In late fall 1925, the people of New Orleans opened their hearts and wallets to help Tulane University build a new football stadium. On Nov. 22, 1925, The Times-Picayune announced a weeklong campaign to raise $300,000 "in recognition by the community of the necessity of a stadium."
Less than a year later, Tulane had its stadium — a shining jewel that served as the home of a blossoming Green Wave football program that was becoming one of the strongest in the South. Four decades later, it would become home to the New Orleans Saints as well. The facility was dedicated on Oct. 23, 1926.
"It stands in a sense as a tribute to one of the greatest elevens in Tulane's and the South's football history," The Times-Picayune said upon the stadium's completion. "Also it stands as convincing proof of the community's appreciation of its great university, the loyalty and generosity of Tulane's alumni and student body, the growing popular enthusiasm for the greatest and one of the most wholesome of intercollegiate sports. ... Tulane is becoming one of the major stars in the football firmament, and New Orleans one of the football capitals of the nation."
Today, Tulane's plan to construct another on-campus football stadium by 2014 has generated a spectrum of emotions ranging from wild enthusiasm to passionate opposition. Opponents decry the idea of plunking a huge sports facility right next to — in some cases a mere 20 feet from — stately Uptown homes. Dozens of disgruntled residents enlisted help from District A City Councilwoman Susan Guidry to block, or at least slow down, stadium construction in their backyards.
Supporters note, correctly, that Tulane's plan conforms to all current zoning ordinances. That plan would not, however, conform to the proposed new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO) under the city's long-sought Master Plan. That's the legal fault line between supporters and opponents: supporters say Tulane should get to build the stadium under current law; opponents say in just a few months — a year at most — a more modern zoning ordinance would provide far greater protection to Tulane's neighbors. In politics as in law, timing is often everything.
Guidry, siding with neighborhood opponents, has sought to designate a huge swatch of the city — including the area containing Tulane, Loyola, Xavier and perhaps other colleges — as an Interim Zoning District (IZD), thereby blocking construction until Tulane comes to the table to negotiate with neighbors.
At least that was her plan.
At its June 12 meeting, the City Planning Commission (CPC) voted 7-1 to deny Guidry's proposed IZD. "This clearly is spot zoning," said CPC chairman Craig Mitchell. "It's discriminatory."
Some neighbors want no stadium, period. Many of them own homes abutting the proposed stadium's site. Others don't necessarily want to halt the stadium altogether, but they have concerns about quality-of-life issues such as increased traffic, parking and drainage problems, noise, lighting and more.
Attorney Jane Ettinger Booth, a former CPC chair and a member of Save Our Neighborhoods, suggested opponents send their recommendations to the City Council. "You all have one choice," she said. "If you want to protect neighborhoods in this city, if you want to make sure there isn't a stadium twice as big as the (New Orleans Arena) 20 feet away from where people live ... you need to support this IZD."
Meanwhile, Tulane President Scott Cowen calls the proposed IZD "unfair, discriminatory" and "fraught with unintended consequences."
Cowen says Tulane "shouldn't be held accountable to something which is not law, especially when we're in compliance" with the current CZO. "This is not the way we should be operating in this city," Cowen adds. "This is not good public policy."
The Planning Commission agreed with Cowen and other stadium supporters, who include Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The City Council now has until Aug. 31 to amend the zoning law or let Guidry's proposal die. If the council overrides the CPC recommendation and adopts an IZD, Landrieu says he will veto the ordinance — which is one more reason why his interim appointment of District B Councilmember Diana Bajoie is so important, and so politically charged.
The council voted 4-2 in favor of Guidry's IZD on May 3. It takes five votes to override a mayoral veto. Stadium supporters are counting on Bajoie to join Councilmembers Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Jon Johnson in sustaining Landrieu's anticipated veto. If that's how things play out, Tulane will get the stadium it wants under current zoning laws, although the university has held two of three planned meetings with neighbors in an attempt to address at least some of their concerns.
Eighty-seven years ago, the entire city got behind Tulane's drive for a new gridiron stadium. As Tulane struggles to rebuild a football program that 81 years ago went to the Rose Bowl and played for the national championship but now is mired in mediocrity, university officials hope the proposed 25,000-seat stadium (with standing room for 5,000 more) will be a catalyst for Tulane football's resurgence.
New coach Curtis Johnson and a promising recruiting class have stirred optimism among Tulane fans.
"The fact that Tulane football is getting a brand new stadium back on campus is going to be great, not only for the players but for the entire program," Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte, who played for the Green Wave, said in a statement after the university unveiled its plans. "I believe it's going to bring a new excitement and enthusiasm into the players, fans and students. More people will be able to attend games, creating a home-field advantage for our team, a new identity and an unforgettable atmosphere for the players, students and most of all the fans. Having an on-campus stadium will be invaluable."
What the stadium debate has lacked is historical perspective — looking at the three former on-campus Tulane stadiums and how the city and its residents responded to each. A century ago, Tulane consistently received the wholehearted support of New Orleans officials and citizens. At that time, however, the Tulane campus was much smaller than it is today, and the surrounding neighborhoods less populated. In addition, the City of New Orleans didn't adopt its CZO until 1929, too late to regulate construction of the first three stadiums.
When the first Tulane football teams coalesced in the 1890s, they played off campus at facilities such as Sportsman's Park, across from Greenwood Cemetery on City Park Avenue, and Athletic Park, across the street from Jesuit High School on Carrollton Avenue at Banks Street.
In 1909, Tulane moved its games on campus to a 10,000-seat grandstand and playing field. That first "stadium" actually was built to host a religious concert and a convention that coincided with a visit from President Howard Taft, who came to New Orleans to promote transportation improvement projects along the river during a speech before the Lakes to the Gulf Waterways Convention. That the facility also could host sporting events — beginning with the Oct. 30, 1909, Tulane-Mississippi A&M contest, which Taft reportedly glimpsed — was apparently a collateral benefit.
