The person who may have had the greatest influence on the design of the American stadium in the past 30 years, Janet Marie Smith, has never practiced as an architect, and has been involved in only four major building projects in her entire career.
Smith grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. She received her bachelor of architecture degree at Mississippi State University, and then went to City College of New York, where she received a master’s degree in city planning.
Smith’s first two professional jobs were as a planner for a public agency. From 1981 to 1984 she was the coordinator of architecture and design for the Battery Park City Authority. Battery Park is a 93-acre mixed-use development on the western side of the tip of Manhattan; its urban design plan, developed by Cooper Robertson in 1979, has been highly influential for its express reclamation of the pre-modernist grid of city streets and sidewalks. Smith then moved to Los Angeles, where from 1984 to 1989 she was the chief planner for the redevelopment of Pershing Square, the major public park in the center of downtown.
In 1989 the Baltimore Orioles hired Smith as their vice-president of planning and development for the development of the Camden Yards stadium. Smith’s role as the voice of the client was critical to the final design of the project, for which HOK Sports was the architect. First, the project’s overall layout was shaped by urban design guidelines that had been developed by the city, with the close cooperation of the Orioles as the major affected landowner. When it came to HOK’s design, there were a series of critical design decisions in which Smith overrode the architect: configuring the field asymmetrically, where HOK Sports had developed a symmetrical scheme; saving and reusing the historic B&O Warehouse as a centerpiece of the project, where HOK Sports had proposed its demolition; and insisting upon a brick façade, where HOK Sports had suggested concrete.
With the success of Camden Yards, Smith had become known nationally as an expert in sports architecture. Her next job was as president of Turner Sports and Entertainment Development, in Atlanta. In that role, she oversaw the creation of Phillips Arena, a new facility for the city’s NBA and NHL franchises in pro basketball and hockey, and the redevelopment of the 1996 Olympic Stadium into Turner Field, the home of the baseball Atlanta Braves.
In 2002, Larry Lucchino, Smith’s former boss at the Orioles, invited her to come to Boston to work on the most famous, loved, and dilapidated sports stadium in America: Fenway Park.
Fenway Park was originally built in 1912; it had last seen a major reconstruction and expansion in 1934. Fenway was the smallest major league baseball stadium, with seating of only 34,000, far less than the 45- 50,000 seats considered necessary for a successful franchise. Located in Boston’s urban Fenway district, the stadium has no parking of its own; a high percentage of fans arrive by public transit or walk. Seats were small and uncomfortable; food stands and toilets were squalid and hard to find; and the stadium had only a handful of the high-rent “stadium boxes” considered essential in any modern stadium. Sports writer Peter Gammons wrote:
“The park is a '53 Fairlane with 457,163 miles. They can't keep patching it. It can't be rebuilt on that swamp. They can't clean it. They'll never be able to easily get you two dogs, two beers and a pretzel.”
By 2000 there had developed a consensus that Fenway was decrepit and had to go. The owners of the Red Sox, the Yawkey Trust, had successfully lobbied the state and city governments to support their plans. The governor and the mayor were in favor. The state legislature had appropriated over $300 million in public funds to subsidize the construction of a new 45,000 seat stadium and associated transportation improvements. The Boston Globe’s editorial page applauded the plan, saying: ``Victories will be just as sweet in a ballpark that is suitable for a new century.” The opposition organization Save Fenway Park! was seen as a group of impractical dreamers. A special law was passed to fast-track the state-level environmental reviews (and reduce the opportunity for inconvenient public comments). When the Yawkey Trust put the team up for sale in 2001, five of the six bidders concurred with the plan to build a new Fenway.
But the sixth and winning team, headed by John Henry as the principal owner and Lucchino as the president, disagreed. The two attached articles from the Boston Globe, in 2005 and 2006, describe what happened next.
