Camden Yards Ballpark, the future $105 million home of the Baltimore Orioles currently under construction in downtown Baltimore, was not conceived as a flashy technofeat sports facility. Rather, it was modeled on the fabled baseball houses of an earlier time -- Boston's Fenway, Detroit's Tiger, Chicago's Comiskey and Wrigley, Brooklyn's Ebbetts, Washington's long-gone Griffith.
Already, Camden Yards has attracted the praise of baseball writers whose disaffection for the new stadia is matched only by their intense admiration for the old places. The New Yorker's Roger Angell, for instance, relieved his lockout-induced funk this spring by imagining a visit to Camden Yards on opening day in 1992. "No dome here, no beetling cyclotron over our heads," Angell wrote. "This is a pavilion -- a park, right here in the city... . This is a fans' park, I think. They've done it at last."
The park's owner, the Maryland Stadium Authority, and its sole tenant, the Orioles, have been busy touting Camden Yards wherever there's a potential audience. The authority has been circulating a splendid scale model to county fairs and town festivals in the near and far reaches of the state. The team gave the model its first Washington presentation yesterday at Duke Ziebert's restaurant; it will be on public view today and tomorrow morning at the Orioles' store downtown before departing for a weekend appearance in Upper Marlboro.
"I'm a little concerned about meeting excessive expectations," commented team President Larry Lucchino. "We're very proud of all the rave reviews, but at the same time it's put us under a microscope to deliver," echoed Janet Marie Smith, Orioles vice president for planning and development. "No fan who goes to this park will find a place that's better, with the possible exception of Fenway and, maybe, Wrigley," concluded George Will, columnist, fan and Oriole trustee.
The pretty model, though quite small, is sufficiently detailed to explain all the enthusiasm. By bending knees for a ground-level view one can, indeed, imagine entering the park through a wrought-iron gate or arched portal with mounting excitement as glimpses of the grass field, burrowed 16 feet below ground level, turn into exhilarating full-fledged views.
This is a place for baseball, all right. Neither too big nor too small (it will seat nearly 47,000, or about 5,000 fewer than Memorial Stadium, which it will replace in 1992), the triple-deck structure makes a tight frame for the beautiful diamond -- every seat's a good one here. Aficionados will remark upon the classic proportions of the field, with just enough irregularity in the outfield perimeter to give the games played there a distinct personality. Family fans will note the capacious walkways, promising excellent, up-to-date services and concessions -- the park welcomes pedestrians at both ground and upper-deck levels. City lovers will want to sit on the third base side, from which there will be spectacular views of the Baltimore skyline.
And that's just the inside. The brick-and-concrete base of the building is industrial strength but attractive, with eight projecting, steel-topped stairwell towers punctuating a handsome sequence of arches. With its upper deck of structural, green-painted steel standing in harmonious proportion atop this strong base, the building encapsulates the time-honored ballpark look.
Nostalgia obviously contributed to the design -- Eli Jacobs, the new team owner, is said among others in the Orioles' hierarchy to have desired a place similar to the diamonds of his childhood -- but it was nostalgia of a wise and canny sort.
It was wise, for instance, to recognize that contextual architecture was the proper move here. In selecting the materials, palette and stylistic vocabulary, the architects -- Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum's Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City, Mo. -- prodded ceaselessly by the stadium authority and the team, looked carefully at the old industrial, residential and transportation buildings nearby. Consequently, in addition to everything else, this building has local character.
And it was canny to make sure that the private suites, economically de rigueur for contemporary arenas, were fitted so commodiously into a niche above the mezzanine stands. From these enclosed chambers corporate fans and their guests will get a swell view of the game, along with the customary specialized services, but they won't seem to be lording it over the proceedings. It's clear that just as much attention to functional detail went into the design of the other parts of the structure. The park will without question be a delight for ordinary fans.
A sizable amount of preparatory planning went into the project before a design was even considered. The selection of the site was itself a brilliant planning stroke of the kind that has eluded many cities but has helped downtown Baltimore revitalize itself for 30 years. That the worn-down industrial area was just waiting to be taken (at a cost to the state of $83 million) does not negate the wisdom of the decision to take it for this purpose -- one can surmise the imprint here of William Donald Schaefer, Maryland's city-loving, Baltimore-adoring governor. Situated just a few blocks from the inner harbor, the ballpark will add substantially to the economic and architectural allure of the city, and vice versa.
Further evidence of sound procedure and good judgment is to be found in a Master Plan Progress Report of 1988. This estimable, book-length document (prepared under the leadership of RTKL Associates of Baltimore) concisely laid out alternatives for transportation, parking, urban design and architecture. To the credit of the clients, in most instances the best alternatives were chosen.
It was decided, for instance, to preserve the Camden warehouse, a narrow, 1,000-foot-long brick building immediately to the west of the ballpark. Besides forming a striking western frame for the stadium, this abandoned turn-of-the-century structure is just the sort of evidence of Baltimore's industrial past that needs saving in the name of historical continuity. Occupied in part by Orioles' offices, ground-floor sports stores and a seventh-story Stadium Club, it'll give a citylike feel to the ballpark. Likewise, the picturesque mid-19th-century Camden Station just to the northwest of the site will be restored. Converted to restaurants or other active uses, it will form an urbane introduction to the park for those arriving by foot on city streets.
There will be surface parking for 5,000 cars, more than Memorial Stadium provides but not nearly enough for a packed house. This will be reduced by 2,000 spaces when or if Baltimore gets a team to replace its departed Colts, as the northern part of the 85-acre site is reserved for big-time football. But, as the master plan pointed out, there are more than 20,000 parking spaces in a scattering of nearby surface and structured parking lots -- ample choice, in other words. Plus, the city's new subway is close by; major bus routes converge at the site; trains to and from Washington and other points will drop customers very nearly at the doorstep.
Let it be noted, too, that Route I-95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway will lead Washington-area fans, who make up 25 percent of the Orioles' daily gate, directly to the same doorstep, cutting as much as 45 minutes from today's baseball commute to the north. The obvious downside is that, in making its new home so convenient for us, the Orioles organization greatly diminishes Washington's chance to obtain its own major league team. Otherwise, the Orioles can tuck away another rave: This is a dream design for a dream site.