Media reports at the time predicted the facility would be the largest and finest in the South, thanks largely to funding from the local Progressive Union. Once Taft left New Orleans, the grandstand reverted to Tulane's control. A year later, that same grandstand helped form what became the university's inaugural stadium, when the L-shaped, wooden bleachers were moved to a site on Freret Street, where the university was creating a state-of-the art track-and-field facility to host the fall 1910 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national meet. After the AAU meet, ownership of the facility was transferred to Tulane.
The first facility had a cinder track and floodlights to allow athletes to train at night, as well as a baseball and football field inside the oval track. It wasn't designed primarily for football; it was designed for track and field events, with a gridiron almost as an afterthought. Tulane played football at the site that fall. City officials and the general public seemed to be squarely behind the project. The city had no zoning laws at the time.
Seven years later, Tulane recognized the growing popularity of college football and built a new stadium where the track-centric structure stood on Freret Street. The Lionel F. Favrot firm constructed the 30-tier, concrete grandstand for about $27,700, according to documents in the Tulane University Archives. The facility had permanent seating and could accommodate between 2,000 and 2,500 people. A large chunk of the project's funding came from private donors, including Tulane students.
When the second stadium was dedicated on Oct. 27, 1917, it was described in the New Orleans Item as having "a playing field so perfect in detail and arranged with such skill as to bear comparison with any in the country. Experts who have seen quite a few pronounced it 'the finest thing of its kind in the South.'"
Again, Tulane appeared to have popular support. Mayor Martin Behrman declared, "New Orleans is proud of you," according to the Item.
"It is amazing to me that a hundred years ago, the need for a better stadium on campus was felt so strongly by the entire New Orleans community that a ... plan was derived to raise the necessary funding," says Ann Case, director of the Tulane University Archives. A timeline published in The Times-Picayune in the mid-1970s says the second stadium was on the site of the former Etienne de Bore plantation, where sugar was granulated in the U.S. for the first time. The facility was bounded by McAlister Drive, Willow, Calhoun and Freret streets.
Within a few years, however, Green Wave fans had outgrown that stadium and the university embarked on a three-part expansion that boosted seating capacity to 11,000, about five times more than the 1917 version. University Archives files show the expansion cost about $18,300. The grandstands were made of cypress, were placed parallel to the sidelines and were 16 seats high. Media reports make no mention of public opposition to the expansions.
The same was true in 1925, when groundwork was laid for what would become the most iconic of the three Tulane football stadiums — the one that eventually hosted college bowl games and NFL contests.
In June 1925, university officials estimated that a stadium large and sturdy enough for the swelling football crowds would cost $250,000 (nearly $3.3 million in today's dollars). They anticipated that the Green Wave's undefeated 1925 season would heighten local interest. The university was unable to come up with the money, so New Orleans residents, media and social organizations launched an effort to generate the funds. It seemed the entire Crescent City was behind the push to raise $300,000 for what was hoped to be a 42,000-seat stadium. Local boosters generated nearly $44,000 in pledges the first day.
On Dec. 7, 1925, fundraising organizer J. Blanc Monroe announced the $300,000 had been raised. The stadium opened Oct. 23, 1926. The day was declared a holiday in the city, and a parade marched past City Hall. The day also saw Auburn defeat Tulane 2-0.
Bounded by Willow and Calhoun streets, Audubon Boulevard and South Claiborne Avenue, the new facility seated 35,000 fans.
Tulane's football fortunes continued to improve, at least for a while. The newly formed Mid-Winter Sports Association gave birth to the Sugar Bowl and hosted the city's inaugural college bowl game on Jan. 1, 1935. The post-season game became so popular that in two years the Mid-Winter Sports Association got permission to expand the stadium's capacity to 55,000 seats.
That's when nearby property owners began to speak out against what they perceived as Tulane's and the Sugar Bowl's unchecked expansion. By this time, opponents had local zoning laws to back up their complaints.
In July 1939, the Mid-Winter Sports Association applied to the city Zoning Board of Appeal and Adjustment to add seats and to increase the building's height from 75 feet to 86 feet without adding an area on the side as required. At a subsequent hearing, opponents Thomas James, R.S. Kirkwood, E.L. Morel and Leon Sarpy all argued that upsizing the stadium would reduce surrounding property values.
Within weeks, however, the zoning board granted the association's variance to increase Tulane Stadium's seating capacity from 38,000 to 70,000. In its ruling, the board said the larger stadium should be a benefit to the city overall. "This board considers the application before it more or less as a public need," the ruling said.
In August 1976 — a year after Tulane football and the Sugar Bowl moved to the Superdome — a raucous ZZ Top concert at the old Tulane Stadium moved the City Council to outlaw rock concerts in residential areas. That concert is still fresh in the collective memory of the proposed stadium's opponents. Tulane officials promise there will be no rock concerts in the new facility.
After the move to the Superdome, the old stadium became obsolete and was demolished. Tulane gradually de-emphasized athletics in favor of academics, further weakening the Green Wave football program.
Now Tulane wants to reinvigorate its football program, and it believes a new stadium is vital to that plan — and to the overall college experience of Tulane students. The popularity of Green Wave athletics has waxed and waned over the years, depending on the teams' records. Meanwhile, interest in LSU football has spiked. Some even say the New Orleans Saints may have drawn some local football fans away from Tulane.
In the past, Tulane pretty much had its way when it came to building stadiums, even after strict zoning laws were in place. The Planning Commission's June 12 decision against Guidry's proposed IZD — and Landrieu's commitment to veto any council ordinance establishing an IZD — suggest that Tulane still has some of its old winning ways.