A baseball stadium showcases the beauty of old trees

 

Some Eugene, Oregon, residents hate their town’s dilapidated Civic Stadium. They’d like to see it torn down and replaced with a department store. Other residents love the stadium and have happy memories of watching minor league baseball with friends and family. But everyone agrees the stadium is now an eyesore.

It’s one of the few remaining wooden ballparks in the country, built in 1938, and abandoned in 2010, when the Emeralds baseball team moved across town to a modern park. After that, the stadium’s upkeep was neglected, the field gone to weeds. Its siding has blistered, and the grandstand roof has been decaying fast.

But Civic Stadium hides a historic engineering marvel that would be sadly lost to demolition: Its internal structure still stands strong as a robust model of Depression-era timber framing.

Dennis Hebert, president of Friends of Civic Stadium, is the rare Eugene resident who has long appreciated Civic’s inner strength and beauty.  Today, with his full white beard and ponytail, Hebert resembles a cross between a middle-aged biker and Santa Claus. Twenty-seven years ago, when he was working fulltime as a carpenter, he met Civic Stadium, and fell in love.

During workdays, he repaired wooden doors, desks and paneling at the Oregon State Capitol. During summer evenings, he watched the Emeralds play from his favorite seat in the grandstand. Between pitches, he’d sip a beer and admire the hand carpentry surrounding him.

“I’d look up at the timbers and think about all the guys who built it,” he says. “All those holes were bored with a brace and bit. All those boards were cut with a handsaw.”

When the stadium went up for sale a few years ago, potential buyers who loved the location — but not the structure — said they planned to tear it down. That’s when Hebert joined Friends of Civic Stadium and began leading tours under the grandstand.

On one recent visit, Hebert points his flashlight on a massive 12-by-12 post that extends up through the seats to support the roof. At the base, the post sits on a concrete block and is reinforced by twin eight-by-eight timbers. In the dim light above, bracing boards zigzag every which way between posts and horizontal beams.

This design was published in 1936 by the Timber Engineering Company in a reference manual for engineers. The drawing was titled in all caps: "PERMANENT GRANDSTAND." At that time, the company promoted timber as a strong construction material that was more versatile than steel.

The grandstand design featured the company’s first product, a two-inch metal “split-ring connector.” Connectors were embedded into circular grooves where timbers joined, thereby interlocking the pieces. The reinforced joints engaged a larger volume of wood and could thus withstand greater stress.

The timbers themselves were milled in Eugene when Oregon’s lumber industry was logging the old-growth Douglas-fir forests that covered the western third of the state. These trees must compete with other trees for light and nutrients, so they grow only a slight amount each year. The result: A tree with these closely spaced annual growth rings makes dense and strong framing lumber -- especially if the tree is cut after having grown for some 300 years.

Hebert raps his knuckles on a board that makes a deep thud. “Listen to that. Tell me that’s not solid.” He rubs dust off to reveal the pinstripe grain. “Each one of those lines is a year’s growth. Look how uniform those are. Steady growth, steady growth.”

Dry rot has infected a few boards, but they’re easily repaired. “(The stadium) may have some issues here and there, but it’s not rocket science,” Hebert says. “You pull out a board, you put in a board.”

If Civic’s new buyer chooses to renovate, Hebert hopes the redesign will showcase the old timbers. One idea is to remove the siding from the end of the grandstand to expose timbers to passersby. Another is to install gallery space under the grandstand to exhibit memorabilia from minor league baseball and Oregon’s timber heritage.

But if the new buyer chooses to build a department store in Civic’s place, demolition follows a predictable routine these days.  Crews will deconstruct the stadium, taking it apart in reverse order. The biggest timbers will most likely be salvaged, but most of the rest will be chipped for mulch.

Workers probably won’t bother to unbuckle reinforced connections. Instead, Civic’s joints will be cut out with chainsaws.

Jourdan Arenson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes in Eugene, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.