From football to wrecking ball

Mary Mussell

Memorial Stadium is history.
This summer, the stadium — built in 1924 as a memorial to the 118,000 Minnesotans who served in World War I — was torn down. Gophers fans lost their fight to keep football in the campus stadium in 1982, but the huge, U-shaped structure on the corner of University Avenue and Oak Street remained, living out its last years as office space for the University professors.
A glitzy athletic complex will replace the brown-brick stadium. The new facility will include an aquatic center, completed in 1990, and a recreational sports center that should be finished by December.
Nevertheless, the venerable University landmark will live on, its once-massive superstructure converted to chunks of stone and brick being sold as memorabilia and incorporated into other projects such as the new hockey arena being constructed across the street.
“A lot of people have called about mementoes from the brickyard,” said Raymond Jackson, University Facilities Management engineer.
“It’s hard to see the place go.”
Saying Goodbye
On July 20, workers began disassembling — brick by brick, piece by piece — the ceremonial arch leading into the stadium’s side.
A stone tablet above the arch bore a plaque dedicated to Minnesotans who served in World War I. The arch and the tablet will be stored while the Board of Regents decide on a new home for them. There, they will be reassembled.
Engineers from BKBM Professional Engineers, the firm overseeing the stadium’s demolition, carefully photographed the arch, taking the minute, precise measurements necessary to recreate it. Each brick was labeled and crated, and will be reconstructed later in precise configuration.
On July 24, University officials hosted a ceremony in the parking lot adjacent to Memorial Stadium for all who wanted to say “goodbye” to The Brickyard. The alumni band played, and University President Nils Hasselmo and Gophers football legend and former men’s athletic director Paul Giel were among the speakers.
Later that morning, the wrecking ball struck its first blow to the rest of the structure. Demolition will cost about $900,000 — $200,000 more than the construction of the entire stadium.
Terminal in 1982
Memorial Stadium’s death throes actually began a decade ago in 1982, when Gopher football games moved to the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis — something many called a mistake.
“It was a beautiful old stadium,” said Michael Griffin, an assistant journalism professor at the University. “A lobbying effort tried to save it.”
That’s an understatement.
In April 1982, the Board of Regents approved a 30–year contract moving Gopher football to the Dome, and the team played its first season downtown that fall.
But what to do with the abandoned stadium remained a controversial issue, so much so that eight years passed before regents could get a mandate to approve demolishing the 68-year-old monument.
Athletes and fitness-seekers continued using the stadium to train until the city of Minneapolis declared the bleachers structurally unsound in about 1984, Giel said.
The year marks a milestone in the history of the old stadium’s demise. In 1984, the regents voted to play out the Gophers’ 30-year contract at the Dome. Although the contract had a three-year “escape” clause, the clause was never exercised, Jackson said.
In 1986, University officials considered saving the stadium’s brick superstructure and converting into a basketball arena, rec sports center, field house and swimming complex.
Protest, counterproposals
But on March 11, 1988, after protests and more protests, proposals and counter-proposals, the regents approved the stadium’s demolition.
That decision resulted in a storm of protest when groundbreaking on an Olympic-sized pool was scheduled for Oct. 13.
On Oct. 11, a group of students, faculty and alumni protested plans to demolish the stadium at a 6:30 a.m. rally at the site. The next day, former Minnesota Viking Bob Lurtsema led members of the marching band and about a hundred others in another early-morning demolition protest.
And on Oct. 14, then-Regent Wally Hilke introduced a resolution to save Memorial Stadium.
It didn’t pass. But three days later, the Memorial Stadium Committee, led by alumnus Bill Semans, obtained a temporary restraining order to halt construction of the pool. In response, then-Board of Regents Chairman David Lebodoff agreed to halt construction temporarily and reconsider the decision to demolish. Ultimately, the decision was upheld.
Regents knuckled under?
Ultimately, Minneapolis-based Star Tribune sports columnist Patrick Reusse says, the Gophers moved to the Dome, not because Memorial Stadium was dilapidated, but because Giel and the regents knuckled under to downtown businesses who wanted increased consumer traffic in the area.
“The University lost aesthetic value by moving to the Dome, and in the long run, Gopher football is no better off,” he says.
“As a legacy, it was a pretty sad one. It was another landslide victory for the downtown boys,” Reusse says.
If the stadium were as dilapidated as Giel and others said at the time, it would have collapsed into a heap by now, Reusse says. Instead, “Today it’s so damn sturdy, it will cost at least $600,000 to tear it down.”
But others still insist that moving to the Dome was the right decision, at least economically.
Regent David Roe, who voted for the move, says downtown business support for the transfer of Gopher football was a factor, but not the cause. For one thing, student attendance at games had been on the decline for year, Roe said.
But the main reason, he says, was that “It wasn’t economically feasible for a field used six times a year, to spend the tens of millions of dollars it would cost” to renovate.
“To have a first-class facility for the athletes, there was no alternative but the dome.”
Although 95-year-old World War I veteran Bill Halsey has fond memories of the homecoming festivities in Memorial Stadium’s heyday, he agrees with Roe: “It would cost more to fix it up than to build a new one.”
But he admits that the games aren’t the same away from campus. Students “are entitled to a stadium of their own,” Halsey says. “Homecoming celebrations are much harder to do downtown.”