Building history: Columbus sports cathedrals, from Recreation Park to Huntington Park

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch

Columbus built it, and they came. For more than 130 years fans have filled stadium and arena seats to watch their teams play. From the "House that Harley Built" to Nationwide Arena, the Arch City has a long history of housing everything from football games and Rolling Stones concerts to NHL games, professional wrestling matches and Billy Graham crusades.

The latest architectural entry is Lower.com Field, new home of the Columbus Crew. The soccer stadium will have amenities that would have seemed futuristic to the 19th and early-20th century athletes who entertained fans while running the bases and breaking the goal line in the bare-boned structures of the day.

But, hey, the popcorn remains the same.  

Recreation Park

Where: Schumacher Place. Area bounded by E. Whittier Avenue (south), Jaeger Street (west), Kossuth Street (north) and Ebner Street (east). Now a Giant Eagle grocery and parking lot

When: 1887-unknown

Who: Ohio State football; Columbus Panhandles (1908); Columbus Buckeyes (American Association); high school football games.

History: Site of the first Ohio State home football game in 1890 against Wooster, the “Recy” also housed the city’s professional baseball teams from 1887 to 1895. It was during that span when salesman Harry M. Stevens found he was unable to read the scorecard he bought there and paid team owner Ralph Lazarus for the right to print and sell scorecards at the park. According to “A Historical Guidebook to Old Columbus,” he was soon selling peanuts, ice cream and soda pop to go with his scorecard sales — the beginnings of a concession business that would become national in scope and expand to most major league parks as Harry M. Stevens, Inc. Stevens is also credited with making hot dogs popular at ballparks. 

University Field/Ohio Field

Ohio Field as it appeared for the Buckeyes' Homecoming game against Wisconsin in 1916. OSU won 14-13.

Where: Near Woodruff Avenue and High Street

When: 1898-1907 (University Field); 1908-1921 (Ohio Field, razed in 1924).

Who: Ohio State football, track and field and high schools.

History: The Buckeyes football program began small, at least from an attendance standpoint. First dubbed University Field, only 500 fans could be seated in the bleachers until 1901, when eastside seating was added. Another expansion bumped capacity to almost 10,000 in 1912, but it wasn’t until Chic Harley arrived in 1916 that interest skyrocketed, forcing another expansion to accommodate 12,000. But even that number was not enough to house Harley’s admirers, who swarmed to Ohio Field to watch both inside the gates and around the perimeter. When the Buckeyes played Illinois in 1919, an estimated 20,000 showed up to watch Harley’s final game, some watching from the roofs of nearby homes.

Chic Harley, with ball, led Ohio State to a 23-3 victory over Northwestern at Ohio Field that wrapped up the Western Conference — now the Big Ten — title for the Buckeyes in 1916.

The Armory and Gymnasium

The Armory and Gymnasium was designed to resemble a medieval castle, as this 1907 postcard illustrates.

Where: East side of Oval Drive South (Ohio State campus)

When: 1898-1958

Who: Ohio State men's basketball (1898-1918).

History: Designed to resemble a medieval castle, the Armory served as home to Ohio State men's basketball games until the U.S. Army took over the building and lodged soldiers there in 1918, after which the Buckeyes moved to the new Fairground Coliseum. The structure was quite the multipurpose complex for its day, supporting a canvas running track and seating for 750 above the first-floor drill hall, according to Columbus building historian Bob Hunter. The basement included two swimming pools — one for men and one for women — and housed a cannon room. The building survived a fire in 1935 but was damaged beyond repair in 1958. Arson was suspected. 

Sports venues:Ginther wants to begin $4M design work on new Columbus sports park without land lease

Neil Park

These are the Neil Park "showing boxes" as they appeared on April 28, 1926.

Where: 525 Cleveland Avenue (near site of former Kroger bakery)

When: 1900-1940 (razed in 1946)

Who: Columbus Senators (Interstate League; Western Association; American Association); Columbus Buckeyes (American Association); Columbus Panhandles (American Professional Football League in 1920-21, renamed the NFL in 1922); Turfs; Blue Birds; Elite Giants (Negro National League).

History: Columbus Senators owner Thomas Bryce and business manager Bobby Quinn built the first steel and concrete baseball stadium in the nation here, preceding Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field by five years, according to “A Historical Guidebook to Old Columbus.” The original wooden stands were moved to the third-base side, where they collapsed when an overflow crowd sat down after the playing of the national anthem on opening day 1917, injuring dozens of spectators. In one of four regular-season Major League games played here in 1905, Boston Hall of Famer Cy Young beat Detroit 6-1 before 5,702 fans. St. Louis Cardinals owner Branch Rickey, who graduated from Ohio Wesleyan, bought the team in 1930 and renamed it the Red Birds. Jim Thorpe played here against the host Panhandles.

The Columbus Senators stand for the raising of the American flag before a game at Neil Park in the 1930s.

The Taft Fairgrounds Coliseum

A sellout crowd witnessed the Chill during its final game, a 5-0 win over the Dayton Bombers, at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, April 4, 1999.

