Babe Ruth swatted here
By Brian Fitzgerald
It’s been a Massachusetts baseball mecca for almost 90 years. Babe Ruth played there, as did the original Boston Patriots football team. Architectural historian Tim Orwig wants to preserve this octogenarian gem of a ballpark, but its future is uncertain.
No, Orwig (GRS’01,’06) isn’t trying to save Fenway Park. He hopes to preserve a baseball and football stadium 31 miles north of Boston by getting it included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Haverhill Stadium has served as the center of the city’s cultural and sporting events since the original structure was built in 1916. Even though much of it was rebuilt in the mid-1930s, the concrete has been crumbling for years, and the bricks are getting looser. The stadium is in dire need of a major overhaul, and the Haverhill Stadium Commission, which oversees upkeep of the facility, hired Orwig, a doctoral student in the GRS American and New England Studies Program, to prepare the National Register application. If successful, the city can seek federal funds to update the grandstand.
“It needs significant repairs,” says Orwig. “Rain is seeping into the concrete blocks, so a quarter of the 4,000-seat football stands can no longer be used.” The entire grandstand needs to be waterproofed, as well as the perimeter wall. The project’s cost is estimated at $1.5 million, which is a challenging price tag for a cash-strapped city that has put off repairs for decades because of lack of money.
Haverhill’s preservation advocates say that the city may have no choice but to make the repairs, however, because the option — building a new facility — is cost-prohibitive. The Haverhill Stadium Commission hired Orwig as a consultant last December, and he surveyed the site to ascertain its historical significance. He presented his findings to the state Historical Commission, which determined in June that Haverhill should pursue National Register application. Orwig completed a draft of the application in September. After a review by the Historical Commission, and then a state review committee, a process that is expected to take several months, the application would go to the National Park Service in Washington, which decides the structures placed on the National Register.
“We want to spare Haverhill Stadium the same fate as the Manning Bowl,” says Orwig, referring to Lynn’s 66-year-old stadium, which has fallen into a state of disrepair and is scheduled to be torn down. BU football and baseball star Harry Agganis (SED’54), a standout athlete at Lynn Classical High School who later was a Red Sox first baseman, played at the Manning Bowl; in 1966 the facility hosted a Rolling Stones concert.
Haverhill Stadium is also full of history: it was a venue for major league baseball exhibition games in the 1920s — among those who played there were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. (Ruth reportedly hit a home run into the bleachers.) In 1960, the New England Patriots, then the Boston Patriots, held their first intrasquad scrimmage on its field. But sentimentality alone won’t save Haverhill Stadium. While not yet in danger of falling down, if the city continues to provide just cosmetic work, it may start to lose structural strength within a few years.
From 1935 to 1937, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency established during the Depression to put unemployed people to work, replaced the original concrete fence and wooden football grandstand. “For the fence, the WPA workers used salvaged bricks from two demolished shoe factories in Haverhill, which adds to the historical significance,” Orwig says. The stadium is also important architecturally, he says, not only because it was designed by prominent local architect James Perkins, but also because it brings together two somewhat disparate styles: art moderne and classical revival. Its most striking features of art moderne, a style popular in the 1930s and 1940s, are the grandstand’s dozen three-story arches. The perimeter wall was influenced by the classical revival style of its 1916 predecessor.
“It’s also historically and culturally important as a WPA-built building,” says Orwig. “People who worked in the WPA during the Depression learned valuable skills. Years later they could drive by the stadium and tell their children and grandchildren, ‘I helped build that wall.’ As for Haverhill Stadium’s civic importance, it has hosted numerous concerts, circuses, and community pageants.” Still home to the city’s sporting events, it also holds high school graduations and the annual Independence Day celebration. “It’s instrumental in bringing the community together,” says Orwig.
A wooden baseball grandstand built in 1921 in the stadium complex was demolished in 1991 after a campaign to renovate it failed to gather enough funding. But Orwig is determined to save the grandstand and perimeter fence from the wrecking ball and fully rehabilitate the structures.
Only two stadiums in Massachusetts are on the National Register: Fitchburg High School’s Crocker Field and Harvard Stadium in Allston.
“It would be great if they could save the stadium,” says James Owens, a 39-year-old Haverhill native. “My wife and I just had our first child this year, and I would love to take her there some day and show her where I played baseball and football in high school.”