Smith’s role – the architect as professional client – can cause us to look more broadly at how design actually occurs. Smith, in describing herself, is careful not to claim that she is the designer:
“I don’t think of myself as being the architect, but rather as . . . like a film director. How do you direct all these consultants and all of this input and try and put together and edit it? Movies are a great analogy; you are putting something out for people to enjoy because it becomes the setting for something really wonderful. Baseball is a wonderful game but it is the strategy and intrigue of the game that requires the setting that is equally interesting.”
In considering Smith’s career, you may want to ask yourself: Who has had the greater impact on the course of sports architecture, and on the cities in which those stadiums are located? The architectural firm with hundreds of employees, hundreds of millions in revenues, and a world-wide practice? Or the non-practicing architect who has never designed a building?
“Fenway Lessons,” Boston Globe, March 25, 2005
Dan Wilson stood on the top step of the Red Sox dugout on Wednesday, as happy as if his team had just clinched the pennant. ''This is as good as it gets," said Wilson, president of Save Fenway Park! He was too polite to say, ''I told you so." But he had every right.
Fenway Park is saved, and it took an out-of-town ownership to understand its value. Six years ago the previous ownership, led by the luckiest accountant on the face of the earth, John Harrington, sold us a bill of goods, telling us renovating Fenway was ''economically and physically impractical." They knew the numbers; they had the engineering studies; and they told us in no uncertain terms the place was going to crumble; and there was no other option. The town's entire power structure -- the governor, the mayor, the chamber of commerce, the media, the Jack Connorses and the David D'Alessandros -- drank the Kool-Aid, too.
And they were all wrong. Instead, Wilson and the true believers who met Monday night after Monday night in his little law office over the Union Oyster House were right. But it took an ownership with vision -- and an extraordinary planner named Janet Marie Smith -- to see Fenway as not only a place that should and could be saved, but could be made much better ''with love, care and investment," as Smith put it on Wednesday.
There is much to be learned in the Fenway experience. We spend a lot of time talking about the New Boston and the Old Boston. We can't wait to get on to the New Boston. But in our rush to get there, we should take care not to bulldoze everything that makes Boston so special. Those who visit often understand that better than those of us who live here. John Henry & Co. understood that about Fenway even if official Boston didn't.
When they weren't being ignored, the Save Fenway Park! bunch took an incredible pounding in this town. They were dreamers and Don Quixotes and worse. ''Anyone who wanted to take care of something was backward looking," says Erika Tarlin, a board member. ''We were going to put bubble wrap around Fenway and make it a museum. No, we were looking to the future. It had so much potential."
People like me are part of the problem; we got rolled, too. ''The media has to do a better job of covering both sides of an issue," says Wilson. ''That was a big problem. We could not get the message out that Fenway could be saved."
If a treasure like Fenway, New England's number one tourist attraction, could almost be declared surplus, then anything could be. Right now the 96-year-old Gaiety Theatre on Lower Washington Street is about to be demolished; whether it should be I don't know. But I do know I have never bothered to even go inside and take a look for myself, and precious few other reporters have, either. We've been told it is economically and physically impractical to renovate. Smith, the Red Sox senior vice president of planning and development, said the management got to yes by listening to all comers. ''Even the folks who are the complainers helped a lot," she said, a very un-Boston attitude to say the least.
Everything can't or shouldn't be saved, of course. But neither do we have to destroy the Old Boston to build the New Boston. The Red Sox gave us a signature lesson in what a little love, care, investment -- and vision -- can do.
Janet Marie Smith, the architect transforming Fenway Park, works in an office that, at first glance, could be confused with a large storage closet. But look again, past the clutter and the mementos, and a few telling tools of Smith's trade lie scattered about this room overlooking Yawkey Way. Slightly unrolled blueprints lean in one corner. Architectural renderings of future changes at the hallowed ball yard hang from the opposite wall. A hard hat is set by the window.