Where: 717 E. 17th Avenue (Ohio Expo Center/Fairgrounds)

When: 1918-present

Who: High school basketball; Ohio State men's basketball (1920-55); Columbus Horizon (CBA 1989-93); Columbus Thunderbolts (Arena Football League 1991); Columbus Stars (UHL 2004); Columbus Golden Seals/Owls (IHL 1971-77); Columbus Chill (ECHL 1991-99).

History: The 5,000-seat "Bbarn" opened its doors to more teams from more sports than any other permanent sports facility in Columbus, but is best known for hosting high school basketball games through 2013. Though not outfitted with state-of-the-art amenities, the building was legendary for its multiple sports played amid the scent of stale popcorn. Besides high school basketball tournament games, the coliseum was home to Ohio State men's basketball until St. John Arena opened in 1956. It also hosted the 1929 NCAA wrestling championships and added to its cult-like status during the decade-long run of the Columbus Chill.

The Ohio Warriors Sled Hockey team practiced at the Taft Fairgrounds Coliseum on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, when a $5.4 million renovation was taking place.

Ohio Stadium

Ohio State football hosted Michigan on Nov. 20, 1926, when this photo was taken from the air.

Where: Banks of the Olentangy on Ohio State campus

When: 1922-present

Who: Ohio State, Ohio Glory, Crew, music concerts.

History: Interest in the Buckeyes ballooned so much after Ohio State halfback Chic Harley arrived from Columbus East High School that old Ohio Field no longer could handle the crowds. What to do? Build a 66,000-seat concrete stadium that was considered huge for its day. The “House that Harley Built” also would be nicknamed “The Horseshoe” or “The Shoe,” and four major expansions later would provide seating for 105,000. The stadium, designed by Howard Dwight Smith, was added to the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Services in 1974; appropriate, considering the history-making games — and track and field feats of Jesse Owens — that happened inside. The Shoe has seen a bit of everything, including music  concerts (Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, U2, Metallica, Beyonce and George Strait, among others). The Crew called Ohio Stadium home from 1996-98. Some of the more memorable football opponents include Notre Dame in 1935 and 1995, Oklahoma in 1977 and 2017 and any number of rivalry games against Michigan. 

Ohio State's football team takes the field prior to their game against Illinois at Ohio Stadium Nov. 3, 2012.

Red Bird/Jet/Franklin County/Cooper Stadium

In a game during the team's first season, 10,251 Columbus Jets fans cheered on the team at Jet Stadium on Aug. 27, 1955. The Jets lost this game 6-5 to Syracuse.

Where: 1155 West Mound Street

When: 1932-2008

Who: Columbus Red Birds (1932-54); Columbus Jets (1955-70); Franklin County Stadium (1977-83); Cooper Stadium (1984-2008).

History: A little bit of everything happened at the old ballpark over the years, including baseball and football games, roller derbies, professional wrestling matches, music concerts, a Franklin Roosevelt campaign appearance and Billy Graham crusades. Opened in 1932, Red Bird Stadium was the brainchild of Red Birds president Larry McPhail, according to former Dispatch columnist Bob Hunter. The St. Louis Cardinals farm team played in the American Association until 1955, when affiliation switched to the Pittsburgh Pirates and was renamed the Jets. When the Jets left following the 1970 season, the stadium sat empty until 1977, when it was remodeled and renamed Franklin County Stadium for the new Pirates affiliate — the Clippers. The New York Yankees came aboard two years later, and in 1984 the park was renamed Cooper Stadium for then-International League president Harold Cooper. The stadium closed in 2008 when the Clippers moved to Huntington Park.

Jet Stadium, as it was seen in Columbus, Ohio, on April 11, 1960, was renamed Cooper Stadium in 1984.

St. John Arena

Built in 1956, this was the view of St. John Arena from the Tuttle Park Place Garage Nov. 20, 2012.

Where: 410 Woody Hayes Drive

When: 1956-present

Who: Ohio State men’s basketball (1956-98); OSU women’s basketball (1965-98); men’s and women’s gymnastics/volleyball and wrestling, until 2019; men’s and women’s indoor track and field (French Fieldhouse); hockey (Ice Rink); formerly high school state basketball championships; OSU graduation.

History: Named for longtime Ohio State athletic director Lynn St. John, the 13,276-seat, multi-purpose arena is mostly known now as a football pep rally site, where the Ohio State Marching Band holds Saturday skull sessions before games. But basketball was the main event for decades and still showcases a game or two a year. Some legendary names have taken the floor at St. John Arena (NOT St. John’s, as many mistakenly call it), including Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, who highlighted the 1960 OSU team that won the school’s only basketball national championship. Katie Smith helped lead the women’s team to the NCAA title game in 1993. Plans to demolish St. John were announced in 2012, to be replaced by the Covelli Center, but community outcry led to a stay of execution that remains in effect.

Battelle Hall

This exterior wall is on the High Street side of the Greater Columbus Convention Center in which Battelle Hall is located.

