Janet Marie Smith was standing on the concourse of Fenway Park prior to World Series Game 2 when a friend approached. After a minute of conversation, the man asked Smith where to find the elevator, only to realize the mundanity of his question when posed to an architect lauded as having changed the trajectory of baseball.
“It’s like asking Picasso where he painted,” he said with a laugh.
“Go right up there and take a left,” Smith pointed and said with a soft Southern lilt, deflecting a compliment so many others have heaped upon her.
Smith has worked on projects as a vice president of planning and development for four clubs: the Orioles, the Braves, and both World Series participants this year, the Red Sox and Dodgers. She worked in Baltimore on precedent-setting Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which has reinvented the way clubs and cities think of ballparks. She led the project to convert Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Stadium into the Braves’ former home, Turner Field.
The Boston Globe has described her as “the architect credited with saving Fenway Park.” And now she is working in Los Angeles to modernize Dodger Stadium. The two stadiums are two of baseball’s three oldest ballparks and two of its most prized venues, a physical connection to the past unmatched in most other sports.
“The writers in Boston have, for 10 years, been touting her for the Hall of Fame, and I would second that,” said Dodgers president Stan Kasten, “for the fact that she’s been involved in such great projects in so many different cities and is still called out on every project to give an opinion.”
During a guided tour of Fenway Park earlier this week, Smith demurred when asked by SportTechie about her career legacy but reflected on the work she’s done and continues to do.
Janet Marie Smith at Dodger Stadium (Courtesy of LA Dodgers)
Seats in Fenway used to sit empty as the first pitch approached. The road along the first-base line—then known as Yawkey Way and since renamed Jersey Street—would fill with fans “waiting until the last minute to enter because it was so congested inside,” Smith said. Only when the national anthem began would people push through the gates.
Smith’s first initiative was to petition the city of Boston to convert the street into part of the venue on game day. Yawkey Way was already closing to cars because of the mass of people nearby, but now turnstiles were set up with only ticketed fans allowed to enter, easing the crunch of the crowd. This mimicked what was done in Baltimore with Eutaw Street beyond the park’s right-field line becoming a pedestrian mall with concessions, merchandise, and activities.
Jersey Street (formerly Yawkey Way) prior to a game in 2017 (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
“Eutaw Street was like art imitating life,” Smith said, “and the idea of putting turnstiles on Yawkey Way was like life imitating art.”
Fenway Park opened on April 20, 1912—the same week the Titanic sunk. For years, prior Red Sox ownership had wanted to build a replacement, but the project never gained traction. When the new owners, led by John Henry and Tom Werner, purchased the franchise in 2002, they installed Larry Lucchino as president, who hired Smith. Only after several piecemeal improvements did the ownership affirm plans to keep Fenway in 2005.
I hadn’t aimed to work in baseball. I was aiming to change a city.Janet Marie Smith
“Larry’s advocacy for them was that we would do things that he called low-hanging fruit. The thesis was, even if we wanted a new ballpark, it’s going to take five years-plus. So why don’t we go ahead and spend the money to do these things—it’s not huge dollars—and we’d reap the benefit in that time period and, if it works, you’re part of a puzzle piece, and if it doesn’t, we still have the benefit of them.
“The commitment to saving Fenway was really triggered by having done enough of those projects that there was confidence we knew we had the city’s support.”
Turning the road into a de facto concourse was the first “litmus test,” Smith said, in seeing how fans and the city would react.
“Larry often said, ‘The Rule of Two-Thirds: Dream anything you want to dream, propose anything you want to propose, study anything you want to study, then do two-thirds of it.’” Smith said.
On the night the Red Sox opened the Big Concourse, an expanded right field entertainment area, for the first time in August 2003, Smith stationed herself among the entering throngs. She hoped to watch reactions and listen for fan feedback on what she called her “favorite idea” of the renovations.
