July 18, 2013

The Oldest Ballpark on the West Coast: A Brief History of Dodger Stadium

Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, 2013. Credit: Steve Devol, Flickr
Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, 2013.

I didn’t grow up in a very sports-minded family, but I still remember the first time I stepped foot inside Dodger Stadium. I was six years old, and my aunt and uncle treated my cousins and me to a night at the ballpark. While I’m certain I paid more attention to my Dodger Dog and the rowdy fans than I did to the architecture (or even the game), I do remember a definite magic to the place.

When I returned to the stadium to catch a game earlier this year, now a full-fledged grown-up, my attention still wasn’t so much on the game as it was the setting. I’m pretty sure there’s no more beautiful place to watch America’s favorite pastime.

Just a few miles north of downtown Los Angeles, Dodger Stadium is built into Chavez Ravine and offers stunning views of the downtown skyline to the south, Elysian Park to the north and east, and in the far distance, the San Gabriel Mountains. An enormous terraced parking lot surrounds the stadium, with mature landscaping showcasing native and drought-resistant plants.

The stadium itself -- the third oldest continuously used park in Major League Baseball and the oldest on the West Coast -- was constructed using tens of thousands of cast concrete units. Inside its gates are its signature pastel-colored seats and curving roofs covering each outfield pavilion.

“It has these very ‘60s features and, architecturally, a really distinctive palate that’s very Southern Californian,” says Janet Marie Smith, an architect and planner who was involved in recent renovations to the stadium.

The stadium retains its 1960s feel with elements such as curving roofs. Credit: waltarrrrr, Flickr
The stadium retains its 1960s feel with elements such as curving roofs.

The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn after the 1957 season, though they didn’t have a permanent place to play in their new city. They started out in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, creating a baseball field on what was designed to be a venue for football and track and field. But that solution was always meant to be temporary, and the search for a new field continued.

Eventually, the team’s owner reached an agreement with the city to build a new stadium in Chavez Ravine, a Mexican-American community that the city had targeted to be razed in the early 1950s and replaced with a Richard Neutra-designed public housing project.

The plan for a new housing development, however, was eventually abandoned, as it fell out of public favor in the wake of the anti-communist sentiments of the day. By that time, many of the longtime residents had left, as the city purchased much of the land through eminent domain.

But in 1957, the city agreed to give the vacant land to the Dodgers in exchange for the team’s agreement to build a new stadium. The last remaining residents of the neighborhood were evicted in May 1959. Four months later, construction on the privately funded stadium, designed by architect Emil Praeger, began.

On April 10, 1962, tens of thousands of fans celebrated opening day at the new, five-level stadium.

A young fan enjoys the stadium. Credit: brendan_c, Flickr
A young fan enjoys the stadium.

In the following decades, the 56,000-seat stadium would see Sandy Koufax's perfect game in 1965, the 1984 Olympic Games baseball competition, and eight Worlds Series played on its field.

The stadium has undergone numerous upgrades and renovations throughout its 51-year history, but it still retains its original ‘60s-era feel.

“One of the nice things about Dodger Stadium is that its picture-perfect postcard image has changed very little over the years,” Smith says. “It’s still very much that park that you would have visited 20, 30, or 50 years ago.”

Earlier, this year, the stadium unveiled its latest crop of improvements, which were completed during the five months of the off-season by a team of preservation-minded architects. The $100 million undertaking did not bring any major noticeable changes to the look of this historic stadium, but the upgrades are most certainly there: new HD video and scoreboards; improved and expanded restroom facilities; an enhanced wireless and sound system; wider concourses; and a new batting cage and training room for visiting teams, among other improvements.

“There’s always a lot of talk about the future of Dodger Stadium,” Smith says. “But for the [team’s new owners], they had the perspective that we knew we would be playing baseball there come April 2013, and we wanted it to be the best it could possibly be.”

The magic of Dodger Stadium that was there to me as a six-year-old is still very much there today, twenty-some years later -- and, I hope, for many years to come.

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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