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D.C. Residents: Please Build A Stadium In My Neighborhood

I think we can all agree we are not likely to see that headline in The Washington Post anytime soon, but I put it out here today because, hard as it may be to believe, there was once a time when D.C. neighborhoods begged the pols to put a stadium where they live.

Today, you can pretty well bet your house that any location that a sports franchise might select as its future home will react as if it has been chosen as a site for chemical weapons testing. But in the 1920s, citizens associations in places such as Congress Heights, Brookland and Anacostia lobbied to become the home of a stadium to be built for the annual Army-Navy game. (The Washington Redskins didn't exist yet; they wouldn't move here from Boston until the 1930s.)

This and a number of other illuminating bits are contained in a new book tracing some of the history of stadium politics in Washington, "Capital Sporting Grounds," by Brett Abrams, an archivist at the National Archives.

The book, inspired by the wild political brouhaha earlier this decade over whether to build a publicly-financed stadium for the Washington-bound Montreal Expos, demonstrates that constructing playing fields for professional sports teams has always been a controversial pursuit. As far back as 1890, the first Washington Nationals baseball franchise, which of course was a cellar-dwelling team that did vastly better at the turnstiles than on the field, ran into opposition when it tore down hundreds of oak trees to erect a 4,000-seat ballpark in Howardtown (named for the university) at 7th and W streets NW.

Interestingly, in those early decades of pro sports, the city's streetcar companies actually paid teams an annual fee in return for the additional business that sports events generated for the transit services.

The push-pull between sports franchise owners and local government has a long heritage. Washington lost the Nationals in 1900, when they moved to Boston in part because the commissioners who managed the District for Congress were threatening to extend Sixth Street north smack through the team's stadium, Nationals Park. Have a look at your D.C. map and you'll see that 109 years later, the city still hasn't gotten around to building that street.

Instead, the site was later used for Griffith Stadium, where the baseball Senators and football Redskins played for many years, despite decades of protests from fans, team owners and politicians that the place was the worst facility in either sport. (The Senators played for a couple of years at American League Park at 14th and H streets NE in Trinidad.)

As eager as city officials are today to blast RFK Stadium to smithereens, it's worth noting that it took half a century to get it built. Starting in 1910--when the federal Commission of Fine Arts, in a shocking, rare 'Yes' vote, approved plans to build a football stadium either on the White House Ellipse or at some other spot in East Potomac Park--and continuing right up to 1960--when that same commission reverted to form and rejected plans for D.C. Stadium (RFK's original name) because it would sit on a straight line from the U.S. Capitol and because the stadium's proposed undulating roofline looked way too "rollercoaster" and "whoopsie-doodle"--the drive to build a stadium seemed eternally star-crossed. The stadium only got built because Congress and the city's Armory Board, eager to save the District's baseball and football teams, overruled the Fine Arts commission. (Hard as it may be to believe, the Redskins never sold out 34,000-seat Griffith Stadium in the 1950s.)

Along the way, all manner of proposals died at the hands of Congress or its appointed arbiters of architectural taste. As far back as 1936, George P. Marshall, the legendary owner of the Redskins, proposed a 70,000-seat domed stadium with a retractable glass roof. Marshall and architect Jules DeSibour collaborated on a patent for the retractable roof; the stadium would be equipped with heat and air-conditioning. Only problem: No one could figure out how to keep a grass field alive in a domed building. The DistrictDome was never built, in part because World War II intervened.

After the war, proposals for a 100,000-seat or even a 200,000-seat football stadium at the East Capitol Street site where RFK stands today were revived, but the debate in Congress stalled when some members insisted it would be irresponsible to spend big money on a sports stadium before the city's dangerous and decrepit slums were cleared--an argument that in only slightly different form dominated the debate over construction of the latest Nationals Park.

At one point in the late 1950s, Marshall wanted to build a football stadium at New York and South Dakota avenues NE, near the Maryland border. In that pre-Metro era, he worried that the RFK site would be a traffic nightmare. Clark Griffith, the Senators owner, meanwhile, fretted that the stadium proposed for the Capitol Street site was shaped for football and would be unsuitable for baseball.

Finally, as Prince George's and Maryland taxpayers consider the wisdom of the latest proposal to build a stadium for the D.C. United soccer team, it's instructive to recall, as Abrams does in the book, that when then-Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke announced in 1993 that he would build his own stadium in Laurel, he set up an office in the county and referred to the team strictly as "The Redskins"--no Washington, a gracious nod to his new hosts in Maryland.

Strange, somehow the team seems to have forgotten that bit.

By Marc Fisher |  March 6, 2009; 8:41 AM ET
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Sounds like an interesting and intriguing book. I can't wait to get my hands on it!

Posted by: pubdog | March 9, 2009 8:55 AM

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