If this unkempt cubbyhole of a workplace is meant to impress, the impression is not one of complacent corporate power. It's an impression of a work in progress, and Smith - the architect who jump-started the retro-revolutionary movement in American ballpark design and the mind behind the renovations that have saved, improved, and polished what might be Boston's most recognizable landmark - insists she has no timetable for completion. "I guess it's hard to know what 'finished' means," Smith says, the words drawn slowly with a lyrical accent that speaks of her native Mississippi. For 2007, Smith says, there's a plan to build a new batting tunnel for visiting teams. For 2008, there's a plan to extend the left-field pavilion along the third-base line toward the Green Monster, providing more amenities and space for fans. And although Smith, 48, won't reveal the team's closely held hand, it wouldn't be a surprise if its owners were to add to their growing real estate portfolio in the neighborhood.
In Smith's view, part of what makes Fenway Park special is its neighborhood, where many of the buildings are as old as the oldest ballpark in the major leagues. And although Fenway is fundamentally a baseball park, Smith says, its significance transcends the game. What fascinates her about this work is the challenge to make space where a city can breathe, interconnect, and share experiences. "I like seeing how people use a place," she says, whether it's a city sidewalk, a small urban park, or a river filled with boats.
Smith helped make that vision of common public experience a stunning reality on a shabby piece of Baltimore waterfront, where the 1992 opening of Camden Yards ushered in an era of aesthetically pleasing and fan-friendly ballpark design. Later, she helped convert the main stadium for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics into a home for the Braves. And when new ownership bought the Red Sox in 2002, Smith was lured north to rethink Fenway by Larry Lucchino, her old mentor in Baltimore who had become Sox president. Almost immediately, the new team - whose owners include the parent company of The Boston Globe - began turning on its head the generally accepted notion that Fenway was outdated, unsafe, and overdue for a wrecking ball. The changes, which have ranged from new seating atop the left-field wall and the right-field roof to the demolition of the glass-enclosed .406 Club behind home plate, have won raves from fans, many of whom had previously been clamoring for a new park.
Ticket prices at the small park remain the most expensive in the major leagues, making them a financial stretch for all-important younger fans, whose support will be critical for future teams. An upper-box seat at Fenway costs $85, compared with $45 for a field box at Camden Yards and $38 for a terrace box at most Chicago Cubs games at Wrigley Field, the second-oldest ballpark in the major leagues. But the Red Sox, on pace to sell out every game this season for the third consecutive year, have maintained their torrid love aff air with the fans.
Despite the team's popularity, Smith is able to sit in the stands unrecognized. During the dozen or so games she watches as a fan each season, Smith is sometimes joined by her husband, F. Barton Harvey 3d, and their three children - Bart Harvey 4th, Nellie Grace, and Jack, respectively 12, 10, and 8. Sox games are a test of allegiance for the family, which lives in Baltimore and has season tickets to the Orioles. "At least the Red Sox and Orioles have a hatred of the Yankees in common," Smith says with a laugh. While she's in Boston, usually Tuesdays to Thursdays, Smith lives in a hotel. Then she shuttles back to Baltimore to help her husband, the president of a nonprofit foundation that funds affordable housing, with domestic responsibilities and to share the children's activities, including Bart's baseball games.
"His baseball is really starting to look like baseball, and that's refreshing," says Smith, who recalls being drawn to games at Mississippi State University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in architecture. In an aside, she states with pride that all her education came at public schools, including those in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s and early 1970s, when many other white families were fleeing forced integration. After Mississippi State University, she received a graduate degree in urban planning from City College of New York, where she selected Baltimore as an urban case study.
"Why would you run from something that's been so good to society?" she says of her family's decision to keep her in public schools in Jackson. "I think it made me aware of a bigger world." Forging a connection with a piece of that larger world, Smith says, is what continues to motivate her. "What I really like about architecture is what I like about planning - the fabric more than the individual pieces," she explains. "It's the public realm that really makes things special."
When Red Sox fans appreciate the work that has transformed Fenway, they should know that the architect who helped concoct those improvements was thinking past the pennant chase, toward turning a cramped, creaky shrine into a vibrant New England agora where strangers could enjoy a game and one another's company at the same time. "I don't think of myself as working in sports," Smith says, "but of working in a city."