A Tale of Three Stadiums
Nicollet Park, Metropolitan Stadium, and the Metrodome

The Twin Cities area has had its share of sports stadiums and arenas, coming in a wide range of sizes, uses, surfaces, and even covers (ranging from roofs to no cover at all). But three stadiums, built over the past 100 years, provide clues as to the differences in design and construction that have evolved over the generations.

Nico1let Park, Metropolitan Stadium, and the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome have each served as a venue for Twin Cities’ sports teams. Nico11et Park was the home of the Minneapolis Millers, a minor-league baseball team, from 1896-1955. It was replaced by Metropolitan Stadium in 1956. The Millers were the original tenant in the Met, which then housed the Minnesota Twins and the Minnesota Vikings until 1981. The following year, the Humphrey Metrodome opened, ushering in an era of sports in Minnesota. Not only did the Twins and Vikings begin playing their home games indoors, the Minnesota Gopher football team also abandoned Memorial Stadium, where they had played since 1924, for the c1imate-controlled comfort of the new stadium in downtown Minneapolis. In addition, the new stadium was also able to attract such national sporting events as the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four Basketball Tournament.

It was a simpler time when the first of these stadiums was built. The Minneapolis Millers had been playing in a tiny ballpark, squeezed into the confines of a city block behind the West Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. Athletic Park, as it was called, was on the corner of Sixth Street and First Avenue North, its dimensions so tiny that in 1895 Miller first baseman Perry Werden hit 45 home runs, an unheard of total and an organized-baseball record that stood until Babe Ruth took up the business more than two decades later.

Early in the 1896 season, however, the Millers were told that the grounds on which their ballpark stood had been sold, and they were given 30 days to find a new home. The time limit imposed on them to vacate provides an indication of how quickly a stadium could be planned and built, given the proper motivation (in this case, an eviction notice).

Fortunately, the team was about to embark on a lengthy road trip to the east. But when they played their final home game at Athletic Park on May 23, no location had even been selected. They left town not knowing where they would be playing when they returned three weeks later.

At the time, several sites were under consideration. The favored location seemed to be on Kenwood Parkway, near the current junction of Hennepin and Lyndale avenues. The city council refused to vacate certain streets in the Kenwood area, however. And then the streetcar company stepped in. It announced it could better serve a stadium in south Minneapolis, near the intersection of Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue. Envisioning the large number of fans who would make their way to and from the baseball games via public transit, the baseball team acceded to the streetcar company’s wishes.

The ground was quickly graded, bleachers, grandstands, and fences hastily erected, and within three weeks the field on the corner of West 31st Street and Nicollet Avenue was ready. It actually took longer to name the stadium than it did to build it. For its first season, the ball park was known as “Wright Field,” in honor of Harry Wright, one of baseball’s founding fathers. The name did not receive a warm reception from the Millers’ owners, though, and for the next year the stadium was known simply as the “new ball park.” It wasn’t until 1897 that the name Nicollet Park was first used.

The new grounds opened June 19, 1896 with the Millers pulling out a come-from- behind win over the Milwaukee Brewers, 13-6.

Nicollet Park served the area well during the years it had minor-league baseball and through a period in which streetcars were a dominant form of transportation in the Twin Cities. Both phenomena were coming to an end in the early 1950s, though. Streetcar tracks were being torn out by the middle of the decade, and automobiles took over as the number-one way to get around in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Also around that time a significant event took place in the baseball world. Just prior to the opening of the 1953 baseball season, the Boston Braves of the National League moved to Milwaukee. It was the first geographical shifting in major-league baseball in a half-a-century. For the past 50 years, the major- leagues had been confined to ten cities, predominantly in the Northeast. Finally, it was starting to catch up with the westward shift in the country’s population. Within five years, major-league teams would even be located on the West Coast.

Meanwhile, however, Twin Citians were getting excited. Seeing another Midwestern city, Milwaukee, getting a team made local fans wonder about the chances of landing a major-league franchise of their own. It was determined that, for this to become reality, a new stadium was needed.

In early 1954, a Minneapolis committee selected a corn field off Cedar Avenue in the southern suburb of Bloomington as the best site for a stadium. This same committee that sold the more than $4 million in bonds necessary to finance the purchase of the land and constrution of the stadium. This done, construction was able to proceed.

