Bleacher renovation ready for opener
Cubs add 1,800 new seats to ballpark with improvements

04/06/2006 8:46 PM ET

CHICAGO -- The Wrigley Field bleachers are bigger, better and, miraculously, ready for Friday's home opener.

Crews were touching up some of the paint and there's still work to be done, but the $13.5 million project will be officially unveiled when the Chicago Cubs play host to the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday.

There are 1,800 new seats, including two wheelchair seating areas (one in the shade in center, one in the sun in right). There are Bleacher Box Seats in right field, and a Batter's Eye Suite in center. The Cubs worked out Thursday and many marveled that the six-month project was completed in time.

"It looks like a whole new ballpark to me," Cubs catcher Michael Barrett said.

Part of that is because of the new, still gray concrete base for the bleacher seats. When the weather warms up, the seating area will be treated with a coating and it will all be traditional Wrigley Field green.

To veteran right-hander Greg Maddux, the ballpark didn't look much different than it did in September.

"It looks almost the same," Maddux said. "I thought the center-field backdrop was the biggest difference. It'll get some people in here -- the more the merrier."

That's the intent. Mark McGuire, executive vice president of business operations for the Cubs, presented some before and after photos of the bleachers on Thursday. The advantages to the change, as far as the Cubs are concerned, is improved aesthetics, increased restroom capacity, more concessions, wheelchair seats, a new sound system, televisions, and improved broadcasting facilities.

"There were areas that were in need of upgrades," McGuire said. "We're always amazed that with the limited restrooms and limited concessions, people have loved the bleachers forever; they say, 'Don't change a thing.'"

But they have, and the Cubs made the changes with respect to the ballpark's history. Wrigley Field is the second oldest ballpark in the Major Leagues, built in 1914, two years after Fenway Park was built.

"Colors, materials, the way things were detailed, we tried to match what was here as much as possible," said Mark Palmer of HOK Sports Facility Group, which was the main architect for the project. "If somebody came and didn't know they did a renovation, they'd say it looks like what they had before. There's definite changes, but I think it offers a lot of advantages."

Like a large catwalk behind the seating area to ease traffic. Fans won't be able to stand against the chain link fence and watch the game because the new seating rises up and blocks the view. But the additional space makes up for that.

There is more shade, more protection from rain -- which could come in handy on Friday. The exterior area is attractive, cleaner and more inviting.

"We wanted to create an entry plaza so they didn't have to come through small portals into the bleachers," Palmer said. "I think that was successful."

Some of the detailing on the wrought iron gates at the bleacher entrance on Sheffield and Waveland Avenues dates back to the 1920s and '30s. The design was discovered through research of old photos of Wrigley Field, which was built on the site of a Lutheran seminary.

"This building is used by people, it's changed over time, and that's how buildings work," said Philip Hamp, principal with Vinci Hamp Architects Inc., which was involved in the restoration end of the project. "To try to maintain them and add to them in a sensitive way is important. This is an important landmark, not just to the city but to the nation."

Which is why the crews did everything possible to preserve Wrigley's look -- even down to matching the grout of the original brick.

There is the matter of the ivy. The plants on the interior walls of the bleachers are still there -- and brown now because of the cold weather. That hasn't changed. But landscape architect Peter Lindsay Schaudt convinced the Cubs to experiment with ivy on the outside walls.

When the weather warms up, Schaudt said they will plant English ivy, an evergreen plant which thrives in deep shade, on the north wall. On the east side on Sheffield Avenue, they will plant Boston ivy.

"We're planting a lot of it to compensate for the people factor," Schaudt said. "The big issue for me isn't so much lack of light but it's people."

"The idea was to turn Wrigley Field inside out and respect the neighborhood and improve the bricks and lighting and the ivy where we hope it's a win-win situation for the Cubs and the neighborhood."
-- Peter Lindsay Schaudt

Hopefully, fans will respect the ivy and let it grow.

"We're planting so much that even if a fraction of it survives, it'll be enough," he said. "The first three to five years will be a big test."

The ivy isn't expected to cover the entire exterior wall but just the bottom third. There is a lot of soil under the paving to handle the roots, and that's key.

"It was my idea to do the ivy out here," said Schaudt, a lifelong Cubs fan. "The first designs didn't include me in the project. They came up with including the brick pavement and improving the pedestrian experience.

"The idea was to turn Wrigley Field inside out and respect the neighborhood and improve the bricks and lighting and the ivy where we hope it's a win-win situation for the Cubs and the neighborhood," Schaudt said.

In fact, there are signs in front of the first row of the bleachers reminding fans to "Respect Wrigley" and "Keep the confines friendly. Please show your support respectfully" and "Bleacher fans are the greatest in baseball. Let's keep it that way."

The 252 new Bleacher Box Seats in right field provide a seat back and are reserved seating. On the premium days, they cost $60.

"The idea was for the aging baby boomer who wants the bleacher experience but may not want to be in the middle of a sorority without a back to the bench -- this gives them a choice," McGuire said.

While Cubs manager Dusty Baker liked the way the bleachers looked, he wanted to wait and see if any additional changes need to be made. The Cubs want to see if the glass front of the Batter's Eye Suite is too reflective or distracting, or if the paint is too glossy, or if the lights create a nuisance.

"It's still a work in progress a little bit," said Baker, who went through similar issues when the San Francisco Giants moved out of Candlestick Park.

Some of the surrounding rooftop owners aren't too thrilled about the changes either. The new seating has little impact in left field but right-center has some issues.

"We want it to work for them," McGuire said. "We just didn't want their interest to come before ours."

All of the people involved were amazed that the project was ready.

"It always surprises me," Palmer said. "I've been with HOK almost 17 years now, and I've seen a lot of miracles happen in a short amount of time -- let me put it that way. When you have an Opening Day, you have an Opening Day, and there's really no flexibility with that."

On Friday, it'll be the fans' turn to tour the bleachers.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for - from

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