Closing Shot: Camden Yards’ Lasting Legacy

The home of the Baltimore Orioles set a new standard for ballpark design when it opened 30 years ago and continues to inspire today

By Bret McCormick
The Orioles and architects weren’t out to design a retro ballpark as much as they were a stadium that would match its historic surrounding areas, including the B&O Warehouse building.baltimore orioles

A developer from Virginia offered to buy the original blueprints for Oriole Park at Camden Yards from Joe Spear, the venue’s architect, at least twice. The offer was flattering but antithetical to the guiding premise behind the design of the Baltimore Orioles’ downtown home: Camden Yards reflected its specific and unique surroundings and couldn’t be replicated in Virginia or anywhere else. Spear politely, then less politely, declined the offers.

“If you just recreate this, it just becomes like a fast-food franchise,” Spear said. “We’re trying to make it feel so that the person walks up on the very first Opening Day, and thinks, ‘this might have always been here.’”  

Camden Yards turns 30 this year, an opportunity to consider the venue’s impact on baseball stadium design in the three decades since then. Twenty new ballparks have opened since 1992 and many have featured at least some of Camden Yards’ hallmarks. Its downtown location, asymmetrical shape, natural playing surface, signage and wayfinding specific to its hometown, or the incorporation of a city street into the ballpark’s footprint, can be found at places like Atlanta’s Truist Park, St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, or Petco Park in San Diego.

But perhaps the most important aspect is one the Northern Virginia developer couldn’t grasp: the masonry and hand-painted signs, the Oriole weather vanes, Eutaw Street, and the B&O Warehouse were all specific to south Baltimore’s historic waterfront neighborhood.  

Those details weren’t merely “retro,” a term often used to describe Oriole Park at Camden Yards. 

“It was meant to be very contextual,” said Janet Marie Smith, who oversaw the Camden Yards project for the Orioles and is now executive vice president of planning and development for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “We weren’t looking to design a retro ballpark, but looking to design a ballpark that belonged, not just in Baltimore, but on that site.”

The best facets of Oriole Park were all reactions to the era of multiuse stadiums — think Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh or Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati — in which the suburban “concrete ashtrays” were uniform in shape and sterile in design, their AstroTurf playing surfaces bearing the faded lines or field dimensions of a different sport.

By the late 1980s, the city of Baltimore had decided to move on from its own multiuse venue, Memorial Stadium. The Orioles wanted a traditional ballpark, drawing inspiration from the classic ballparks of the first half of the 1900s.  

Incorporating Eutaw Street into the stadium’s footprint was unique, but allowed pedestrians, who could see into the stadium from the street on non-game days, to feel close to the ballpark and the team. Keeping the warehouse, originally built around the turn of the 20th century, helped guide the ballpark’s design aesthetic. 

“It was like a natural feature, a cliff or waterfall or some sort of landform you’d relate to,” said Spear. “We always looked for site features that would make it completely unique to the place that it is.”   

Spear, who is nearing retirement from Populous after nearly four decades with the company that was known as HOK when the ballpark was designed, was happy to spend an hour talking about his most famous project. The next round of calls from reporters about the ballpark in 2027 will be meaningful, too. Memorial Stadium was 35 years old when the Oriole Park at Camden Yards concept was approved.

“How do we know that this investment will stand the test of time? Of course, you never really do, you don’t have a crystal ball,” said Smith. “But you work your best to build a building that is timeless and elastic.”

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