Ohio Stadium: The Beginning

The sudden growing pains that followed the admission of Ohio State to the “Big Nine” made it clear that it was only a question of time until Ohio Field, Ohio State’s Athletic stadium, would be outgrown. The space there was limited and the High St. frontage was too valuable for permanent athletic use. The Athletic Board took notice of this situation May 28, 1913. At this board meeting they authorized the appointment of a committee “to confer with President Thompson for discussion of the plan of moving the athletic field to a new place.” The minutes also show that a committee reported that “it does not favor any extensive improvement upon the present equipment” although it was for keeping “the present equipment in repair.” This was the birth of the idea of the Ohio Stadium, but nearly a decade was to elapse before it was to become a reality.

A preliminary discussion of the idea of a new stadium was under way soon after the close of the 1916 championship season. At a February 3, 1917 board meeting the sole topic of discussion was “the plans for the new stadium.”

In the summer of 1918 the idea of a new athletic plant and stadium was still germinating. August 13, 1918, Prof. Thomas French reported on “the new plans of Architect Smith for the new Athletic Field and Stadium.” It was Architect Howard Dwight Smith, 1907, who finally drew the plans for the horseshoe-shaped, double deck stadium. His unique design him the gold medal of the American Institute of Architects for “excellence in public work.”

Money was a large problem and various ideas to raise funds were suggested. In the end it developed that a stadium could be financed in only two ways: by public subscription and by profits from intercollegiate athletics, chiefly football. The plan for a stadium campaign which, in effect, would take the public into partnership, began to take shape toward the end of 1919. Public interest in Ohio State football reached unprecedented heights in Columbus and throughout Ohio after a third highly successful football season. It was now quite clear that there was a need for a much greater seating capacity and improved playing facilities than Ohio Field could afford.

The resulting Stadium campaign, finally put into action in the fall of 1920, was the solution. The Stadium campaign capitalized on the enthusiasm generated by the great football successes achieved in 1916, 1917, 1919 and 1920.

It was decided that it was not enough, however, merely to ask the public to contribute to a Stadium fund. Something had to be given something in return for their money. Various schemes were devised to this end. As it worked out, $100 came to be the standard subscription from the alumni and public and $25 from students. In return, Stadium subscribers were guaranteed certain preferences as to football tickets in future years and there was talk of perpetuating their names on bronze tablets to be erected on the Stadium walls whenever finances permitted. But, because of expenses related to the expanded athletic program, followed by the bleak depression that began with the stock market collapse of 1929, this never occurred. But, tablets identifying donors of $5000 or more were erected on individual Stadium boxes.

The first plans for a Stadium campaign were announced in the winter of 1919-20. The original goal was $600,000. At the outset plans called for a stadium to seat at least 50,000 with the first games to be played in it in the fall of 1921. Lowry F. Sater, 1895, Columbus attorney, was general chairman.

A Stadium Number of the Alumni Monthly in February, 1921 gave more details about the planned construction of the Stadium and surrounding athletic fields. The Stadium was to be horseshoe-shaped , with twenty baseball diamonds around its perimeter and along the adjoining east bank of the Olentangy. On the South of the Stadium, six soccer and football fields, a running track, jumping pits and tennis courts were to be constructed. In addition, the Olentangy was to be straightened and diked to prevent flooding, and a new bridge was to be constructed across the river to replace the old trestle north of the Stadium site. A new east-west roadway, a new power plant, a new gymnasium, and even a new armory were also projected in the new Stadium area.

The opening of the Stadium campaign was set for the week of October 18 to 23, 1920. It was centered in Columbus, but included the entire state and major alumni centers elsewhere. The John Price Jones Corp., of New York City, was brought in to provide professional fund raising know-how. The Stadium Committee decided meanwhile that “a temporary delay would be wiser than too-suddenly sprung campaigning.” The campaign and the Stadium Week observance were tied in with and followed the formal celebration that fall of the University’s semi-centennial.

Samuel N. Summer, 1905, Columbus industrialist, was chairman of the campaign executive committee and did yeoman service. He had the help of six special committees headed by campus and civic leaders such as Prof. French, J.L. Morrill, 1913, alumni secretary, Simon Lazarus, leading Columbus merchant, and others. Carl E. Steeb, University business manager, was treasurer.

