In 1993, when the St. Paul Saints came to Midway Stadium, people wondered if a minor league team could survive next door to the major league Twins. But back in the 1990s, the Twins had a Metrodome that was sterile and designed for football. The basic and much smaller Midway Stadium had the sky. And the Saints had a live pig for a mascot and better food. Co-owner Mike Veeck’s credo — “Fun is good” — transformed the business of minor league baseball into raucous entertainment, and the Saints became a hit.
With the just opened CHS Field for the Saints in Lowertown and the Twins’ Target field in its fifth season, Minnesota can now boast two of the finest stadiums in baseball. Each is outdoors, offers superb sight lines and provides views of its respective downtown. And yet, the two ballparks could not be more different in their gameday experiences.
Target Field is a soaring, big-city stadium focused on the game. CHS, with a capacity of 7,300, is more like a county fair. Baseball is the official reason that everyone shows up, but you don’t even have to follow the game to have a good time. Many people come just to be entertained.
CHS grew out of a collaboration of specialists led by design architects Snow Kreilich, Ryan Companies as architect of record and AECOM as the sports architect. The design team deserves credit for making this unusual marriage of baseball, “city happening” and outdoor party possible.
The first thing you notice when walking in at street level from the Farmers Market is that you’re not in a stadium, but more of a festive town plaza with vendors, the Saints’ store and offices to the right and the flowing balcony of the upper deck on the left overhead. Beneath the deck, a perfectly scaled 17-foot ceiling of uplit cedar planks sweeps back over the infield seats.
As you walk forward, the sunken field unfolds before you. All around it, from the stands to the grassy berm along the outfield, people are walking on the street-level concourse and sitting on movable chairs or at high stools and tables. Near the batter’s eye in the outfield, there’s a barber cutting a boy’s hair and both are watching the game.
Minor league franchises across the country have the grassy seating berms, picnic areas and goofy activities you’ll find at a Saints game. Yet, the design of CHS is also a work of art and architecture with the finishes, detailing and exquisite proportions of the best new museums and campus buildings. It’s a major accomplishment that the design team was able to argue for and retain quality details and finishes such as the cedar ceilings, blackened steel exterior cladding, and rails and metal screens evoking Lowertown’s fire escapes.
Equally impressive is the fact that despite some pressure from preservationists and the community, the designers did not try to create a false mimicry of the historic red brick and details of surrounding buildings. The exterior brick facing Lowertown is charcoal black; the materials from the blackened steel to the I-beam columns are from today. As with many historic landscapes and districts, it’s the massing that matters most. And it’s here that CHS can be boldly modern yet complement the historic character of Lowertown.
CHS comes right up to Broadway Street and frames it as the older buildings do. The upper deck with the Securian Club and press box floats over the concourse level with an opening that reveals the whole downtown skyline. To the east, for the first time in generations, there’s a panoramic view of Dayton’s Bluff. With on-site water re-use and solar panels, the stadium is LEED-certified and considered, for now, to be the “greenest” in the country.
Victoria Young, an architectural historian at the University of St. Thomas, is a big fan of baseball and CHS Field. She observed that, compared with many sports, baseball is slow-paced with small breaks after each inning.
“I think it’s so important to have an interesting setting for baseball,” she said, “not only practically with sight lines, and comfort and amenities, but also because the pace of the game is one that gives you time to look around and really take in the surroundings.”
Fun in a crowd
Baseball was once considered America’s pastime — a term implying a gentle 19th-century pace and slowness. In small towns and cities, long before air conditioning, going to the game was a way to pass the time on long summer afternoons and nights. CHS is designed for this luxury of pausing and wandering about.
At the Saints’ night games, as the light turns from sunshine to the lavenders of dusk, as the towering field lights turn on, the vaulted sky over the field is full of gradual transition and visual drama. Beneath the decks, on the concourse and on the field there’s a faster flow of action. There are kids with catcher’s gloves running up the steps to catch a pop-up ball, fans wearing bowler hats and long raincoats, Andy at the organ playing riffs as a new batter comes up to the plate.
In a time of flat screens and virtual reality, this is something real and interactive, a chance to be outside in an urban space with a lot of people — a truly civic event that is increasingly rare. As Young says, “A really intimate experience of baseball and great modern architecture — what more could you want?”
Frank Edgerton Martin is a landscape historian and planner based in Minneapolis.