While architect Julie Snow has designed houses, restaurants, even border stations, she's never done a ballpark. So she's not exactly your typical sports facilities architect.

But then, the St. Paul Saints aren't exactly your ordinary baseball team.

So the marriage of Snow and the quirky minor league club that produced CHS Field, set to officially open in May in the Lowertown district of downtown St. Paul, makes a certain amount of sense.

It's a modernist stage for the team and its irreverent brand of entertainment, where the game sometimes seems to be an afterthought.

Instead of the red brick retro-style ballpark that some had hoped for, Snow delivered a sleek low-slung structure of black concrete and steel with cedar accents that offers wide views of the Farmers Market, Lowertown and the city skyline beyond.

The open design, she said, makes St. Paul the star of the show.

"Probably the most important aspect is how porous it is — to and from the city," she said. "This is not a giant wall. It's a park first and a ballpark second."

The final price tag on the 7,000-seat ballpark, owned by the city and operated by the Saints, is $64.7 million.

Nearly 80 percent, or $51.4 million, is public funding from the state, city, Ramsey County, the Metropolitan Council and the Capitol Region Watershed District; 20 percent, or $13.3 million, is from the Saints (mostly rental payments to the city), Hamline University (another tenant) and Xcel Energy.

Former factory site

While Snow, of Minneapolis-based Snow Kreilich Architects, developed the design, Kansas City-based AECOM was the sport architect, and Logan Gerken, who played baseball for the University of Minnesota, was the lead architect for local design-builder Ryan Cos. The latter firms focused on the playing and operational aspects of the ballpark.

All had to take account of special challenges posed by the site, which for years was home to a hair products factory.

Removing the factory required excavation, which allowed the architects to draw up a design to sink the ballpark into the terrain so fans can enter at the street level.

But the site also was wedged between the streetscape and a light-rail maintenance building. And its soil, thick with years of industrial waste, required more of a cleanup than originally thought, driving up the cost of the project.

Mike Veeck, the Saints' mirthful co-owner and president, likes the ballpark. So does Kristin Anderson, an art history professor and sports architecture expert at Augsburg College, who thinks it works well on the site.

"It's a challenge to build something like that in the middle of an existing neighborhood," she said. "The immediate expectation was that it had to match the things around it — ye old ballpark — and I don't think that's necessary … The subtlety of the exterior allows the action of the place to shine."

Some think it's too subtle. John Mannillo, a longtime Lowertown developer, is happy that the Saints are downtown, but he wishes the ballpark was more in keeping with the neighborhood's brick warehouse character.

"It tries to be so invisible, it's kind of like falling off the edge of the Earth," Mannillo said. "I'm not saying it had to be a retro ballpark, but I would have liked to see something that went up three or four stories. From the inside, it's a different story. You have a great view of downtown and things."

No ersatz warehouse

The design represents a Lowertown warehouse turned inside out to reveal the timber and steel concealed within, Snow said.

"A warehouse has a robust structure that minimally allows light to the center," she said. "To wrap that use in this facade would have been futile and wouldn't have allowed us to connect the ballpark to the city the way we did."

Council Member Dave Thune, who has a background in architecture and development, said he was initially disappointed that the ballpark lacked a classic facade and red brick. But that's water over the dam, he said.

"It's going to be a great ballpark," he said. "Any ballpark is going to be wonderful when you have all that grass."

Lenny Russo, owner and head chef at Heartland, the award-winning restaurant across the street from the ballpark, calls it "gorgeous."

"I was on the design committee, and I fought tooth and nail on behalf of that design," Russo said. "I didn't think we wanted an ersatz warehouse. What's the point of that? We had an opportunity to make an architectural statement and do something beautiful."

Snow said that modeling a warehouse wouldn't have given the Saints the unique ballpark they were looking for. To figure out what that was, she went to a lot of games and noted the team's peculiar style.

It shows. How many ballparks reserve a spot for a ball-delivering pig or have an adjacent dog park?

"We say that our first project of a particular type is often the best, because you're coming in so fresh and finding what's unique about that project," Snow said. "There's a steep learning curve, but we're very engaged in the learning."

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035