This had been a $6 million investment adding 25,000 more square feet, doubling the width of the concourse from 30 feet to 60, and tripling the usable space between Gates B and C. The project involved repurposing an adjacent building being used for parking and converting its interior into a commissary, tearing out old restrooms and relocating them with upgrades, connecting what had been the isolated bleachers section, asking Boston to decommission an alley, and installing a new array of concessions and activities.
Smith distinctly remembered one gentleman, who turned to his friend and said, “They painted this whole thing since I was last here.” Of all the changes, the man noticed only the paint.
“Great,” she recalled of her reaction. “We wanted it to look like it had always been.”
Big Concourse at Fenway (Joe Lemire)
A young woman working as a Fenway tour guide told Smith this week that, when her family had left-field grandstand season tickets as a child, her father refused to buy her anything to drink. The issue? There were no women’s restrooms on that side of the park, nor any easy means of egress. A bathroom trip required fighting dense crowds halfway around the ballpark.
We wanted it to look like it had always been.Janet Marie Smith
Smith set to work tearing out walls, expanding concourses, improving ADA accessibility, and revamping the periphery of the ballpark while keeping its core intact. She gives credit to the architectural team at DAIQ and the structural engineering firm, McNamara Salvia. These enhanced, free-flowing passageways and gathering areas outside the stands themselves proved prophetic, helping historic Fenway seem current.
“This wasn’t a major strategy because we’re not that smart, but if you look at baseball, the trend in baseball is moving away from everybody in a fixed seat, No. 2 pencil, keeping score to much more milling around rooms, social areas,” Smith said. “While that was not our motive, the end result is we have that.
“Without meaning to suggest that we were somehow ahead of the curve or had a crystal ball of how fans are going to use this space, we had ourselves set up so that worked for us.”
As Smith took one seemingly innocuous step on the concourse, she narrated what was really happening. “And now we’re back in Fenway,” she said.
Fenway’s Green Monster seats in 2013 (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
What’s not obvious to fans is that Fenway Park is actually three buildings. Walls have been knocked down and the structures seamlessly integrated, but the old laundry building down the right field corner has the commissary and concessions. The Jeano Building (formerly the John B. Smith Building) along the left field line has been attached—the upper levels to widen the concourse and the lower level to install a batting cage for the visiting team. The Jeano Building used to be an automobile showroom; where the car elevator once was is now a fan stairwell and a means of walking to the Green Monster Seats. “We made a conscious decision not to make it look new and fresh,” she said.
“She is so open to ideas,” said David Ashton, whose eponymous design firm has worked with Smith for decades. “That’s, I think, one of her greatest strengths. She doesn’t just out of hand say no.”
The most visible and most famous addition to Fenway were the seats atop the 37-foot left field wall. Much of this new construction hangs over the Landsdowne Street sidewalk, meaning the Red Sox had to buy the air rights from the city. The signage is cantilevered forward so that it remains on team property.
“The fans obviously reacted well to it,” Smith said, “and made us feel like the idea of preserving Fenway wasn’t like preservation as in an object under glass and how do we keep the way it was, but how do we change it, how do we modify it, how do we make it work for today’s environment while still keeping its charm and its memories intact.”
A contractor putting up I-beams during the Fenway renovations diverted from his task. Rather than bolting them together as was done in the original construction, in this one (undisclosed) section, he began welding the beams together. Smith saw this happen and took action.
“Just, go ahead and weld the bolts where they ought to be,” she said. “Don’t tell me and don’t tell anybody else. We just wanted it to look like the original Fenway down to the details.”
As it is, Fenway has several forms: the original 1912 construction, a major 1934 enhancement, and the 10-year renovation plan that began in 2002. The ballpark cost $650,000 to build in 1912 dollars, close to $17 million in today’s money. The renovations bill for a decade of work until 2012 reached $285 million. In all, the Red Sox added some 3,000 seats to their capacity, in chunks of a few hundred here and a few hundred there.
