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Some of Brett Abrams’ favorite stadiums never got built.
Abrams is a local historian and author of “Capital Sporting Grounds: A History of Stadium and Ballpark Construction in Washington, DC.”
Today he gave me a primer on the city’s sports architecture down through the years. We went to sites where stadiums and arenas used to be, and where coliseums still are.
And throughout our tour, Abrams filled me in on scads of buildings where local college and pro athletes never got to play in. The biggest venue that never made it past the planning stage was World War II Memorial Stadium, which, if built, would’ve meant the Redskins never would have played at RFK.
Abrams says talk began as the great war was ending that building a football stadium would be a suitable way to honor the troops who’d just saved the world. The Washington Board of Trade and the National Capital Planning Commission jumped on the idea, and in December 1944 Congress established a National Stadium Commission. Soon enough FDR jumped on that bandwagon.
“That was the first time a president of the United States had supported the construction of a stadium for the District,” Abrams says.
Original plans had a 100,000-seater off East Capitol Street near Anacostia Park.
But, as is always the way in Washington, too many folks wanted to have a hand in the design, and things got out of hand. Some federal lawmakers felt the stadium had to be built in Lincoln Park and not the previously agreed-upon East Capitol site. Senator Theodore Bilbo, a card-carrying Klu Klux Klan member and chairman of the congressional stadium commission, demanded that an airfield be included adjacent to the stadium. Some folks only wanted to build the stadium if the Army-Navy game was moved here. A retractable roof was proposed. Sen. Bilbo decided that a stadium that only held 100,000 was “dinky,” and didn’t pay enough of a tribute.
“They wanted a stadium that would fit 200,000 people,” Abrams says. (Who knew Dan Snyder was a congressman in 1944?)
The squabbling went on for years, and eventually killed the memorial stadium momentum. In 1957, another bill was introduced in Congress to build a 50,000-seat stadium adjacent to the DC Armory — but not as a WWII memorial, just as a stadium.
That one got built, and opened in 1961 as dinky ol’ DC Stadium. And since it wasn’t introduced as a tribute to honor our soldiers, the door was open in 1969 to turn it into a memorial to slain Robert F. Kennedy.