Ballpark Concept Becomes Concrete
Architects' Vision Rises Beside the Anacostia as Opening Day Approaches

By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

It began with architect Marshall Purnell sketching a triangle on a piece of paper and drawing a big circle over it. And now, at least from high above, it's clear how that geometry evolved into the new home of the Washington Nationals.

The left side of the triangle is the flat face of the ballpark, stretching along South Capitol Street. The circle is the bowl that makes up the stadium itself. Fitting the seemingly incompatible shapes together was the first of many design challenges for the architects.

They had to squeeze the structure into a dense urban neighborhood that has little parking for fans. They had to place the 41,000-seat stadium so that it took full advantage of the views of the Capitol. And they had to make it a distinctly Washington creation, fitting in a city known for its government buildings and monuments.

Dump trucks and heavy machinery still encircle the stadium and construction workers swarm its interior, installing sheetrock and laying cables and electrical lines. But any passerby can see how the architects' first water color sketches, unveiled March 14, 2006, have turned into reality.

The stadium must be finished in time for a March 29 exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles, just 22 months after breaking ground in May 2006, making it one of the fastest-built ballparks ever.

Along South Capitol, the view is pure Washington -- precast concrete and glass that echo the traditional design of the federal government and reflect its hold on the city's architecture. The flat wall, the side of the triangle Purnell first drew, leads the eye toward the domed Capitol in the distance.

But from another perspective -- across the Anacostia River -- the view is nothing but ballpark -- stone and steel, bedecked with lights and a scoreboard that can only mean "Play ball!"

Fans and design critics will decide whether the ballpark is aesthetically pleasing. But one thing is certain: This ballpark does not fit the trend exemplified by places such as Baltimore's Camden Yards or San Francisco's AT&T Park, red brick edifices that evoke baseball in much earlier eras.

"Washington has never been that. People come to see the monuments, and none of them are red brick," said Purnell, a Washington architect who with Joseph Spear of HOK Sport in Kansas City, Mo., designed the new ballpark.

The new ballpark has a more modern design and has quirks that are distinctly Washington.

Cherry trees, a tribute to the blossoms that draw crowds to Washington each spring, will be planted along the north wall. The scoreboard is the biggest in the nation -- until another city builds one bigger. The best view of the Capitol will be from some of cheapest seats, above the first base line.

The outfield walls vary in height -- 9 feet in right field, where the Nationals' bullpen is located, 12 feet in center field and 10 feet in left field.

The fence's dimensions will give fans plenty to argue about, the architects hope, as they debate which hits could have been home runs if they had only been a few feet to the right or left, and which games might have been won or lost.

Fans will notice how the fence along the first base line jogs out a few feet toward right field, rather than following a straight line. There was no need to do it, "it was just fun for baseball," said Spear, who also designed Camden Yards and has made a career as an architect of ballparks across the nation.

"Everywhere you look we want there to be something different to see," Spear said.

Many of America's older, venerable ballparks were built in stages over the years and their peculiarities came from being added onto and adjusting to their neighborhood surroundings. That was not necessary in Nationals Park, but Spear and Purnell decided to try to build some curiosities anyway.

The outfield of Washington's old Griffith Stadium, home to the Senators, bordered several homes, and its center field had to detour around a large tree. In homage to that, the architects designed a small notch in the left-center field wall of the new ballpark. Depending on which side of the indentation a line drive hits, the ball will bounce left or right.

"Hopefully, our outfielders will know that," said Purnell, who years ago turned down a chance to join a Boston Red Sox farm team to study architecture at the University of Michigan. His firm, Devrouax & Purnell, also helped design the new Washington Convention Center and oversaw the renovation of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium for the Nationals' first two seasons.

Early in the new ballpark's design, the restaurant above the left field stands was drawn to be "iconically . . . reminiscent of a tree," in honor of Griffith Stadium, Purnell said. But that idea was dropped, as were plans to cloak some walls in granite and use more glass, both of which were considered too expensive for a project with an overall price tag of $611 million.

At the peak, about three dozen architects from Purnell's and Spear's firms worked on the project. And even now, less than three months before Opening Day, about 10 labor on final changes.

Unlike many major construction endeavors, the ballpark is a "design-build" project, which means ground was broken and construction begun before the architects finished their plans. The process has not made for dramatic changes from original conceptions, but there have been alterations, Spear said.

Seats, interior walls and doorways have been moved as plans changed and construction continued. Sometimes work crews are operating only days behind the completion of drawings. But the architects vowed the ballpark will open on time.

In the meantime, the initial reviews of the design are raves. Students and teachers from the Academy of Construction and Design at Cardozo Senior High School were among the ballpark's recent visitors.

"This is too cool," said academy manager Shelly Morrison as she stepped out to the club level and got her first view of the playing field. "I don't know too much about baseball, but I'll come for the ambience."

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