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Old Comiskey Park


White Sox Interactive EXCLUSIVE

A Sox Park for Chicago's South Side:

A conversation with Philip Bess

Page Two

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Kansas City-based HOK Sport were the architects who designed New Comiskey Park. Several of their staff, while working for the firm Kivett and Myers (later purchased by the design and engineering firm HNTB), had worked on Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium (nee Royals Stadium), which opened in 1973 and was a favorite of Jerry Reinsdorf.  HOK's most critically-acclaimed new ballpark is Baltimore's Camden Yards, which opened in 1992.  Unfortunately, New Comiskey was their first major ballpark design, and from its conception its flaws were obvious to Bess.

Street scene at Armour Field.

The "neighborhood ballpark" concept Bess suggested would encourage foot traffic.  This of course is precisely what's missing at New Comiskey and so many Sox fans miss.   

(Photos courtesy Philip Bess)

"The horizontal and vertical circulation of New Comiskey is very inefficient. The functions of the stadium are segregated and organized like concentric rings rather than integrated with one another. This significantly increases the stadium's area, height and volume." How inefficient is Comiskey's design? Bess notes that New Comiskey's 42,000 seats are accommodated in a structure fully 50 percent larger than either the old Comiskey's comparable seating capacity, or Wrigley Field's 38,000 seats requires.

Does Bess feel his design was prophetic of later ballpark designs built in Baltimore and other cities in the 1990's?  Not exactly.  He draws a distinct line between his concept for "a neighborhood ballpark" versus the "downtown stadiums" that baseball owners and city planners have come to embrace over the past ten years.

"There has been a change in how we build stadiums," Bess notes, "a change in some ways for the better." Nevertheless, he says, "Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, and Pac-Bell are not 'neighborhood ballparks,' but rather 'downtown ballparks.'" And as such, they reflect a shift in how our culture has come to think of cities. "Many people in our culture have stopped thinking of cities as good and desirable places where people live as well as work, shop, and play. Instead, they think of cities as 'entertainment zones,' and of stadiums as 'anchors' for downtown entertainment zones. The goal has been to replace the tax revenues lost by the flight of middle class families from cities, to use public dollars to finance new ballparks in an effort to keep municipal services and governments afloat. But this seems to me a short-sighted solution. Better to make cities themselves livable again; and well designed smaller-scaled neighborhood ballparks can be a legitimate part of that strategy, and make money for team owners at the same time."

Honoring Old Comiskey's site.

A new public park on the site of Old Comiskey would feature the original diamond and real grass rather than the parking lot that is there today.   

Do the new "retro" designs succeed?

"They're not as good as the old neighborhood ballparks," Bess says. "The economics of baseball certainly have changed, and the nostalgia featured in the new downtown stadiums sells. But with Alex Rodriguez getting paid more than what one-third of the franchises are worth, no sane person can argue that a new stadium is going to save the players and owners from themselves."

Does Bess wonder if there is a viable market for the old neighborhood ballparks like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park?  Wrigley is threatened with major renovations, while the Red Sox want to replace Fenway completely.

"I think--among fans at least--there is still a market for them," Bess notes. "Why else do they sell out so often, especially given their teams' histories of futility?  But not only that: I continue to think there would be a market for new neighborhood ballparks as well."

Would Sox fans have been better served by his Armour Field design than the HOK ballpark that was built instead?

"Armour Field or something like it would have been better for both the White Sox and for the South Side," says Bess. "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."

PHILIP BESS is the principal of Thursday Architects in Chicago, a professor of architecture at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and the author of CITY BASEBALL MAGIC and numerous other essays on baseball park design. Though he is a life long Cubs fan, he admires the knowledge and passion of his many Sox fan friends; and he worries for his children, who are old enough to know the Cubs don't win, but too young to know they never will.