Saturday, July 4, 2015

R.I.P. Civic Stadium (1938–2015)

Image of the Civic Stadium fire posted to Twitter by Mike Jorgensen.
I was still at work this past Monday evening when my coworker Lana Sadler called to warn me: “Look out the south window” she said. I was astonished to see an immense tower of apocalyptic black smoke billowing into the sky. Lana was driving eastward away from downtown, so she didn’t immediately know the cause. “You probably don’t want to leave the office anytime soon.” 
From my 5th floor vantage in the Eugene Professional Building in downtown Eugene, the source of the densely dark pall appeared to be very nearby. Sirens were blaring, seemingly coming from all directions. Checking my Twitter feed, I quickly learned that historic Civic Stadium was ablaze and that it had become engulfed in flames in startlingly rapid fashion. The temperatures in Eugene had been at record high levels, and the old wooden structure was tinder dry. By the time the firefighters arrived on the scene, the inferno reached far above the tops of the soon-to-collapse timber roof. The radiated heat was intense, prompting the first responders to call for immediate evacuation of surrounding properties within a two-block radius.  

The fire completed its brutal work in less than 30 minutes. There was nothing anyone could have done to save Civic Stadium. 
Very little of Civic Stadium remains standing (my photo).
Two days after the fire, the Eugene Police Department arrested four pre-teen boys and charged them in connection with the incident. With the Independence Day holiday imminent, I initially suspected the fire may have been started by careless kids playing with fireworks. Instead, officials say the boys deliberately set the fire near the press box under the roof of the grandstand. Thankfully, no one was hurt in the resulting conflagration. One of the saddest outcomes of this tragedy is that these kids have not only destroyed a beloved piece of Eugene’s history but also irreversibly altered their own lives. They will pay a high price. I hope for their sake they now understand the magnitude of their actions and grow up wiser, repentant, and committed to not making similar mistakes in the future. 
The dream as imagined by the Eugene Civic Alliance (rendering by Cameron McCarthy Landscape Architecture & Planning)
Civic Stadium’s demise is the cruelest of blows to the members of the non-profit Eugene Civic Alliance. The grassroots organization was determined to save the forlorn stadium and repurpose it as part of a comprehensive recreation complex for use by Kidsports, other youth organizations, pro soccer teams, and adult recreational leagues. The members of the group struggled to build support for their plan to resurrect the old grandstand since its abandonment by the minor-league (short-season, single-A) Eugene Emeralds baseball club six years ago, but build support they did. They finally purchased it this past April, a huge step toward realizing their vision for the property. Now, hardly more than two months later, their dreams for Civic Stadium have literally gone up in smoke. The alliance’s leaders are in shock, as are many other Eugeneans for whom Civic Stadium provided many memorable summer evenings. 
There are few things that typify American culture as much as the sights, sounds, and smells of minor-league professional baseball. Civic Stadium excelled in this regard. It didn’t matter to me when I attended games if the Ems won or if their opponents did. What did matter was the authenticity of the ballpark experience at Civic Stadium. It wasn’t big league and I didn’t want it to be. I enjoyed being part of the community, of sharing America’s pastime with a whole bunch of people on many a lazy summer evening. Half the time, my wife and I didn’t even pay attention to the action on the diamond; instead, the barking peanut vendors, the hokey between-inning contests, people-watching, and the simple pleasures of socializing with those seated around us would provide ample entertainment. 
Something the Ems’ new home—PK Park—cannot replicate was Civic Stadium’s setting and unique field orientation. The view of the south hills from our box seats was exceptional, especially as those hills glowed with the setting sun. Also special: watching the crows flying home to roost for the night in nearby Amazon Park. 
Civic Stadium during its heyday (photo by Dennis Galloway)
Since the fire, many have come forward to share their grief and memories for a building that meant so much to them and their families. The July 1 edition of The Register-Guard included three particularly poignant opinion pieces by Eugene residents Aria Seligmann, Samuel Rutledge, and Bob Tate. Equally affecting have been the mournful eulogies by former Emeralds players and managers. Rob Morse, now the Coordinator of Communications for the New York Yankees said, “The thing I loved about Civic Stadium is that it truly felt like small-town minor league baseball. The cohesiveness of the local community at the games was palpable.” Exactly. 
For all of its charms, Civic Stadium was no architectural masterpiece. As an architect, I can say with some authority that its virtues were limited to its Depression-era provenance (as a public/private partnership between the Federal Works Progress Administration, the Eugene School District, and the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce), its remarkable old-growth timber structure, and consequently its legacy as an irreplaceable example of its type. Its many shortcomings were well-known: the dearth of adequate accommodations for persons with disabilities, the mountain of deferred maintenance, the lack of acceptable toilet facilities, substandard team locker rooms, and the absence of an automatic fire sprinkler system (which might have saved it from its fate). Civic’s proponents spoke optimistically about raising enough money to not only restore the stadium but also enhance its safety and level of amenity by bringing it up to current building code standards. That was a tall order because the scope of the necessary and desired improvements was huge. 
In the fire’s immediate aftermath, the Eugene Civic Alliance board unanimously reaffirmed its commitment to its mission and declared its intention to “reimagine” the possibilities for the site within that mission. The Friends of Civic Stadium website asks, “What do we do when a dream dies?” The answer is to adjust the dream and move on. All of us who enjoyed going to a game, the Fourth of July fireworks displays, the Eugene Pro Rodeo, or another event at Civic Stadium will remember it fondly. The key to moving on will be for Eugeneans to rally around the reimagining process and look forward to the possibility of creating new happy memories.

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