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We live in an era of public ugliness, of architects who deliberately make their forms unsightly and inhuman, and of public art installations that are invariably ridiculous.

The most obvious exception is the ballpark, which has gotten more beautiful rather than less in a great example of renewal through a return to tradition.

Paul Goldberger, a former architecture writer for The New York Times, traces this journey in his wonderful new book “Ballpark.”

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Rich Lowry

He rightly calls the ballpark “one of the greatest of all American building types” and argues that “as much as the town square, the street, the park and the plaza, the baseball park is a key part of American public space.”

Ballparks went from delightfully peculiar structures shoehorned into city streets, to monochromatic multiuse facilities with all the charm of public-works projects, before rediscovering the old forms.

The first ballpark was built in Brooklyn in 1862 and called “Union Grounds.” Amazingly enough, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not yet the national anthem, was played before the first game. The wooden parks of the 19th century tended to burn down, sometimes spectacularly (a fire at the South End Grounds in Boston took out 200 buildings in Roxbury).

The 20th century brought the age of steel, brick and concrete, and “the Golden Age” of 1912-14. It gave us Crosley Field, where the Reds played until 1970, with an upward slope known as the “terrace” in left field; Tiger Stadium, quirky and cozy (a flagpole stood in the field of play in deep center); and especially the “jewel boxes” of Fenway, Wrigley and Ebbets.

They had in common eccentricities owing to where they were built, and an extraordinary intimacy. Some of their signature features didn’t come until later. The famous Green Monster and the “Dartmouth Green” paint of the interior of Fenway arrived with renovations. Wrigley didn’t get its iconic ivy walls until the 1930s.

Subsequent decades brought a flight from cities, and from idiosyncrasy. Cleveland previewed what was to come in the 1930s with its publicly funded, gargantuan, usually half-empty, symmetrical, multisport Municipal Stadium, or the “Mistake by the Lake.”

The truly dreadful, indistinguishable concrete doughnuts, made for football and baseball but manifestly unsuited for the latter, arrived beginning in the 1960s.

The turning point was Camden Yards in Baltimore, opened in 1992.

Originally conceived as another multisport suburban facility, it instead decisively moved baseball beyond such hybrids. A decision at the outset to keep a nostalgic-feeling old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad red-brick warehouse intact at the site of the new park usefully pointed to the past.

Camden Yards has a red-brick exterior and exposed steel supports inside, eschewing the concrete of the doughnuts. It limits foul territory to bring ground-level seats closer. The stands are arranged asymmetrically to avoid a deadening sameness, and frame a view of the Baltimore skyline, anchoring the park in the city.

It was such a triumph that its retro style has become a design cliche. Its influence stamped the best of the new parks: PNC Park in Pittsburgh, which, outside of Fenway and Wrigley, might be the most charming place to watch a game in the country; Oracle Park in San Francisco, which is everything its execrable forebear, Candlestick, wasn’t; T-Mobile Park in Seattle, which is enchanting despite a retractable roof.

They all are distinctive and tethered to a specific city. They are all pleasing and humane, as good architecture always is. And they are wholly devoted to baseball — still and all, the most American game.

Goldberger writes of how the ballpark, with its lush field at the center of an enclosure of concrete and steel, is the garden in the city, a sports combination of the Jeffersonian agrarian tradition and the Hamiltonian emphasis on cities and industry.

It’s a wonder we managed to mess it up, but we did, before the current revival that shows there’s always a way back.

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Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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(16) comments

Redwall

Ballparks are a sign of beauty. Somebody please pass that message to the La Crosse Parks Department.

Jobaba

"We live in an era of public ugliness, of architects who deliberately make their forms unsightly and inhuman, and of public art installations that are invariably ridiculous." If you bought into this, you will buy into anything. Yes yes, I know, you have seen an ugly building, boo hoo. But to claim deliberate unsightliness as a design? Widespread? He just needs you to buy into this one statement so you can follow the editorial...this one didn't go out of the park. More of a swing and a miss.

Cassandra2

Ballparks cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and most of the profits flow to private individuals. So it's no surprise that Lowry is promoting this nonsense.

martian2

I agree, these new ball parks are an example of corporate welfare at its worst. A place where billionaires have their millionaire players play a kid's game. and who is on the hook for it, the tax payers. And then they have the gall to hike up the prices to where the average family can't afford to go. You talk about socialism, this is a perfect example. I have given up on all pro sports years ago. Salaries and the new ball parks and stadiums have soiled my appetite for professional sports. The worst ball park has to be the new Twins park. I went there and its just a big hole in the ground. And if you don't pay the big bucks to sit on the first level, you are stacked up and have to look straight down to see the ball diamond. And their concession prices are out of this world, with no parking available by the park for tail gating. Someone built that park with out thinking.

DMoney

If I was a twins fan (and presumably, Vikings as well). I'd feel just the same as you.

Kronosaurus

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on each building and charge an arm and a leg to access them. Is it no wonder they are beautiful? You know what else is beautiful? All the wonderful, expensive buildings going up on college campuses. Maybe we could spend some more on k12 schools as well and then Rich can write a column. This is another wonderful example of when a columnist needs to meet a deadline and has absolutely nothing. He probably wrote it on his cell phone while at a baseball game.

DMoney

God forbid someone write something that isn't political. Lighten up.

johnnybragatti

Most folks will say the new parks suck. Witness the Miller Park fiasco, in Milwaukee, where every one supposedly despised Country Stadium,..... until Miller was built.

DMoney

What sucked is driving 3.5 hours across the state only to have the game be rained out. Miller Park is consistency ranked one of the best places to watch a baseball game. You can't even get this subject right....

capedcrusader

This book is now on my list. This may be the first time I have completely agreed with Lowry. There may be a way back from the dark side for him yet.

DMoney

Which Park is the one you'd most like to visit? PNC Park in Pittsburgh for me. Looks absolutely beautiful on TV.

capedcrusader

And I totally agree! I just talked to a tour guide a couple of weeks ago who has visited every major league ballpark and he said that one is his fave. One of my goals is to go on one of Jay Buckley's baseball tours. There is several ballparks I've been wanting to visit. But the Pirates is right at the top. The Brewers stadium has been great for attendance. Never have to worry about a rainout there!

martian2

Wow Lowry 's now in the business of critiquing architecture, namely ball parks. Glad he likes the newer ball parks. Without his ok I don't know if baseball could of survived.

DMoney

You are one bitter man.

Comment deleted.
Cassandra2

It "seams" that you still don't know the basics of idiomatic American English, Comrade. You also continually make up stories about people that have no basis in reality. But we've come to expect that from you, since you are only here to subvert American values and sow dissent by spreading falsehoods.

johnnybragatti

So incredibly spot on Cassandra-2 !!! Z-Kok is one of western Wisconsin"s most overt,sub losers,which is apparent, without saying. The Ha-Ha-ha boy and his very severe substance abuse problem, have certainly caused mental apparition problems. He talks incessantly about drugs, which is proof positive, of addiction, in anyone"s book. It is common knowledge, that he watches socially rendered films like, "Godzilla", on a daily basis. He worships that dude ,but not as much as he worships the Orange Carcass ,in chief. He may be a sick puppy? Oh yeah.

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