Harvard Football Stadium – Concrete Sport (1903)

The idea of unfinished. Daily, as contractors continue building our latest construction, I think about this never-arriving state of done. When the last walls are painted and students fill the stands, it probably still won’t feel finished. Outside of work, I also stand somewhat stranded in this almost done state of conquering the Architectural Registration Exam.  But I know that even once this task is finished there will be a new one to conquer. Even the whole subject of this blog, history, is not done. History continues to march on. So take a walk with me.

When my parents visited Boston this weekend, we wandered over to the Harvard Football Stadium to remember the past. Although I can’t be sure, I would like to think that my grandfather once stood in one of the many spots I did. Maybe he entered that football field in the same way, maybe someone once sat on the same seat and watched him score from this exact vantage point. Rather luckily, at least to my imagining mind, the stadium is largely unchanged. I stood in utter amazement at the lack of guardrails in the entire stadium, and felt as if it could have been decades prior.

First constructed in 1903, this stadium has always been a marvel. It was the first large-scale trial of reinforced concrete and a hundred and thirteen years later, I think we can deem it successful. There are approximately 30,323 seats. I say approximately, because there are no seats. The entire structure is one long bench waiting to be reposed on – or in the case of our fellow visitors, trained on. From 1929 to 1951, with the addition of permanent steel stands in the only unbuilt part of the U, it once held 57,166 spectators. So although my grandfather would have known that boosted fan base, the generations since have had to make due with the original structure and its decreased attendance.

A workout sanctuary.

The building is reminiscent of others from Italy and Greece. The large scale arches and columns harken back to the birth of sport. The Harvard stadium was modeled after the Panathenaic stadium, situated in Athens, Greece. Made entirely of marble (the only in the world), it holds 50,000 seats. Constructed on the location of the first Panathenaic game, it has held countless sporting events, including the first modern Olympics. It’s not surprising that Harvard would take a stadium of such status as a model. They are Harvard, after all.

Arches and columns. This underbelly only had me thinking of the Colesseum.

In under 4 ½ months and for $310,000 dollars (or 6.6 million in today’s terms), Harvard built it’s own legendary building to sport. Thirty seven rows of seats wrap the U. The adoption of the Greek and Roman influences give a sense of grandeur not previously attributed to football (at least in my mind).

Further modeling themselves after the Panathenaic stadium, Harvard also employs a material not used by anyone else, reinforced concrete. In 1903, reinforced concrete was only horizontal. It graced sidewalks and served as flooring, but nothing more. Harvard professor Lewis Jerome Johnson helped make the change of angle possible. And in doing so, he made the nation’s first large permanent arena for college athletics possible too. His ideas, partnered with architect Charles McKim’s (of McKim, Mead and White) design talent, led to this stadium. With 1/3 of the funds for construction donated as a 25th reunion gift of the class of 1879, Harvard started construction.

All the firsts.

There were skeptics. People didn’t believe that 250,000 cubic feet of concrete could equal a worthwhile building. They complained about the forest of columns that would be needed to support the structure and potentially ghastly sight lines. They thought the concrete wouldn’t survive the New England winters. And as always, they were concerned about traffic. But largely, they were wrong. The sightlines in here are amazing. And although it is falling apart in areas, the concrete is in remarkably good shape for it’s 113 year life span. Also, I think Harvard stadium traffic is probably the least of Boston’s worries.

In a way, Harvard’s grand structure to football makes sense, since the Ivy League invented the sport as it is known today. In 1875, in the heyday of the first Harvard-Yale game, the sport mostly resembled rugby. It quickly gained popularity, spreading itself among the Ivy League and the Northeast. Harvard held games with large wooden stands. They were dangerous, expensive to maintain (at 1,000 dollars a year), and a constant risk for fire. Despite Harvard President Eliot not being a huge fan of the commercialization of the sport, he realized a more permanent solution was necessary. That permanent solution would be four thousand and eight hundred slabs, each weighing 1,200 pounds, on concrete and steel girders.

No worries about fire in an all concrete stadium.

But, not only did this stadium shape the material’s future but also the future of football itself.

Let’s think back to 1903, when the building was first completed. One writer described football as “a cross between rugby, soccer and a bar fight.” Dangerous now, football then was deadly. Eighteen players died in 1905 alone. Almost completely banned, President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in to reform the game. There were two proposals to make it safer. First, widening the field by forty feet to allow more clear space to run and decrease collision. Second, the adoption of the forward pass.

Harvard, having just built a stadium literally out of concrete, was not a big fan of increasing the size of the field. It wouldn’t fit. They would have to destroy all that they just built. So, they adopted the forward pass. And in a way, they adopted the more modern version of football we know today.

The other side of the U.

At this point, the stadium stands as the nation’s oldest. It is landmarked and thus, marked for preservation. But it needs serious repairs. Although the stadium’s design determined the rules for a new football, it has not done the same for ADA. The lack of handrails is dangerous, and eventually will need to be fixed. Many repairs will need to go in to preserving Harvard’s legacy here.

Concrete repairs have not been the most kind to this facade.

Because there is a legacy. Throughout the years, this stadium has held concerts (including Janis Joplin’s last performance), over 600 Crimson football games, Vietnam protests, Track and Field meets, Olympic soccer games, and even ice hockey events. It was even the home of the New England Patriots in 1970 when the AFL and NFL merger occurred. For a few years, it held my grandfather too. (check him out scoring a touchdown) I can only hope as it’s story continues it is able to retain a little bit of that illustrious past.

But more so, I hope it will continue to inspire. In that first year, a young Buckminster Fuller stood as an eight year old, marveling at the structure and the smell of the concrete. He would go on to design legendary domes. And for all those other students, athletes and visitors, who knows what we will go on to create.

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