Fenway Park is now listed as a national landmark, and a report by the Boston Preservation Alliance said of Smith, “Architect, planner, public relations expert, her overall accomplishment was really translating everyone’s needs into a cohesive reality.”
As Orioles president, Lucchino used to fine employees $5 for uttering the word “stadium.” He didn’t want some grand, impersonal structure, but a true home—a ballpark. Maryland’s governor in the 1980s, William Donald Schaefer, had been Baltimore’s mayor. He remained committed to revitalizing downtown and was insistent the Orioles build their new home near the city’s Inner Harbor.
“Each had a vision, and they were perfect together,” Smith said. “On their own, either one of them would have failed. Larry’s dream built out in the suburbs of Columbia would have been Disneyland, and Governor Schaefer’s dream without the architectural support that he got from Larry would have maybe been Kansas City on the outskirts of Baltimore. I still don’t think the world appreciates what an important collision of ideas that was.”
Smith led the Orioles’ efforts in collaborating with global architectural firm HOK Sport (now known as Populous) and Joe Spear, the founder and principal overseeing the design. Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992 and altered the sport forever. No longer did clubs build generic concrete slabs housing a diamond. Instead, they emphasized cozy, retro, downtown ballparks that celebrated the local team and city. That, she said, is her proudest accomplishment, not any individual feature of the park.
“The real answer is that it started this movement into sports in general—but baseball in particular—of moving into inner-cities and trying to be a part of the urban community,” Smith said.
Eutaw Street at Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Smith grew up a Braves fan in Mississippi, studied architecture at Mississippi State, and landed a job coordinating the development of Battery Park City, a primarily residential community in lower Manhattan built in the 1980s.
“I hadn’t aimed to work in baseball,” she said. “I was aiming to change a city.”
After attending an Orioles game at the old Memorial Stadium, Smith applied for the job. She had most recently been working on Pershing Square in Los Angeles but saw an opportunity.
“I can’t say honestly that it was ever even a dream until the minute it hit me the idea that the Orioles were going into downtown Baltimore and looking to do this old-fashioned, urban park,” Smith said. “Underscore ‘urban’ for me because I really had always admired the way Baltimore had changed itself from an industrial city into more of an entertainment center by adding the aquarium, the science center, put in the convention center downtown. All those things were so new for American cities, particularly those in the Northeast who had lost their industry.”
Her submission had initially been placed in the rejection pile, but Lucchino reviewed it anyway and liked her outsider view—that she hadn’t worked in sports was, to him, a plus.
“My work on Battery Park City very much influenced my thoughts about Camden Yards,” Smith said, “because it was one of the first big projects in America to shun the planning of the ‘60s and ‘70s of a tower and the park and these sort of ‘object’ buildings as opposed to something that was more contextual and integrated with the city.”
Dodger Stadium is best known for its “iconic tableau of the bleachers, the palm trees, the San Gabriel mountains,” Kasten said, adding: “We will never touch that.”
Smith’s work in Los Angeles follows a similar vein as at Fenway, albeit with unique challenges. Fenway is a century-old park jammed into the confines of city blocks; Dodger Stadium is carved into a mountain.
General view of Dodger Stadium (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
“So all of our expansion there has been to build these plazas out that are on the same level as the concourse, but it’s not a true concourse because every entrance is at grade,” Smith said.
Kasten first hired Smith in Atlanta to work on Turner Field (and also Phillips Arena), meaning Smith has worked for four clubs but two team presidents, Kasten and Lucchino, twice each.
The Dodgers have upgraded team clubhouses, expanded restrooms, improved WiFi, and other amenities to make game day more of a 21st century experience, Kasten said, adding that more work is slated for completion prior to the 2020 All-Star Game.
“It’s all about preserving a team’s history, being fan-friendly, and providing new technology and new offerings in a setting that is respectful of history,” he added. “That’s really important to her.”