I will strap myself to the gates of Memorial Stadium to prevent it from being torn down

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I don’t hate new development in Charlotte. In fact, I love reading about the construction of new apartment buildings, skyscrapers and shopping centers in the QC. It’s exciting. It means our city is growing, vibrant and strong.

But when I read the June 26 article in the Charlotte Observer about a proposal to demolish American Legion Memorial Stadium so a new soccer stadium could be built in its place, I bristled.

Of all the places to build a new stadium, why tear down a stadium that has meant so much to the city for so long? It’s one of the last few grand old pieces of history left in the Charlotte area, a connection to a time when Charlotte was nothing more than a crossroads, train stop and textile hub for surrounding farmers.

Memorial Stadium’s legacy seemed lost on those interviewed for the Observer article. When Jim Garges, the county’s park and recreation director, was asked about a possible public-private partnership in building a new stadium at the site, his response was cold and blunt.

“Show us the money,” he said.

Come on, Jim. You can do better than that.

A brief history

Memorial Stadium was Charlotte’s first large stadium that could hold thousands of people. Built in the mid-1930s, its completion was the result of funds from the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.), a program spearheaded by FDR to help the country pull itself out of the Great Depression. Our airport was also built using W.P.A. funds.

(For a short history of Memorial, see the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission website.)

roosevelt at memorial stadium

Roosevelt came to Charlotte on September 10, 1936 to dedicate the stadium. It’s been said that after a rainstorm the entire day, the clouds parted just as Roosevelt began to speak and a rainbow appeared in the sky.

How’s that for the opening of a stadium?

Over the years, it’s been the scene of countless sporting events, concerts and Fourth of July celebrations. Until the Carolina Panthers came to town in the 1990s, it was still the largest stadium in the region.

1947 memorial stadium

Public opinion says…

To get a sense of what the stadium meant to Charlotteans over the years, I posed the question to the Charlotte Past and Present public group on Facebook. About 170 comments later, I learned how much the stadium meant to people.

“How could we ever forget the Carolina Lightning playing for the championship of the North American Soccer league early 1980s and the hometown hero the late great Tony Suarez! Miss him and his electrifying performances and inspiration! Keep this city treasure! Renovate if necessary but keep it.” –J. Montagnino

“We had our football games there, parked across the road and walked through the tunnel to get to the stadium. Sang in the choir for the Shrine Bowl game. Way too many good memories to tear it down! West Mecklenburg 1969.” –J. Blackwelder

“Back in 1967 I went to an AFL exhibition game at Memorial Stadium between the New York Jets and the Houston Oilers. The Jets team featured a young quarterback named Joe Namath. My uncle was part of the group that helped put on the game. I was able to go down on the field and see the players up close and personal including Namath. Little did I know that about a year and a half later he would become a Super Bowl legend.” –M.Stonnell

“My dad took me to all the Redskin exhibition games there. I still have a Redskins shirt from those days. I also watched my brother play football there for Myers Park in 80 – 82. That stadium began my love for the game of football that I still have to this day. What a mistake it would be to tear it down!” –L. Childers

“Garinger football games – 1961 – 1963. That’s before they put stadium benches in. We sat on the cold stone. The hot chocolate hardly warmed your hands much less your toes. We rode the bus there and back home. Had orange juice and beer nuts at Tanner’s before catching the No. 4 bus home.” –D. Pittman

“My dad was there on December 7th, 1941 at a football game when they announced Pearl Harbor had been bombed.”—C. Hicks

“I was in the fifth grade when I attended my first rock concert at Memorial Stadium. The show changed my life. The lineup was: Wet Willie, Brownsville Station, ZZ Top, Goosecreek Symphony, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and The Allman Brothers Band. The idea of tearing it down really pisses me off.”—W.  Johnson

Personally, I saw Pearl Jam in 1996, several big Butler-Independence football games, fireworks displays and Shrine Bowl games. It was never the perfect venue, but there was something about the old stonewalls that surround the playing field, the cold concrete bathrooms, and the dingy concession area under the seats. It was intimate, like you were in the city’s backyard.

Oh, and the view of downtown over the west endzone is one of the most priceless views in the city. Seeing Pearl Jam rock for a couple of hours with that kind of backdrop is something I will never forget.

Saving the soul of a city

I don’t begrudge Jim McPhilliamy, president and managing partner of the Charlotte Independence, and the man who wants to build a new soccer stadium to attract a major league team, for wanting to find the most cost effective and attractive way to build a stadium near downtown.

Nor do I blame city leaders for listening to ideas from developers. it should be expected. But there are certain things that should be off limits and one of those is tearing down an 80-year-old stadium in the heart of the city.

Why not look at sites on the west side, along Freedom Drive or Wilkinson Boulevard? Or, how about the old Eastland Mall site? There are options out there that could not only be more cost effective, but revitalize parts of the city.

What’s next?

The stadium is listed as a historic landmark, and getting past regulations and public opinion to raze the stadium is an uphill battle for sure. But if it gets far enough, I will protest like I’ve never protested before. Believe me.

It’s sad I have to even consider strapping myself to the gates to prevent it from being torn down.

When will it become second nature in Charlotte to want to build the shiny and new without sacrificing the vulnerable buildings that connect us to our past, remind us of what Charlotte once was, and inject a new south city with a bit of funk?

Our city, as most know it, is filled with “new” everything. Can’t we forgo the allure of dollar signs every once in a while and think about the value of places like Memorial Stadium and how much it means to our city’s past and future?

Cover photo via Landon Owen

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Tim Long
| @TimLongCLT
Writer, avid golfer and political junkie who's chronicled the Charlotte area for more than 10 years.