Stadium Week, as the campaign was called, was marked by all the carefully planned hoopla and natural enthusiasm that the campus and the town could muster. There were pageants, demonstrations, parades and stunts. On Monday, the first day, there was a tremendous athletic pageant downtown with nearly 4000 students in athletic costume participating. It culminated, as the Monthly reported, in a “mammoth demonstration of physical education” on the north lawn of the Statehouse. It was estimated that a throng of nearly 100,000 saw the parade. On another day the campus infantry and artillery regiments paraded downtown with full equipment. On Friday afternoon still another parade downtown was made up of fifty-one floats representing fraternities, sororities and independent campus organizations.

Each noon and daily at 5 p.m. there were music, stunts and short “pep” talks from a stage on the west front of the Capitol grounds. The downtown newspapers carried reams of publicity. Billboards were used and a huge horseshoe with electric lights denoting the progress of the campaign was suspended in front of the Deshler Hotel. At nearby Gay St. a large transparency was stretched across High St., bearing the plea, “Boost Ohio Stadium. It’s for Columbus.” The response to the campaign enthusiasm was boosted by the fact that the 1920 football team had won another Western Conference title, its third in four seasons, not counting the “unofficial” 1918 season.

Steps went forward, meanwhile, for the selection and engineering survey of a site for the Stadium. A deal was worked out whereby the Animal Husbandry Department agreed to surrender pasture land west of Neil Ave., bordering on the Olentangy in return for a promise of new buildings and other facilities west of the river. Like the Stadium itself, this took time, but these pastures are where the stadium stands today.

An important move taken at the November 10, 1920 board meeting was the appointment of a 7-man Stadium construction committee. It consisted of President Thompson as chairman, Prof. French as vice chairman, Summer, Steeb, Prof. D.J. Kays, J.N. Bradford, University architect, and Athletic Director St. John.

On Ohio State Day, celebrated across the nation November 26, 1920, it was reported that subscriptions had reached $923,775. This was broken down as follows: alumni and citizens, $544,500; Ohio outside of Columbus, $144,948; from other states, $77,727; and campus – students and faculty - $156,600. The measure of enthusiasm can be gauged from the fact that earlier there was talk that $300,000 was the most that could be expected from Columbus, apart from the campus, while the actual response was nearly double that figure. By January 20, 1921 the total figure stood at $1,001,071.

Ground was broken for the Stadium in formal ceremonies August 3, 1921. Governor Harry L. Davis wielded the first shovel, followed by President Thompson, Chairman Summer and a multiple officials and campus and stadium committee dignitaries. A crowd of 2,500 was present along with the regimental band. Sparked by the national and University colors, The audience dutifully sang “America” and “Carmen Ohio.”

Completion date for the Stadium was set for October 1, 1922. In concurrence with the erection of the Stadium, the University let a contract for the new bridge and roadway over the Olentangy just north of the Stadium at a cost of $117,900.

The University trustees, meanwhile, at their April 25, 1921 meeting adopted an important resolution under which the Stadium was to be built and fixing the responsibility of the Athletic Board. By now the project was known officially as the Ohio Stadium. More than $1,000,000 having been raised, it was now up to the building committee to see the project to completion. It was stipulated, among other things, that the University itself was to incur no financial obligation in connection with the Stadium and that the cost of the structure was not to exceed $930,000. But that was not to be, before it was completed, Ohio Stadium was to cost twice that much.

The University trustees formally approved the plans and specifications of the Stadium at May 25, 1921. The building committee directed the engineers to submit plans to contractors for bids to be opened June 17. The contract for the construction of the stadium was let to the E.H. Latham Co., of Columbus, with their bid of $1,341,017. The contract was approved July 7. The campaign itself was over, but the books were still open as there was a gap of $300,000 between the contract price and the amount pledged. All expenses of the campaign were paid by the Athletic Department so that every campaign dollar pledged could go into the Stadium.

The design finally adopted called for a double-decked, horseshoe-shaped structure on a north-south axis lying in the bottom lands bordering the Olentangy River. Clyde T. Morris, 1898, of the civil engineering department, was the engineer in charge, assisted by William S. Hindman, also of that department.

