The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Final seats removed from RFK Stadium’s lower bowl as demolition continues

The city is still unsure of the site’s fate, but officials and athletes gathered to recall the stadium’s glory days

Construction workers remove the last orange wooden seats of RFK Stadium’s lower bowl Thursday. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The most famous seats in RFK Stadium were the ones that bounced. As part of a then-innovative design for D.C. Stadium in 1961, the seating sections along the third base line could be moved on tracks to the north sideline for football and soccer, meaning they weren’t anchored in concrete like the rest of the 54,000-seat bowl. And when those seats were bouncing, the whole joint was jumping.

Jumping when Washington’s Darryl Grant picked off a Dallas Cowboys pass, rumbled into the end zone and threw down a violent spike in the NFC championship game in 1983. Jumping when D.C. United won the MLS Cup in a downpour in 1997. Jumping when the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman launched a walk-off homer against the New York Yankees on Father’s Day in 2006.

Now those seats are for sale. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and a host of luminaries, including former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former Washington quarterback Doug Williams and D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid, stepped inside RFK for the last time Thursday and watched as the last orange lower-bowl seats were unbolted from the permanent stands on the first base side and hauled to the parking lot. In coming weeks, the upper-bowl seats will be torn out as the stadium is demolished in stages, a process which city officials expect to complete by the end of 2023.

The question of what comes next for the 190 acres along the Anacostia River remains unresolved. The city doesn’t own the land; the federal government does. Bowser would like to reserve some of the land for a new stadium, in addition to affordable housing and recreation, with the city clearing the space and then a team paying for the new structure. She pointed to Audi Field, the current home of D.C. United, as an example of such a partnership.

But a majority of the D.C. Council opposes a football stadium on the site, Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said in June. And if Congress were to transfer the land to the city, Mendelson said, the council would want a restriction prohibiting it from being used for a stadium. “Housing — particularly affordable housing — is the most urgent use for the site,” Mendelson said in a letter to Bowser.

D.C. Council chair ready to support RFK legislation — without stadium

The current ownership of the Washington Commanders, which is embroiled in several controversies related to sexual harassment and financial improprieties, also does not appeal to D.C. residents. Former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), now a council member who represents Ward 7, said of a stadium, “I don’t think it’d be acceptable to the people of Ward 7,” in part because of the allegations against the Commanders.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has said she will introduce legislation to allow D.C. to take control of the RFK land, but not until the mayor and the council agree on the terms and conditions of the land transfer. Norton has said that a provision in the bill prohibiting a football stadium would probably make it easier for her to get it through Congress, given the misgivings about the Commanders.

Standing just a few feet from a first base dugout filled with standing water, Bowser spoke of remaking the RFK campus, where affordable housing and a recreation center are already being developed on a separate 60-acre parcel. The mayor said as she entered the stadium, “I was just very sad to see what was a vibrant, rocking stadium be in the condition that it is. But like so many things, this is the start to what’s next.”

She said that a dilapidated stadium was not an appropriate tribute to former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, for whom the stadium was renamed in January 1969, and that she intended to honor Kennedy in some form at the rehabilitated site. Townsend, the eldest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children, said Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall approved the renaming on Jan. 19, 1969, one day before President Lyndon B. Johnson left office, so that Johnson wouldn’t have time to overturn it.

Townsend also said that her mother was a season-ticket holder with 12 seats, but that she would often show up to games at RFK with 24 people. “What was the ticket-taker going to say to Mrs. Robert Kennedy? No?” she said.

Townsend said Washington players, including Sonny Jurgensen and John Riggins, were regular visitors to Hickory Hill, the Kennedys’ home in McLean.

Bowser said the District didn’t win its bid for part of the 2026 World Cup because it didn’t have an appropriate stadium. She noted that the city has already transformed 27 acres on the site into playgrounds and other recreational uses, and has had success renovating sites such as the Walter Reed medical campus, the Navy Yard and the Wharf. RFK was also the site of numerous music events, such as the annual HFStival, multiple visits by the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones, even one of the final concerts by the Beatles.

“Standing up here today is a bittersweet situation,” said Williams, who quarterbacked Washington to the Super Bowl title in 1988. He pointed to one end of the stadium, where he threw a winning touchdown pass to Gary Clark in the NFC championship game, then to the other end, where Darrell Green broke up a goal-line pass minutes later to preserve the victory.

“It’s so much history here, it’s sad to see it go down,” Williams said. “But we got something special in the future.” Williams is now a senior adviser to the Commanders.

D.C. United keeper Hamid, who grew up in Northern Virginia and has played for United since 2010, tossed away his prepared speech and grew emotional as he recalled not only his time on the pitch, but also dribbling a ball through fans on the concourse, riding to games as a kid and tailgating in Lot 4. “RFK brought so many people together,” Hamid said, “and I’m grateful I could be a part of it.”

D.C. United celebrates its past on emotional final day at RFK Stadium

Many of the orange wooden seats at RFK were originally constructed in pairs with a shared armrest, and those are being sold for $499. Single seats are available for $399. Plastic seats are $50 less. The burgundy and gold seats from the upper deck will be sold next year. The seats may only be purchased online, and must be picked up at RFK between Dec. 16 and Dec. 18. Individual seat locations may not be specified, and it appeared that the 24 seats painted white to mark the gigantic home runs that Senators great Frank Howard launched into the upper deck were already gone. The Nationals took some with them after they moved to Nationals Park in 2008.