Postcard of RFK Stadium via Mears Online Auction Postcard of RFK Stadium via Mears Online Auction

To mark the beginning of the Major League Baseball season, we’re celebrating an era in baseball stadium design often maligned by fans and architects alike. Our celebration of the round ballpark will investigate the unique design features of these misunderstood buildings. Fifteen new stadiums were built between 1961-1976 and of those only three (Dodger Stadium, Candlestick Park and Anaheim Stadium) were not round. Often called “Cookie Cutters”, for their geometric similarity, they were also similarly situated outside city centers, were designed to host multiple sports, and had a modern, Pompidou Center-esque ‘form follows function’ approach to their design, now sadly long forgotten in modern stadia design. First up, the one that started it all – to the Nation’s Capital, RFK Stadium:

Location: Washington, DC – 2.3 miles due west of the US Capitol, on the banks of the Anacosta River.
Capacity: 43,500
Design Team:
George Dahl (Architect) Osborne Engineering

Washington Senators/MLB (1962-1971), Washington Nationals/MLB (2005-2007), Washington Redskins/NFL (1961-1996), DC United/MLS (1996-Present)
District of Columbia

Operator: Events DC

Baseball (left) Football (right) (Graphic: Stadiafile  Information: Andrew Clem)
Baseball (left) Football (right) (Graphic: Stadiafile; Information: Andrew Clem)

One of only two stadiums of this era still standing, RFK Stadium was the first major American stadium designed specifically for both baseball (Senators) and football (Redskins) and started the run on such multipurpose buildings. The general challenge for Dallas-based architect George Dahl and Osborn Engineering was how to design a stadium for two sports – football and baseball – with such contradictory shaped playing fields. The football field’s 100-yard-long rectangle and the baseball diamond are so different that the circle was the shape that offered the most flexibility and best suited the overlay of these two fields.

Aerial view of RFK Stadium c. 1988 via Wikipedia

Located on the Anacosta Flats on the banks of the Anacosta River, the spherical RFK Stadium is on axis with the Washington Monument and US Capitol. The fully enclosed, two-tier seating is kept low, including integrated stadium lights so as not to visually interfere with its more famous axial neighbors.

RFK Stadium exterior via Andrew G. Clem

Because of its low-slung character, RFK is more intimate than many of its cavernous, multipurpose contemporaries and its sombrero-like upper tier gives the cozy RFK a sweeping, identifiable feature. The curved profile of the roof is counterbalanced by the strong horizontal of the exterior ramps and structure to form a very clear, elegant facade.

The exposed RFK structure via DC United

RFK worked better as a football stadium than as a baseball stadium. Temporary seats were installed to fill in behind the end zones and the luxury boxes and suites separating the upper and lower tiers were few compared with current ballparks, keeping the two tiers close and the upper deck close to the playing field. For baseball games, these temporary seats were removed to make way for the baseball diamond and as such there were no lower tier seats beyond the outfield fence. This created a condition where the fans in the upper deck were strangely removed from the action.

RFK Stadium c 1992 via American Hertage
RFK Stadium c. 2005 via Ballpark Pilgrimages

One of the great aspects of these ballparks was that their no-frills, bare-bones character kept construction costs down. RFK Stadium was built for $24 million ($18o today), a cost unheard of in modern stadia design. One reason for this was that these were often public buildings. The city of DC paid for the construction and Events DC – a quasi public organization –  now runs and operates the stadium. The connection between the privately-owned tenants – the Washington Redskins – and the landlord – the US Government – is famously told by Thomas G. Smith in his book, Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington RedskinsThe Redskins were the last major American sports team to sign a black player as in 1961, in order to continue their lease in the publicly-owned RFK Stadium, President John F. Kennedy’s interior secretary, Stewart Udall mandated the Redskins sign a black player. The next season, the Redskins drafted Ernie Davis out of Syracuse University and signed five additional black players and were allowed to keep playing at the new stadium.

Today RFK is primarily home to Major League Soccer’s DC United and seating is normally limited to the lower tier.  The seating, much of which sits on rollers originally intended to give the seating the flexibility to be reconfigured, now bounces along with fans in the raucous Bara Brava supporter’s section.

The future of RFK probably won’t be long. DC United are in talks of moving to a soccer-only facility and though there are rumors of the Redskins moving back to the District, it would no doubt be in a new facility. So enjoy it while it lasts, RFK Stadium is a true living legend.

Pre-game DC United via The Viper’s Nest

Next up: Shea Stadium. Flushing, NY
Special thanks to Andrew Clem for information provided on his truly remarkable site Andrew Clem’s Baseball