The Stadium was to have a seating capacity of 63,000 and was to be built mainly of concrete. There was some difference of opinion over both the size and the materials to be used. Dr. T.C. Mendenhall, sole surviving member of the original faculty in 1873 and an influential trustee in 1921, was insistent that the seating capacity be held to 35,000. The argument was that a large stadium was not needed and would never be filled. There was also some argument on political grounds that brick be used instead of concrete.

The chosen site was on low ground, and was often subject to flooding by the Olentangy. To offset this it was necessary to make an earth fill to an average depth of 7 feet. In time, the river was also straightened and a substantial dike was built along the east bank, but this did not come about until the PWA period in the depression.

Steady progress was made on the Stadium construction. Prof. French presented the report of the Stadium engineer January 19, 1922. A motion was adopted that “the necessary steps be taken along the lines of the special committee of the Stadium Building Committee to insure completion of the Stadium by October 1, 1922.”

To make the Stadium ready for actual use involved many details, e.g., the purchase of 3000 chairs for the boxes, a flagpole at a cost of $381, the numbering of the seats, and 1200 identification badges for employees. A major item was the installation of cables for telegraph and telephone service. There was also need for a score board and for liability insurance. At its May 7, 1923 meeting the board approved the building of an outdoor cinder track at the Stadium and the erection of a fence across the open end of the horseshoe.

The Stadium engineer was authorized also to make plans for a new Varsity baseball field in the area northeast of the Stadium. Another recurring problem was the necessity of oiling the ground underneath the Stadium itself to settle the dust. Years later this was solved permanently by blacktopping it. On December 5, 1923 the board authorized the construction of a 6-lap track and straightaway under the west side of the Stadium together with tennis courts and the grading of the Varsity baseball field at a cost of $5650. It was not until May, 1926 that purchase of a canvas cover for the football playing field was approved

The estimated schedule of expenses to complete the Stadium by October 1, 1922 totaled $1,488,168, of which, $1,341,017 applied on the Latham contract. The remainder covered office expense, engineer payroll, and “grounds and extras” – the last in the amount of $81,920.

Stadium Fund subscriptions were shown at a face value of $1,078,114 of which $975,428 was paid. Athletic profits for 1921-22 came to $134,000, leaving loans to be negotiated in the amount of $378,740 from Columbus banks. Such borrowing was on unsecured personal notes signed by Athletic Board members and was divided unevenly between two major Columbus banks.

At the June 15, 1922 board meeting, Engineer Morris presented his final estimate of the cost of the completed Stadium. The total expense was now given as $1,491,761 and the amount to be borrowed as $386,000. Authority was given the treasurer to borrow “from time to time as the funds may be needed a sum not to exceed $386,000, on the best possible terms.”

The stadium was completed in time for the 1922 football season and opened with much celebration. The Ohio Stadium was born.

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Ohio Field

It is the fate of many things to be remembered not particularly for themselves, but for what they presaged for something else. Not so with Ohio Field. Certainly, by reason of shortcomings, it made Ohio Stadium a reality. It had a relatively short but formidable history of its own in an era in which the horse and buggy was giving way to the automobile, America was coming into its century, and football, given birth by eastern colleges, was becoming a truly national sport.

For Ohio Field, it began in 1898 when the University relocated an athletic field from Neil Avenue to along High Street in the vicinity of 17th and Woodruff Avenues. Ten years later, that field finally got an official name. Bearing a flask of spring water, Mrs. William Oxley Thompson, wife of the University president, said, "In the name of clean athletics and manly sports, I christen this field 'Ohio Field.' "

Meantime, Ohio Field was already Ohio's field. In 1903 the Board of Trustees authorized the use of the area and expanded it in 1905. By 1906, some residents of the area wanted it removed. Obviously, they underestimated the grip that football had on a community and the bond that was growing between a University and the sport.

In 1907, the field was extended. Before it was officially named and dedicated, it had a grandstand and bleachers, a new iron fence, and brick ticket offices. In 1910, another grandstand was added, and before long, crowds of 14,000, matching the capacity, were coming to watch a marvelous football player named Charles "Chic" Harley, a graduate of East High School in Columbus who would become Ohio State's first nationally acclaimed and universally recognized three-time All-American. Much as Yankee Stadium would become The House that Ruth Built, Ohio Stadium would be The House that Harley Built. But he was far from alone.

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