Turf wars at the Yale Bowl

There are 61 National Historic Landmarks in Connecticut: The New Haven Green, Phillip Johnson’s Glass House, the State Capitol building — and the Yale Bowl among them.

The Yale Bowl, built in 1914, has had ongoing restoration, expansion and reduction in the last generation. Now called “Class of 1954 Field” because of that class’s generosity in stabilizing the concrete retaining walls, tunnels and gates, the facility was designed by Charles A. Ferry without locker rooms. Additions in 1994 and 2006 added those, and other facilities, plus a new scoreboard and reduced seating by over 10,000 to a mere 60,000.

Many of those 60,000 “seats” are unimproved, and in some cases cordoned off degraded bleachers. Bathrooms are in outbuildings also in need of repair, but the luster and awe of the facility is undimmed by its frayed edges — it served as the model for the Rose Bowl and is the largest stadium in all of NCAA FCS football.

The Bowl had the simplest of construction paradigms: dig a very large crater and mound up the lip about it with the excavated earth to create raked seating. The results are dramatically simple and effective. The Bowl’s 930-foot length and 12.5-acre area makes this 101-year-old piece of history a unique manifestation of early 20th century American collegiate pride.

Although concerts have occurred there, the NFL Giants had a season on the field, and the Special Olympics World Games opened and closed there 20 years ago, the Yale Bowl is essentially a Yale football facility: with the exception of an occasional high school camp or other event the Bowl services five or six varsity games a year.

In the last 30 years, synthetic turf has had a huge marketing push to athletic facilities at every level: “Turf” is now the default setting for the vast majority of all college facilities and many high school fields. The bright blue of the University of New Haven’s DellaCamera Stadium screams “ARTIFICIAL” — but the essential ethic of “Turf” is simulating natural grass.

Reportedly, Yale has approved the installation of “Turf” at the Yale Bowl. Some are very worried about health concerns, but those issues have had a lot of study, with a 2010 Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection study concluded “outdoor and indoor artificial turf fields are not associated with elevated health risks from the inhalation of volatile or particle-bound chemicals.” Injury rates are roughly equivalent between grass and turf, as “Turf” means greater velocity, so more impact, and grass has more tripping potential. Having been personally involved with vetting “Turf,” the lack of pesticide and fertilizer use is positive, but in terms of its installation at the Yale Bowl, its definitively a 21st century insertion into a unique antique context.

Being a state-designated “Historic Architect” and simultaneously, a former player, coach and father of a player, I have two interweaving perspectives. Anecdotally most players love playing on natural grass for the feel and fun of it, most coaches and athletic administrators love playing on “Turf” for its consistency and durability.

Cost is not an issue — schools save little or no money over the expected service life of a decade by installing “Turf.” The real benefit is durability that leverages far greater usefulness. Instead of a game or two a week to keep a grass field playable, there can be 30 events (including concerts, plays and non-athletic events) a week with virtually no impact on the field. An egalitarian view is that “Turf” opens the Yale Bowl’s history, provenance and enjoyment to many more people than experience it now. With more people using it, perhaps the case for fully restoring the historic facility will have traction.

The buzz kill of the gently raked broad seating of an early 20th century stadium framing the perfectly perfect plastic of “Turf” carpeting will be jarring. My guess is that if installed, new “Turf” will be about as discordant as the press box addition that “floats” above the field, designed by Newman Associates after the original burned in 1986. Old and new are always in a dance; often one leads but sometimes one steps on the other’s toes, despite all choreography.

But the argument over the Yale Bowl “Turf” can be extrapolated: our buildings are not just the bricks and mortar (or in this case stabilized concrete) their impact extends into the landscape they create and repose upon. In all likelihood, in our generation the New Haven Green will be, in some way, “renovated.” While it’s dubious that “Turf” will be considered in its renovation, the impetus to “update” can be dangerous to the essential value our historic places have. Care must be taken, or we lose the history that manifests New England’s core meaning to our culture: living history in our midst.

My son played football at Franklin and Marshall College. The college wants to create a new football facility. But the project has had some alumni object to a proposed new field with “Turf” to replace its own early 20th century concrete and grass version, full of memories and traditions. Perhaps Yale alumni, football or otherwise, will be more effective than preservationists, environmentalists or health professionals at keeping the Bowl all natural.