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A landmark risks becoming a relic

Times Staff Writer

Many stadiums and arenas in this country, particularly those that are home to professional teams, are state of the art but sterile. Their luxury suites and booming sound systems help draw season-ticket holders and corporate sponsors, but they can’t do much to disguise the fact that the buildings are less than memorable architecturally.

In Southern California, we have the opposite problem. With the exception of the gleaming, aerodynamic-looking and entirely nondescript Staples Center, which opened in 1999, our sports facilities are full of history and architectural character but are also old and crumbling. That explains why the future of Dodger Stadium, still a terrific place to watch nine innings despite its advancing age, is the subject of perennial speculation. And it is one of the primary reasons the Coliseum and the Rose Bowl are back in the news this week, with USC threatening to abandon the first stadium to play its home football games in the second.

The dispute between the Coliseum Commission, the nine-member panel that operates the stadium, and USC, which is willing to pay to restore the aging structure as long as it can assume full control of it, should at least indelibly underscore one fact: The 1923 Coliseum -- designed in a muscular Neoclassical style by the talented, prolific John Parkinson -- is being entirely propped up by the financial and athletic success of USC football. If the team makes good on its threats to decamp for the Rose Bowl, another 1920s design with good architectural bones, the most appropriate new mascot for the Coliseum, replacing the Trojan, will be an elephant. As in white elephant.

The ongoing negotiations between USC and the Coliseum Commission should be seen at least in part as an exercise in historic preservation. It is not just a question of keeping one of the most successful college football programs in the country in its current home. It is a question of saving one of our finest and best-known pieces of 1920s architecture from irrelevance. And if this city’s architectural history teaches us anything, it’s that irrelevance is usually the quickest path to the wrecking ball.

The Coliseum Commission has now helped drive away the NFL’s Raiders and Rams as well as UCLA’s football program, which left for Pasadena after the 1981 season. The commission is also responsible, at least indirectly, for the construction of the Home Depot Center in Carson, a compact, crisply designed stadium that plays host to the Los Angeles Galaxy -- David Beckham’s squad -- and most of the big-ticket international soccer matches held in Southern California. When the U.S. men’s soccer team meets Sweden here Jan. 19, the match will be in Carson, not Exposition Park.

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If you take into account the Sports Arena, which it also controls, then the commission can also credibly be blamed for pushing out the Lakers, the Clippers and USC’s basketball program, which since last fall has played in the new Galen Center at the corner of Figueroa and Jefferson. That’s quite a track record. And it’s been quite a boon for local stadium and arena architects, who have been kept busy thanks to defections by teams that once played at one of the commission’s properties.

At the Coliseum, meanwhile, various renovation plans have surfaced in recent years, all complicated by the stadium’s status as a state and federal historic landmark. In May 2006, the Los Angeles City Council approved an $800-million proposal to drop a new 68,000-seat bowl into the historic shell of the stadium. But the plan, similar to recent additions to Chicago’s Soldier Field, would go into effect only if the NFL awarded a franchise to L.A. -- a prospect that seems less likely by the month. Earlier this year, as part of the city’s ultimately failed bid to land the 2016 Olympics, architect David Jay Flood proposed expanding the Coliseum by adding a temporary -- and rather pedestrian-looking -- steel-and-vinyl superstructure around its perimeter.

The Rose Bowl, for its part, would become a rich-get-richer case should the Trojans make good on their threat to relocate. The stadium, which is owned by the city of Pasadena, has just completed a $16-million project, paid for by bond funds, to create new locker rooms and a media center. Theoretically, the stadium would land more cash from USC as part of any venue-sharing arrangement.

The Rose Bowl has always been a slightly nicer place to watch a game than the Coliseum: It’s less cavernous, for one, and the Arroyo Seco offers a picturesque backdrop. If the Rose Bowl had additional USC revenue to work with, that gap could quickly widen.

This whole controversy, as others have been quick to point out, looks more like a negotiating ploy by USC trustees than a serious relocation threat. But the underlying issues are meaningful. The Coliseum has clear value as a Los Angeles -- and not just a USC -- landmark. Along with its history as a venue for the Olympics, the Dodgers, the Chargers, the Raiders and UCLA, it was the site of a papal Mass in 1987. John F. Kennedy gave a speech there in 1960 accepting the Democratic presidential nomination.

It would therefore be a pity to give complete control of the Coliseum over to the university, which has little obvious incentive to protect the building’s broader role as a civic icon. In the long term, there needs to be some check on the university so it won’t treat the Coliseum solely as a kind of architectural advertising vehicle for its football program. For all its missteps, the Coliseum Commission -- which consists of three members appointed by the city, three by the state and three by the county -- can at least be counted on to consider ways that the stadium serves the larger community and not just the university.

But does the commission have even a shred of leverage in this case? If you take the Trojan football team out of the stadium, what is going to keep the Coliseum viable as a piece of living architecture: USC soccer matches and a handful of high school football playoff games? Who will pay for the stadium’s basic upkeep, not to mention the more expensive renovations it requires every couple of decades?

The Dodgers will play an exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox in the Coliseum in March. But without a regular football tenant, the Coliseum risks becoming a gigantic relic. A USC move would also at least partially sever the important ties between the Coliseum and the central USC campus, for which Parkinson himself designed the first master plan.

And have you seen the sad-sack Sports Arena lately? If that’s the model of how the Coliseum Commission deals with a building after losing its anchor tenants, then we should all be more than a little concerned about the plight of a Trojan-less Coliseum.

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christopher.hawthorne@ latimes.com


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