Palmer Stadium – Memories Of A Magical Time

By Anne Levin

Princeton University hired celebrated architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh to design its football stadium just over a century ago. During the process, a decision was made to build it out of reinforced concrete instead of costlier masonry. The result was horse shoe shaped Palmer Stadium, which seated 45,725 and had an end zone with an unobstructed view of Carnegie Lake. A mix of Collegiate Gothic ornamentation with a classical Greek plan, it cost $300,000 to build and was completed almost a full month ahead of schedule—well in time for the Tigers to defeat Dartmouth 16-12 in the first official game at the venue on October 24, 1914.

But that reinforced concrete turned out to be a bad idea. By the time Palmer Stadium entered its eighth decade, its walls were tumbling down. Orange and black netting installed in some sections was the only thing keeping Tiger fans from getting clobbered by hunks of the crumbling material. Nests of bees, which would swarm the press box if anyone so much as opened a can of sugary soda, lurked in its recesses.

So Palmer Stadium was torn down in 1996, after the Tigers played Dartmouth–and lost 24-0–on the field for the last time. The home of Princeton football and track for 82 years, and one of the two oldest college stadiums in the United States, was replaced by a 27,773-seat, state-of-the-art, $45 million structure designed by “starchitect” Rafael Vinoly. It was built on nearly the same footprint as its predecessor. Unlike at Palmer, where an all-weather-surface track was built in 1978, the newer Princeton Stadium has a separate track outside its confines.

These days, Tiger fans support their team in safer, more comfortable fashion. But although nearly two decades have passed since they bid the rickety Palmer goodbye, many still look back on it with nostalgia. It was at Palmer, after all, that Heisman trophy winner Dick Kazmaier ’52 became a Princeton football legend, leading the Tigers to an 18-1 record between 1949 and 1951. Dean Cain, who went on to star in the Superman series, set a record for interceptions at 12 in one season. In all, there were 14 undefeated seasons at Palmer Stadium between 1920 and 1964.

“It was viewed as holy ground by the football world,” says Gary Walters, who graduated in 1967 and served as Princeton’s athletic director from 1994 until retiring last June. “For me,” he continues, “I was fortunate enough to see the last undefeated team in 1964, led by Cosmo Iacavazzi. I was friends with these guys. I was vested in their performance.”

Pulitzer-Prize-winning author John McPhee, who grew up in Princeton and was the son of the football team’s doctor, admires the current stadium but looks back fondly on the old. “There are those of us who remember it,” says McPhee, who graduated from Princeton in 1953 and is its Ferris Professor of Journalism. “I roomed with the football players in college. And when I was growing up, I got a big kick out of being the team’s mascot. Those guys of the late 1930s and into the war years were wonderful in the way they related to a kid.”

Palmer Stadium was financed by Edgar Palmer, class of 1903. He named the arena in memory of his father, Stephen S. Palmer. Construction by the George A. Fuller Company took just four months, with workmen divided into two sections. One was assigned to the east side of the stadium and the other worked on the west. According to local lore, there was a friendly competition between the two crews to see who could finish first.

There are stories about legendary games, played in legendary weather. On November 23, 1935, there was the famous “twelfth man” snowstorm game in near-blizzard conditions. A crowd of 56,000 people packed the bleachers despite the storm, to watch the Tigers defeat Dartmouth 26-6. What made the game most memorable, though, was something that happened in the fourth quarter. A man who was later identified as a local cook ran out onto the field and took a spot on the Dartmouth line. He was escorted from the field by stadium security after one play.

A hurricane didn’t stop Princeton from defeating Dartmouth again, 13-7, in 1950, despite 80 mile-per-hour winds and gusts reaching 108. Tarpaulins that had covered the field for most of the morning broke from their moorings around noon, and an inch of rain poured onto the field “from one 20-yard line to the other and to within a few yards of each sideline,” according to the Princeton Tigers website.

