Engel Foundation has high hopes for former Lookouts stadium

Chattanooga Times Free Press
October 18, 2012
by Rachel Bunn

It's been a whirlwind year for Engel Stadium. After being chosen as a location for the Jackie Robinson biopic "42," the stadium has seen lots of changes.

A movie set went up, then came back down. There's a fresh coat of paint on the wooden seats. The grass is still filling in the infield and the outfield walls are in the process of being painted.

And the stadium is gearing up for events — something that seemed a near impossibility when Engel was deemed a hazard and locked up in 2011.

The goal is to host between 100 to 150 events in 2013, with a long-term goal of hosting 200 events a year at the stadium. Proposed events include a screening of "42" at the field, concerts and a retro game with the Lookouts.

"It's exciting," said Janna Jahn, chairwoman of the Engel Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a goal to restore, revitalize and preserve the stadium.

"It's exciting that the lights are still on, which is something of a miracle."

Today, the public is invited to see visit the stadium and view the renovations that have already taken place. The evening also will serve as a reunion of members of the Knothole Gang, a group formed in the 1920s that allowed children to attend Lookouts games for free if they met certain requirements.

Since the Chattanooga Lookouts left Engel in 1999 to move to across town to the new AT&T Field, no one has been quite sure what to do with the old stadium. For a while, it hosted college baseball games but now is closed by the city.

But earlier this year, Engel, which is owned by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is under a four-year lease with the Engel Foundation, was chosen as a location for the movie "42," standing in for Brooklyn's Ebbets Field and others. The improvements made to Engel by the moviemakers have given it the jump-start it needed, Jahn said.

Engel's inclusion in "42" was not an accident.

Eric Pastore, author of "500 Ballparks" and co-owner of digitalballparks.com, was a location scout for the "42" movie and said that, though several other ballparks would have worked, Engel needed the attention a major movie production would bring it.

"It's one of the most classic ballparks and one of the most underrated, beautiful stadiums in the country," Pastore said. "I hate to say this, but people there needed to be reminded of what a gem it is."

Baseball stadiums are the purest form of architecture, he said, and Engel is steeped in history that's felt and seen from the moment you step inside.

"When you see that big green wall, you just feel the baseball history," Pastore said. "It's hard to quantify something like that. You walk in and you feel the history. It's got that in the seats and the walls and the architecture."

Preserving that history comes with a price. The rubber on the roof is deteriorating and threatens to ruin the repairs that have already been made, Jahn said. Though the building itself is structurally sound, there are major maintenance repairs, including the removal of lead paint, that need to be made before restorations can even begin.

There's no total estimate for what it will take to return Engel to its complete former glory. Earlier this year, Cornerstones Inc., earmarked a portion of its proceeds from the Wine Over Water event to go to the stadium, ultimately giving about $20,000 for Engel. It marked the first time the organization has ever targeted a specific project with its fundraising, said Ann Gray, executive director of Cornerstones, a non-profit historic preservation organization in Chattanooga.

"Everyone knew there was always opportunity at Engel, but how do you do it and how do you make it happen?" Gray said.

The Chattanooga City Council also approved $25,000 to help pay for repairs and renovations on Engel Stadium before the film's crew arrived in March to work on the structure.

Cornerstones helped the Engel Foundation get off the ground in 2009, but had been helping to maintain the stadium since the 1990s. There's a real sense of excitement about the future of Engel -- a future it didn't seem to have a few years ago, Gray said.

"There's many, many opportunities that we have yet to explore and that's the excitement of being on the front end of this kind of project," she said.

The Engel Foundation is also bringing in a full-time manager, Bill Kuehn, who previously worked for the Lookouts in 1987. His goal is to create a steady cash flow to keep the stadium operational, as well as keeping the stadium in the forefront of the public's mind by hosting events.

"I don't care if it's 25 people at a company event or 5,000 people," Kuehn said. "I want people walking into this stadium and seeing what we're doing here."

Jahn said she would like to see Engel restored to the way it was in the 1930s, including rebuilding the Third Street wall, replacing the giant scoreboard and painting advertisements along the outfield walls.

In addition, there's a proposal to turn the stadium into a living museum, replicating Joe Engel's office, redoing the locker rooms and creating learning stations around the structure.

"Imagine walking through this place, and you've got remnants of how baseball was played back then," Jahn said. "You see bats and uniforms and balls. Maybe there's a kiosk about what life was like for a player, what balls were made of, things like that."

Tommy Sparks, former member of the Knothole Gang and pitcher for the former University of Chattanooga baseball team, said he has many artifacts from Engel, including a file cabinet of Lookouts' contracts that included Rogers Hornsby's contract from 1938. He's just holding them until they can be returned and displayed, he said.

For Sparks, and others who had the opportunity to play in Engel, the stadium has a religious-like place in their hearts.

"In general, when you go into that place, the stadium itself just unfolds in front of you," Sparks said. "Just the sheer magnificence of the stadium itself, when you first see it. And when you get the honor to play there, it's incredible."

Many people would like to see baseball return to Engel Stadium, but despite all the many possibilities being floated for the future, nothing is set in stone yet.

In addition to figuring out a use for the stadium, a task force has been formed with a goal of developing the area surrounding Engel, while also working to see how the stadium could be best utilized for the surrounding community.

"The goal is not just to save Engel, the goal is to take that resource and use it the best way possible," said Pem Guerry, member of the Engel District Task Force and the Engel Foundation.

Ryan Crimmins, another member of the task force and foundation, said Engel could be restored to something like an anchor point for growth the way Oriole Park in Camden Yards is in Baltimore or the Walnut Street Bridge is for Chattanooga's river front.

"We're sitting on something people value here," Jahn said. "There's still plenty of life and love left in.”

Article courtesy of Chattanooga Times Free Press: http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2012/oct/18/foundation-has-high-hopes-for-stadium-chattanooga/

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