Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium at Owen Field
Home of the University of Oklahoma Sooners
Our out of control wagon tour is tearing across the plains, hurtling into the top 5, with the remaining stadiums bringing us to some of the giants of college football. Memorial Stadium at Owen Field is a prime example. Located on the OU campus in Norman (19 miles south of Oklahoma City, 200 miles north of Dallas) Owen field was built in 1923 and has fielded seven national championship football teams. Since its inception it has always been an ambitious building loaded with program and functions, attempting to be more than just a football stadium.
Prior to the construction of Owen Field, the Oklahoma football team played their games at nearby Boyd Field which had grandstand seating for 500 spectators. In 1921, the students began a campaign for a new stadium and a new student union. An ambitious scheme was proposed for a project that would combine the two in one building, however the scheme was scrapped as then Head Coach Bennie Owen determined it would be easier to raise funds for the two buildings separately. The much simpler Owen Field and running track opened in 1925 with a capacity of 16,000 at a cost of $293,000. The original stadium was reinforced concrete, red brick and tile – more than just your simple steel bleacher construction. The original building was named Memorial Stadium to honor those who died in World War I, while the field was named after Coach Owen.
Owen Field has a history of use that extends beyond just a football stadium. During the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the second floor of the stadium served as a dorm for students who couldn’t afford other accommodation.
In 1948, the track that surrounded the field was moved to the east of the stadium. The field was excavated and lowered six feet to make room for an additional 7,500 field level seats. The north end was filled in, a press box was added and the capacity soared to 55,0oo. Following the Sooners’ second national championship in 1955 bleachers were added to the open south end and capacity grew to over 61,000. A third national championship in 1974 led to the addition of an upper deck and new press facility on the west side of the stadium, bringing capacity to 71,000. Prior to the 1980 season new bleachers were built on the south end underneath which were located new football coaches’ offices, a weight room, meeting rooms, a training room, the equipment room and two locker rooms.
In 1999 the football offices beneath the south bleachers was expanded and renamed the Barry Switzer Center after the longtime Sooner head coach. The new Center includes a state of the art sports medicine facility; the Robin Siegfried and Family Strength and Conditioning Facility, which will accommodate more than 400 athletes; new locker rooms; new coaches’ offices; the Anderson All-American Plaza and the OU Touchdown Club Legends Lobby. This continues the tradition of Owen Field being a permanent building with real program, not just a bunch of bleachers.
A seventh national championship in 2000 would spur another building campaign to upgrade Memorial Stadium in four phases, led by 360 Architecture and Populous. Phase I saw the addition of an upper deck and suites on the east side, expanded offices for OU teams under the north end and a new academic center, all for $75 million. Phase II added a second level to the east side in addition to improved team facilities and fan amenities for $9 million. Phases III and IV saw greater fan amenity improvement and further improvement and upgrading of team offices and training facilities. After completion of all four phases, Memorial Stadium capacity grew to 82,000 and is currently the 18th largest stadium in the country.
Although the exterior of Memorial Stadium is not going to win any design awards, through its use of a mix of red brick, limestone and glass, changes in heights and depths and cleverly situated neighboring buildings, it succesfully integrates with the surrounding campus. The ceremonial entry from the north with its clock tower and reflecting pool forms an impressive façade looking over the open campus plaza beyond. The taller east side backs up onto a new multi-level parking structure that serves to reduce the height of the upper deck above. The equally tall west side looks out on the track facility which absorbs the great height of this end.
Integrating such a big building is not easy as this is largely a surface built stadium, with only minimal excavation. Overall Memorial Stadium feels like a solid building whose various expansions and improvements have been cohesively and smartly conceived.
If we follow the trajectory of past improvements to Memorial Stadium, success this season by the Sooners could lead to further expansion. This would likely take the form of enclosing the south end, currently open to allow for direct access to three football practice fields outside.