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Seeking a return to glory

$6.5m renovation aims to bring back the luster to Lawrence stadium

LAWRENCE -- With its weed patch of a football field and its crumbling grandstand, Lawrence Veterans Memorial Stadium looks a little like an archeological site.

Within about five months, though, city officials hope the stadium will be restored to its former grandeur and then some, part of a $6.5 million renovation and upgrade.

It's an unlikely comeback for a stadium that has already had several near-death experiences. As recently as about three years ago, some city officials were talking about tearing it down.

That would have been unthinkable during the stadium's heyday years ago, when high school football games would draw standing-room-only crowds.

Eddy Anderson, 69, president of the South Common Central Neighborhood Association, can remember packed houses when Lawrence High School played its former traditional Thanksgiving Day rival, Lowell.

''Younger people, I don't think they can envision the stadium the way we saw it," said Anderson during an interview last week at the project site. He has lobbied for more than 20 years to save the stadium.

In those days, kids who wanted to go to the game but had no money had to be inventive. As adolescents in the late 1940s, Frank Benjamin and his friends had a plan.

''We'd wait until they played 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' because then all the cops would have to stand at attention, and then we'd sneak in," Benjamin, now 70, recalled earlier this week.

The trick was to avoid a mean motorcycle cop who seemed eager not only to catch scofflaws but also to run them down.

The stadium also hosted professional events.

1950s and '60s memories Benjamin remembers a semipro football team playing there at night in the 1950s or early 1960s, before permanent lights were installed. The team set up portable lights and used a white football with two black stripes, on the theory that the players could see it better.

Will Christie, 58, a mason working on the stadium project who grew up in Andover, recalled seeing around the late 1950s or early 1960s softball legend Eddie Feigner, whose four-man team, The King and His Court, would travel around the country playing and defeating full squads. They were something like the Harlem Globetrotters of softball.

''He'd pitch from second base blindfolded, and he'd strike guys out," said Christie, a mason with the International Union of Bricklayers and Craftworkers Local 3. ''I'm not making this up."

After the stadium project is finished, city officials envision semipro football, soccer, or lacrosse teams playing there, and consider the stadium a potential venue for concerts and festivals.

''We also want it to be revenue-producing for the city," said Nilka Alvarez-Rodriguez, a former city councilor and candidate for an at-large seat this fall, during a tour last Friday.

''At least self-sustaining, so it's not a constant financial drain," added R. Lee Balcom, chairman of the city's Historical Commission.

A change of plans Balcom learned about three years ago that plans for the new $110 million high school currently under construction next door included replacing the current stadium with a much smaller version. Though the stadium's demise hadn't been announced, it was quietly assumed by many city officials.

What they never knew is they never had a chance.

Balcom found out that state funds cannot be used to demolish a structure listed as a historic and architectural asset of the Commonwealth. The high school is being built almost entirely with state money. So the Historical Commission quietly got the stadium listed.

Stadium supporters never had to play that card, because Mayor Michael J. Sullivan opted instead to include the stadium restoration in a $30 million capital improvement plan the City Council approved about a year and a half ago.

''I look at this as the image of this city, where it needs to change," Sullivan said in an interview last week. ''Buildings have been let go for 20 to 30 years, without any money being put back into them. And I ask: Would you do that to your own house? And the answer would be no."

Sullivan recalls playing before about 8,000 people at the stadium as a fullback and linebacker for Central Catholic High School between 1970 and 1974. Now he imagines a much different reaction from the few hardy souls from elsewhere who have spent a few hours at the stadium watching a game.

''And the visitors would go back and say, 'Gee, I just left Lawrence. The place really is a dump,' " Sullivan said.

As with the city itself, years of neglect led the stadium to its current condition. In recent years the grandstand was in such poor shape city officials roped off the first dozen or so of the 32 rows. Pieces of concrete would occasionally fall off.

Some construction overkill nearly 80 years ago helped the grandstand last as long as it did. Back in the 1920s workers put in far more reinforcing steel bars, or rebars, than necessary, said Lionell D. Thompson Jr., project manager for Contracting Specialists Inc., of Attleboro, the general contractor for the renovations and upgrades.

''It handled the poor treatment better because there was a lot of steel in there that wouldn't be in a concrete structure if you designed it today," Thompson said.

Workers are chipping off decaying concrete and either replacing rusted out rebars or cleaning them and treating them with a zinc-rich primer to keep them from rusting, Thompson said. Then they patch the areas with a material commonly known as engineered cement.

'This place will be sharp' When the project is done, perhaps as early as December, the grandstand will hold about 7,500 people, Thompson said. New aluminum bleachers on the visitors' side will hold about 1,500, he said.

The formerly seedy underbelly of the grandstand will be replaced by a food court, which may be leased to a corporate vendor, said Myles Burke, the mayor's chief of staff.

A laser-cut wrought iron gate about 7 1/2 feet tall at the entrance near the corner of Osgood Street and North Parish Road will be detailed to resemble a waving American flag, said project architect Michael Teller, a principal of CBI Consulting Inc., of South Boston.

Inside, eight new granite monuments, each about 8 feet tall, will memorialize soldiers and sailors, from all five military services, with seating areas and rows of trees and shrubs around them, he said.

A 60-foot-tall flagpole with a giant American flag will also greet visitors near the entrance, Teller said.

''This place will be sharp," Thompson said.

Project supporters see the stadium as both a destination and as a bread crumb, to slowly lure out-of-towners to venture back into the city.

''First of all, it's just over the line. It's not like you're going into downtown Lawrence," Balcom said. ''It's like putting your toe into the water in Lawrence, if you will."

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