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Columbia Spectator Staff

Longtime Columbia football fans who walk up the hill at 218th Street to see a Lions game know that Baker Field has not always looked as it does today. Radical changes over the past two decades have placed the soccer field in front of the main entrance, the fieldhouse down the path off to the left, and Wien Stadium in the center.

When Wien Stadium was built in 1984, it marked the end of the 56-year life of the old wooden football stands, which were never meant to be anything more than temporary seating in preperation for a massive, multi-tiered stadium. The grandiose plans for Baker Field never advanced past the drawing board, and left Columbia with a makeshift wooden arena which stood for over half a century.

Columbia purchased the 26 acres of land at 218th Street in December 1921, thanks to a large donation from banker George Baker. At the time, the Lions were playing football on South Field, with fans watching the games from temporary wooden stands. The plans for a stadium in a Classical style to be built at 116th Street on the bank of the Hudson River had fallen through, and it was clear that the teams needed a new place to play.

Baker Field was the answer. Temporary stands for 15,000 people were built in 1923, and a larger horseshoe stadium designed to hold 32,000 went up in 1928. This wooden stadium was never meant to be more than a placeholder for the grand stadium which would soon replace it.

Original plans called for an immense two-level, open-ended stadium which would stand where Wien is today, though rotated 90 degrees. At one end would stand an obelisk and an area for pep rallies. One side of the stadium would abut the baseball field, and there were to be box seats for baseball fans built into the side of the stadium. The opposing side would hold a basketball court and an indoor track.

This massive stadium would hold upwards of 55,000 spectators. This plan was conceived at a time when the football team was a national power; it was not inconceivable that 55,000 people would want to see Lion football.

Unfortunately, the plan for the stadium fell through, due to a combination of bad luck and unwillingness on the part of Columbia to commit so many resources to an athletic facility. Soon after the plans were drawn up, the Great Depression hit, and the University was not willing to pay for a football stadium.

As the nation came out of its economic storm, the team had become much less of a national powerhouse, and decision makers felt that the wooden stadium would suffice for the team's five home games per year.

Plans were drawn up again in 1946, and these too called for a large football stadium, this time farther inland, where the soccer field now lies. Just as in the late 1920s, though, a lack of funds and a lack of interest on the part of the University sank this idea. The Chrystie Field House, the nondescript brick building which still stands today, is the only aspect of those plans that materialized. The wooden stadium and makeshift facilities at Baker remained.

It was in these supposedly temporary structures where much of Columbia's sports history was made. The wooden stadium was home to the 1934 Rose Bowl Champions, and in 1947 played host to one of the biggest upsets in college football history, as Columbia handed Army its first loss since 1943.

The baseball diamond was the site of the first televised sporting event, as the Columbia-Princeton game was telecast in May 1940. Future Minnesota Twin Gene Larkin spent his collegiate career in Inwood and shattered Lou Gehrig's home run record, hitting 19 to Gehrig's seven.

As the years went on, the old wooden stadium grew increasingly inadequate for Columbia's needs. Despite yearly maintenance, the stadium was crumbling at the twilight of its 56-year life. Then-University President Michael Sovern and then-Athletic Director Al Paul began raising funds to construct the new football facility.

Backed largely in part by a donation from Lawrence Wien, the project began to move forward, and Wien Stadium became the first truly permanent home of Columbia football.

"The old wooden stands were a relic, so to speak," Paul said. "It was a tremendous relief and a wonderful happening [to build Wien Stadium]. I felt very happy that we were able to provide a first-class facility in the Ivy League."

The construction of Wien Stadium gave Baker Field the permanence it lacked with its wooden football stadium. With Wien set as the centerpiece, the rest of Baker Field came together in its present configuration. After the sale of the northern tip of Baker Field to New York Presbyterian Hospital, the soccer field was shifted south, and its stands were built in 1985. The running track, which once lay outside the stadium, was installed inside Wien in 1987.

After 56 years, Columbia had finally built its first real football stadium. That it took so long for the University to complete what other Ivy League schools had no difficulty building reveals Columbia's view of athletics as a low priority.

Throughout the 20th century, stadiums were planned, yet never built. While Penn had Franklin Field, the Elis called the Yale Bowl home, and Harvard built Soldier Field, Columbia was satisfied to let its Lions play in a temporary stadium for 56 years.

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