D.C. Ballpark Architect Has Towering Test

Ballpark architect Joseph Spear takes photos along South Capitol Street in Southeast Washington.
Ballpark architect Joseph Spear takes photos along South Capitol Street in Southeast Washington. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 2005

Joseph Spear has not spent much time in Washington, but the man who will design one of the most important additions to the city's skyline -- a baseball stadium -- has learned quickly that the city is hard to define.

"It depends on who you ask," Spear said. "There's a federal city and a local city. We are 100 percent committed to a ballpark that represents D.C. What does that mean? Our answer is both. We'll do something symbolic of both."

So on a recent day at the corner of South Capitol Street and Potomac Avenue in Southeast Washington, Spear ignored the rumble of trucks coming from an industrial warehouse and explained his vision for a 41,000-seat ballpark that one day could rise here like a "V."

The facade along South Capitol Street would be built of stone and glass, echoing the grandeur of the District's federal landmarks -- including the Capitol Dome less than a mile north. The other facade, along Potomac Avenue, would have a connected but distinct feel; largely made of steel and glass, this side would be lacey, almost skeletal, and afford views from inside the park of the Anacostia River to the south.

Spear moved to a spot that would be outside the ballpark but near where the two facades would meet.

"From back here," Spear said, "you could look up [through an open section in the wall], even if you're outside the stadium, and see the scoreboard."

As much as anyone, Spear, 52, is responsible for a new golden age of baseball stadium design. Starting with Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, Spear, who works for Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Sport of Kansas City, Mo., has been the chief designer of ballparks in Cleveland, Denver, San Francisco, San Diego and Detroit.

But nowhere is Spear's creativity being challenged as it is in Washington, where the city has asked him to break from his trademark red-brick throwback style and create something fresh to symbolize the national pastime in the nation's capital.

"I'm excited that so many people want us to do better than we've done before," Spear said. "This stadium is going to be very light and modern and different."

On the job for three months, Spear and his staff, along with the D.C.-based architectural firm Devrouax & Purnell, have produced dozens of sketches of the ballpark, which is scheduled to open in 2008. The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which is overseeing the project, declined to release the drawings because nothing has been finalized.

"We want to create a piece of architecture that when people see it on TV, they immediately associate it with Washington, D.C., and with the Nationals," said Allen Y. Lew, chief executive of the commission.

The challenge is magnified because the city intends to use the stadium as a catalyst to spur redevelopment along the waterfront, and the Nationals want to ensure that fans spend lots of money inside the ballpark. In addition, the ballpark is envisioned to be an iconic gateway as motorists cross the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge -- an anchor at the city's southern end that must tie into the monumental core.

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