One of the most significant components of the new stadium was not what it had, but what it didn’t have: posts to support decks or roofs above. By going to cantilever construction for the overhanging decks, architect Foster Dunwiddie of Thorshov and Cerny, Inc. had found a way to eliminate the posts which often block the few of fans in other stadiums.

The expansion of Husky Stadium, used by the University of Washington football team, in Seattle a few years earlier had been recognized as the first use of cantilever construction in a sports arena. Met Stadium became the first baseball stadium to take advantage of this principle, however.

The architectural firm studied a number of stadiums across the country as it drew up plans for the Met. Dunwiddie said the study concentrated on Milwaukee’s County Stadium because it had the most recent of stadiums built. He acknowledged, however, that Milwaukee’s stadium had been designed for minor- league ball (and its much smaller crowds) and then expanded upon the arrival of the Braves.

“In Bloomington, we’re building a major-league stadium in all dimensions, one which will be used for minor-league play but can be readily expanded to major- league proportions.” said Dunwiddie. “Our major concern and study was relative to the sightline from seats in relation to other stadia. That’s how we finally decided to go to the third deck in the cantilever-type construction. We worked toward getting the seats low and as close to the playing field as possible.”

Although Met Stadium’s tenant for its first five years would be the minor- league Millers, the ball park was built with the thought in mind that it would eventually be occupied by a major-league team, a vision that came to fruition in 1961 with the arrival of the Minnesota Twins.

Although Met Stadium didn’t rise as fast as Nicollet Park nearly 60 years before, the transformation from cornfield to baseball stadium was remarkable in its rapidity. On June 20, 1955, Kimmes Construction Company started the first work on the 160-acre site, performing grading, drainage, surfacing, sodding, sanitary sewer installation and miscellaneous construction. The grading work involved the excavation of over 400,000 cubic yards of material. On September 15, as the earthwork continues, Johnson, Drake & Piper, Inc. of Minneapolis was awarded the general contract for the stadium on a bid of $2,949,200. Three weeks later, concrete was placed for the footings of the stands.

The first load of structural steel, supplied by American Bridge Division of the US Steel Corporation, didn’t arrive until mid-January in 1956. At the same time, Axel Ohman Company began the brick work. The structure rose quickly over the next month. Steel erection for the second and third decks began on February 10 with the placement of the first seats in the lower deck commencing a week later.

Then, on February 26, the day after the pouring of concrete in the lower stands was completed, an explosion rocked the stadium, setting off a fire on the third- base side of the grandstand that made it necessary to rebuild one section of it.

Despite the setback, construction remained on track and on April 24, 1956—barely ten months after groundbreaking ceremonies—the Minneapolis Millers christened the Met Stadium in their home opener against the Wichita Braves.

The reason for the new stadium, however, was not to provide better facilities for the minor-league Millers but to have a first-class stadium available for a major-league team to occupy eventually. The lure of the Met proved irresistab1e. In October of 1960 Calvin Griffith announced he was moving his Washington Senators franchise in the American League to Minnesota, and, in 1961, the Minnesota Twins took the field for the first time.

Met Stadium was expanded with the coming of the major-league baseball and had its largest crowd—more than 50,000 fans—for the seventh and final game of the 1965 World Series. The Met also served as home to the Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League and later the Minnesota Kicks soccer team. In between it hosted events ranging from wrestling matches to a concert by the Beat1es.

The Met was hailed as an outstanding venue for baseball but a 1ess-than- desirable facility for football. As a result, by the 1970s—with the Vikings now a dominant team in the midst of making four Super Bowl appearances and the Twins languishing in the second division and playing before small crowds—there was talk of either remodeling the Met to improve the sight1ines for football or even building a brand-new stadium for just the Vikings.

It was expected that, since Minneapolis interests had sold the bonds for the original stadium construction, funding for an upgrade for the Met would come, once again, from Minneapolis.

