and the city of Chicago."

Armour Field and the new public park.

Facing north again with 35th Street in the foreground, the site of Old Comiskey Park would have been preserved as a public park featuring the original diamond.  Mixed-use buildings face Shields Avenue (left) and Wentworth Avenue (right).  These buildings hide multi-tiered parking garages for Sox Fans.   

Not only would Bess's proposal have located a ballpark on Armour Square Park, but the playing field of old Comiskey Park itself would have been preserved as a historic site as part of a new public park. Surrounding both the new public park and the new ballpark would have been mixed-use commercial/residential loft structures. Located behind the new mixed-use development, multi-level parking garages would have provided Sox fans most of the parking desired by the White Sox, with the rest scattered throughout the neighborhood within a five-minute walk of the ballpark.

"The old urban ballparks (Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Tiger Stadium) were better than the new suburban-model-stadiums that had become the industry standard since the early 1960s, for both baseball fans and for cities." Bess's concept was what he calls a "neighborhood ballpark," a stark contrast from what was being proposed for the White Sox.  He envisioned the low-rise/high-density mixed-use structures for the site surrounding Armour Field as a way of both revitalizing the surrounding neighborhood and providing character for the new ballpark.

"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."

"Armour Field itself, and its configuration, was constrained by the size of the site," he notes. "There are a few columns in the lower deck seating bowl to accommodate the site constraints and to get the upper deck seating closer to the playing field. But in retrospect, I could have been bolder in designing the upper deck to be even closer to the field, even if it would have meant more columns in the seating bowl. But all my prior research on ballparks notwithstanding, this was the first one I had designed to this degree of detail; and you learn what you would do differently the next time."

Bess's proposal called for short foul lines and an expansive centerfield. This wasn't fake quirkiness that many of the newest ballparks incorporate. It was born through the need to fit the site. "This is precisely how the old ballparks were designed, fitting the structure to the site."

Continue to Page Two.