Where: 400 North High Street (inside Greater Columbus Convention Center)

When: 1980-present

Who: Columbus Quest (ABL 1996-98); Columbus Capitals (AISA 1984-86); Columbus Horizon (1993-94); Columbus Invaders (NPSL 1996-97); high school basketball; MAC men's basketball tournament (1993-94); concerts.

History: Originally known as the Ohio Center, Battelle Hall has temporary seating for 7,000, too small to attract huge events but large enough to house "next-level" leagues like the American Basketball League, precursor to the WNBA. The Columbus Quest called Battelle Hall home from 1996-98 and crowned its 2½-season run by winning back-to-back ABL championships in 1997-98. Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary sophomore LeBron James saw action in the facility during the 2001 National Hoops Classic.

Pandemonium reigns as the Quest celebrated their March 15, 1998, victory over the Long Beach StingRays for the ABL Championship in Battelle Hall at the Columbus Convention Center.

Schottenstein Center/Value City Arena

The Schottenstein Center has been the home of Ohio State men's and women's basketball, as well as other teams and events, since 1998.

Where: 555 Borror Drive, off Lane Avenue

When: 1998-present

Who: Ohio State men’s and women’s basketball, men’s hockey, OSU graduation, music concerts, various high school state championships.

History: The Schott, which houses Value City Arena, was built — unofficially — as part of a Columbus facilities escalation race. Not wanting to lose potential dollars to a proposed Downtown arena (which opened as Nationwide Arena in 2000), Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger and others affiliated with the school pushed for a state-of-the-art arena to be built closer to campus. Voila. Named in honor of Jerome Schottenstein, lead benefactor of the project, arena capacity is 19,049. As the replacement for St. John Arena, the basketball complex has been home to such OSU basketball luminaries as Michael Redd, Evan Turner, Mike Conley Jr., Kelsey Mitchell and Jantel Lavender. The Schottenstein Center also has welcomed such musical artists as The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.

Crew/Mapfre/Historic Crew Stadium

Crew Stadium was the first soccer-specific stadium built by an MLS franchise.

Where: Ohio Expo Center/State Fair, off I-71

When: 1999-2021

Who: Columbus Crew, high school state tournament soccer and football games.

History: Built when Major League Soccer was struggling to break through as a major league enterprise, Crew Stadium — as it originally was known, before Spanish insurance company Mapfre paid for naming rights in 2015 — was the first soccer-specific stadium built by an MLS franchise. This began a trend in league stadium construction. Though critics eventually came to consider it an out-of-date and flammable (the scoreboard once caught fire) metal box, the 19,968-seat stadium became a focal point of soccer in the United States when it hosted a 2001 FIFA World Cup qualifier between the U.S. Men’s National Team and Mexico. Dubbed La Guerra Fria (the Cold War) due to freezing February temperatures, the U.S. won 2-0, setting up a heated rivalry over the coming years. Crew Stadium also hosted the 2001 MLS Cup championship and MLS All-Star games in 2000 and 2005, and it served as one of the venues during the group stage of the 2003 Women’s World Cup.

Nationwide Arena

Nationwide Arena, shown here on Oct. 7, 2000, the night of the Blue Jackets' first ever regular-season game, brought the major professional leagues to Columbus.

Where: 200 West Nationwide Boulevard (Arena District)

When: 2000-present

Who: Columbus Blue Jackets

History: Known sarcastically as one of America’s “professional trash sport” cities through the 1980s and much of the 1990s, Columbus finally escaped that negative image with the arrival of the NHL in 2000. And Nationwide Arena, named for the insurance company based in Columbus and situated near the site of the former Ohio Penitentiary, provided a first-class, big-boy atmosphere. The Blue Jackets set up shop in Nationwide Arena (18,500 capacity for hockey, 19,500 for basketball) and won their first home game, 2-0 against the Washington Capitals on Oct. 27. Tragically, on March 16, 2002, 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil was struck in the head by a deflected puck during a CBJ game and died two days later, becoming the only NHL fan to be killed in a game-related accident. Soon after, the NHL mandated safety netting in all its arenas. Nationwide Arena has hosted the NCAA Women’s Final Four (2018) as well as numerous first- and second-round games of the NCAA men’s hoops tournament. Other events run the gamut from MMA to bull riding to professional wrestling.

Huntington Park

The downtown skyline is illuminated as the Columbus Clippers take on the Omaha Storm Chasers in their opening day Triple-A baseball game at Huntington Park in Columbus on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

Where: Corner of Neil Avenue and Nationwide Boulevard (Arena District)

When: 2009-present

Who: Columbus Clippers

History: After calling Cooper Stadium home for more than three decades, the Clippers moved closer to Downtown, when in 2009 the franchise switched its major league affiliation from the New York Yankees to Cleveland. The two parks — Huntington and Cooper — could not be more different, with the former offering an especially fan-friendly experience that includes “hillside” seating beyond left field and concessions that allow fans to watch the game while waiting in line. Clippers president/general manager Ken Schnacke and 360 Architecture wanted a stadium that felt more like a front porch than a fortress, so they built the park with large “garage doors” that create an extroverted feel.

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