But this time the Minneapolis business community decided that, if it was going to foot the bill, it might as well have the stadium within its own city limits. One of the first proposals for a new stadium was a doozy: an 80,000 seat, domed stadium exclusively for football on the northwest edge of downtown Minneapolis. The stadium would be surrounded by a 5,100-space parking ramp that would be uncovered on the top level to allow the tradition of pre-game tailgating to continue.

This stadium proposal never came to fruition but it did mark the beginning of a decade-long tug-of-war between Twin Cities’ communities for the site or sites to house the Twins and Vikings. Minneapolis finally won the battle, following the 1977 passage of a “no-site” stadium bill by the Minnesota Legislature and the subsequent decision by a stadium commission, appointed by Governor Rudy Perpich, to erect a multi-purpose covered facility on the eastern edge of downtown Minneapolis.

The commission’s selection was not the end of the fight, however. Citizens initiatives and political referenda threatened to derail the downtown dome throughout 1979. Meanwhile, the stadium commision struggled to comply with the stringent requirements of the law that authorized the sale of revenue bonds for what would become known as the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.

Although some hurdles remained, construction began in December of 1979 with excavation on the 20-acre site on the east side of Chicago Avenue between 4th and 6th streets. Unlike the conditions facing the builders of Nicollet Park more than 80 years before, the Metrodome did not have to be confined to a site within existing streets. In this case, the roadways were reconfigured to get out of the way of the mammoth stadium, which caused the blocks on which it sat to swell beyond their previous limits. More than 600,000 cubic yards of excavation, including 300,000 yards of backfill, was performed by Ames Construction Company of Burnsville, Minnesota.

Contractors erecting Met Stadium in the 1950s had to contend with a crippling fire during its construction. An obstacle of a different type appeared before the builders of the Metrodome. A 125-ton granite boulder, estimated at more than a billion years old, was uncovered during excavation. The rock resisted all attempts to be dislodged or blown apart. When initial attempts to pulverize the rock were unsuccessful, it became the subject of public attention and a campaign to save it. Eventually a local bank took the rock off the stadium commission’s hands and moved it to the lawn of one of their suburban branches.

With the rock of of the way the joint venture of Barton-Malow/Construction Services, Inc. was able to proceed with the $55-million project. Fifty-two concrete columns were driven 50 feet to bedrock around the perimeter of the playing field. Foundation work commenced with the drilling and pouring of 135 caissons, averaging 54 feet in depth, surrounding the stadium. Concrete columns ringed the playing field and, on top of them, 110-foot-long steplike concrete slope girders were poured in place. These girders supported the seating surface and the seats themselves. More than 500 tons of structural steel and 40,000 cubic yards of concrete were used in the structure.

In June of 1981, construction began on the roof, which would consist of two layers of woven fibercloth glass, each 1/32-inch thick, clamped to 18 steel cables crisscrossing the stadium. To make it weatherproof, a Teflon coating was applied to the exterior surface of the outer layer, which is separated by air by as much as six feet from the inner layer. The compression ring for the dome is 83 feet above grade, 20 feet wide, and 2,200 feet long for the 3-3/8-inch multi-strand cables.

The entire roof structure—including fixtures such as lights and speakers— weights 340 tons and is supported by as many as 20 90-horsepower fans. When it was inflated for the first time on October 2, 1981, the center of the dome billowed 186 feet above the playing surface.

The dome opened in April of 1981 with 55,000 seats available for an exhibition game featuring the Minnesota Twins. The capacity for football—both the Vikings and the Minnesota Gophers, who abandoned Memorial Stadium on the University campus to play in the new domed facility—is 8,000 more than baseball.

Although fan opinions vary on how they like watching baseball and football inside, the Metrodome has been a boon to the community. With its climate- controlled atmosphere it has been able to host a wide array of events—from tractor pulls to trade shows—at all times of the year. It even was the home of the Minnesota Timberwolves for their first year in the National Basketball Association and is responsible for the 1992 Super Bowl and 1992 Final Four college basketball championship coming to Minnesota.

There have been many other sports facilities in the Twin Cities than the three mentioned in this article. But Nicollet Park, Metropolitan Stadium, and the Metrodome serve as prime examples of the changing attitudes and methods regarding stadium construction over the past century of sports in Minnesota.

Back to Milkees Press Home Page

Back to Stew Thornley Home Page