Stadium Spotlight: Notre Dame Stadium returns to its history

Notre Dame Stadium will undergo renovations that will restore some of the history of the 84-year-old stadium while modernizing the way it captures crowd noise.
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Forget about corporate sponsorship. Pull the fans tight to the field. And embrace campus architecture with a unique brick limestone blend detailed with a collegiate gothic aesthetic. Oh, and put in some 1930s lore about a coach helping design the stadium, and Notre Dame Stadium fills with history, tradition and a college football vibe altogether unmatched.

Originally opened in 1930, the house that Rockne built -- legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne didn’t build the original 54,000-seat venue, but he did help draw up the blueprints, including insisting that the first rows of seats should tuck tight to the field to limit space for unwanted folks filling his sidelines -- underwent a major overhaul in 1997, an addition that added over 21,000 seats and pulled the venue to a capacity close to 81,000.

But as Nate Appleman, architect for 360 Architects and the person responsible for Notre Dame’s upcoming renovations, tells, that original history was layered over with the 1990s renovations.

“There are historical remnants existing under the skin,” he says. “We will bring some of that back to the exterior and recreate the same vibe that existed when the building was originally built.”

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The latest $400 million plan to add 750,000 square feet of academic buildings directly to the stadium while also upgrading the venue aims to reconnect the on-campus stadium to the campus, both with activity and architecturally, while not sacrifcing the building’s historical nature.

“A lot of it has to do with scale and proportions and trying to translate those original scale and proportion diagrams to what will ultimately be a much larger building,” Appleman says. The design team will choose materials that already dominate the landscape of Notre Dame’s campus -- a Notre Dame-specific blend of limestone brick will play heavily on the new stadium’s academic buildings -- and create a cohesive tie that embraces 1930.

After the success of the Rockne-coached teams in the 1920s, Notre Dame needed to expand its 30,000-seat football stadium. The legendary coach helped Osborn Engineering Company, the same firm responsible for Comiskey Park and New York’s Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium, design a 54,000-seat venue that embraced the collegiate gothic architecture of the campus. Built using over two million bricks in the edifice, the stadium rose south of the library with its famous view of Touchdown Jesus.

Inside, architecture may play no bigger role in any NCAA stadium than in Notre Dame Stadium, where an NBC logo stands as the lone corporate signage. And don’t expect a drastic departure with the new look.

“It doesn’t have some of the things most other environments have,” Appleman says. “The sponsorship is very non-existent. The band largely drives the entertainment when football is not being played. The distractions or activities that are occurring (elsewhere) aren’t happening there. It is rooted and linked back to tradition.”

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Game days already fill the campus around Notre Dame Stadium with a bevy of activities, from the band playing on the steps of the architecture building to the collection of fans for the team’s walk. The addition of academic buildings to a renovated stadium aims to make the stadium area active and vibrant for more than just Saturday game days.

With nine-story structures on both the east and west sides of the stadium, Notre Dame will also be able to add 3,000 to 4,000 indoor and outdoor club-level premium seats on three levels -- likely stretching the stadium's capacity to somewhere around 84,000 -- with terraces on each building offering up views of both the campus and the playing field. When football is not being played, Notre Dame plans for the stadium-related features to be available for both community and campus use.

Key pieces of the renovation inside the stadium include those new buildings on both the east and west side extending above the rim of the seating bowl unlike they have before. And a new scoreboard on the south end zone will create a fresh environment and combine with the higher barriers of the buildings to better encapsulate crowd noise.

“We will have three very powerful components and the outgrowth of that is a focus of the noise and electricity of the crowd even more powerfully on the field,” Appleman says. “We will have these backboards that will reflect the sound back. It will also change the environment when down on the field because the building is that much bigger around you.”

So expect Notre Dame Stadium to get loud in new ways while maintaining a connection to its history.

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Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.