Engineered to Last – One-Hundred Years On

Fenway

Outside the red-brick left-field wall of Boston’s Fenway Park is a little-noticed latticework of steel trusses that rises to the peak of the famous 37-foot Green Monster.

The ingeniously engineered support, invisible from inside the stadium, allowed 274 highly prized (and pricey) seats to be added at the top of the wall. It’s the most obvious evidence of 10 winters of preservation work and expansion to the nation’s oldest, quirkiest, and arguably most beloved ballpark.

And at least one local engineer is so impressed, she’s working to have Fenway become the first sports stadium named to the list of national historic civil-engineering landmarks.

Once threatened with demolition, Fenway has been recently revamped with more seating and 21st-century amenities, but the structure, built at a time when steel-frame construction was still new, has been preserved and has the classic look and feel of a space unrivaled today by all but Wrigley Field.

“I don’t call it preservation,” says Arturo Vasquez, founder and principal of the Massachusetts-based firm SAS Design, who was involved in the campaign to save the park. “I call it progress, that you are able to take a structure with that history and have another century of people participate in the history, finding ways that the park could function as a more modern facility while still preserving an important building typology.”

That meant undertaking a sort of engineering archeology—first finding shop drawings showing the exact spacing of the steel frame and rebar, scanning areas for which no blueprints remained, even taking core samples of the precast concrete.

“The biggest challenge was just peeling through all the layers,” says Kevin Westerhoff, an associate at Fenway consulting engineers McNamara Salvia.

Those layers included sections of the park completed at different times. The original wooden bleachers in right and center fields were replaced by seats on precast concrete in 1934. An upper deck was added in 1946. Luxury suites were built on the roof along right and left fields in 1983. In 1989, a club section was added behind home plate.

The various renovations also involved three different types of construction: reinforced concrete in the seating bowl, structural steel supporting the roof, and load-bearing masonry that gives Fenway its distinctive street-facing red-brick façade.

That’s the type of thing that can make historic preservation an engineering brain teaser, says Evan Kopelson, an architectural conservator active in the American Institute for Conservation. “There’s not always the documentation of how the building was put together, and even if there is, it may not have actually been built to the original engineer’s drawings.” This leads to what engineers call “hidden conditions,” Kopelson says.

But Fenway has been lovingly maintained through the decades, with few surprises for designers who began their $285 million worth of upgrades and expansions in 2002.

In spite of some water damage, and foot-stomping by generations of frustrated Red Sox fans, Westerhoff says, “It held up extremely well. It was in pretty good shape.”

That left engineers to find room for more seats and revenue-producing features no one in 1912 could have envisioned. Out of view, the concourses were dug up to make room for pipes that service sprinklers, the lower bowl was waterproofed, and the sound and electrical systems replaced. Team and broadcast offices were moved out to make space for restrooms and stairwells, a bar was added in a former batting cage, and space excavated under the field box seats for a new batting cage.

“You find when you work in buildings like this that the main structure is usually the most beautiful part, and it’s built to last,” Vasquez says. “So we looked at a way that we could take the rest of it and open up those other zones for new purposes.”

The army of engineers and architects who worked on the project say they took away two principal lessons. One was something any Red Sox fan could have told them: People were smaller in 1912, and Fenway’s seats continue to seem ridiculously narrow. The other is that engineering and architecture were once much more closely joined.

“Architects of the time were more conversant with engineering, as opposed to how we do things today,” Vasquez says. “The main structural elements were actually ornate. They were designed for beauty and ornamentation, as opposed to what we do today, because we just don’t integrate the structure with the architecture.”

That’s why the engineers who renovated Fenway paid attention to detail; although they quietly replaced some of the support pillars with new pillars that were field-welded, for example, they added bolts and rivets to be true to the appearance of the originals.

And it’s why Anni Autio, an engineer and historian for the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, wants Fenway designated a national historic civil-engineering landmark. “It’s our acknowledgment,” Autio says. “It’s our appreciation.”

Westerhoff, too, appreciates the chance to revamp Fenway Park. “I’ve worked on a lot of renovation projects, but there’s something special about Fenway,” he says. “You know how much history there is there, for so many people.”

Photo: Fenway Park by Chris Kelly on Flicker (CC BY 2.0)

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2 thoughts on “Engineered to Last – One-Hundred Years On”

  1. Jon, thank you for bringing the story of this beautiful structure to light.

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