“Atop the stadium, the tar paper roofing was ripped off the press box and water dripped through in increasing quantities. The gusting winds caused the press box and the radio and public address booths to sway noticeably. Nearly 5,000 Tiger faithful braved the elements and watched Princeton complete its perfect season with a 13-7 win against Dartmouth. All three touchdowns were scored by the team driving with the wind.”

The University’s head football coach Bob Surace, a 1990 graduate who was on the Tigers team from 1986 to 1989, considers himself fortunate to have played at Palmer Stadium. “You’re walking into a stadium that so many unbelievably great players have played in before you,” he said. “It’s so special that you’re in the same spot that Dick Kazmaier or Cosmo Iacavazzi or Pink Baker, who played on the Team of Destiny in 1922, came before you. He (Baker) came to almost every practice in my freshman year. And the friendships I still have today with the guys I played with–it’s just such a special place.”

Surace remembers the game against Yale the year before the stadium was torn down. “The crowd was nearly 40,000 strong,” he said. “It was full, but some areas of the stadium had been condemned. Back in the 1950s and 60s it was full every week, so it was so special to have it almost full again. We had such a sense of pride.”

A golden anniversary celebration of the 1964 team is planned, Surace says. “Unfortunately Kazmaier passed away last year, but we’re going to honor that undefeated team. The stadium was state of the art in its time. The picures you see in old books of the teams are of a packed stadium. You recognize Princeton was at the level of Alabama or Ohio State. By filling that stadium, so many things on this campus got built. Princeton is partly Princeton because of the gate receipts.”

Walters was on his way to a press conference announcing his appointment to the post of athletic director in 1994 when he was told that if he was asked about the state of Palmer Stadium, he should “tiptoe around” the question. Little did he know that he would spend the first five years of his tenure helping to decide the fate of the venue, and then plan for a new one.

“It was in incredible disrepair and structurally unsound, I was told, and there was a strong possibility we would have to raze the stadium,” he says. “That’s what I walked into. It had a tremendous emotional impact on me. It was one of the two or three oldest stadiums in the U.S. at that time. So that issue dominated the first five years of my being director of athletics.”

An alumni advisory committee including Kazmaier and Iacavazzi was put together. Once it was decided that Palmer would have to go, and Vinoly, who had never designed a football stadium, was hired, Walters set about making sure the new would have a strong tie to the old.

“One of my charges was to integrate more with the life of the University, and make it more synergistic,” he says. “Some people wanted to move the stadium to the other side of the lake, but I said that wasn’t a good idea. You don’t want to isolate the football field. It was significant that we would be in the footprint of Palmer. We had to have a muscular, aesthetic identity that rivaled the old. For those of us on the alumni committee and the committee to build a new stadium, we were successful in sustaining the memory of Palmer by keeping it where it was. The old Palmer and the reverence we all had for it had great impact on the design of the new. We were very sensitive to the feelings of nostalgia.”

The late Jeb Stuart, who was editor and publisher of the weekly Princeton newspaper Town Topics, covered high school and University sports. According to his 2008 obituary in the paper, “He became a fan of Princeton football at age six when he was taken to the press box at the top of Palmer Stadium by his father, who announced the game in progress over the stadium’s public address system. For many years after college Jeb worked beside his father in the announcer’s box as a spotter, following each play through binoculars to feed his father the player’s names and numbers for play-by-play descriptions.”

Princeton athletics, especially football, likewise played a large role in the childhood of McPhee, “I grew up on stories about Palmer Stadium. It was built of concrete, spread by a method that was novel at the time,” he says. “It had to do with air pressure, I think. The thing ended up full of holes. And from early on, they had to do dental work on it. My brother worked for a contractor in the summer. He sat in the stadium with a railroad spike in one hand and a hammer in the other. They’d clear out an area and fill it with fresh cement. Either he or his friend hit the sledge of the spike and it went all the way through and down to the ground. They were halfway up. It was honeycombed with holes.”

The football team was in the stadium only for games during McPhee’s childhood, not for practice. “I went to school at what is now 185 Nassau Street. After soccer practice,” he says, “I’d go down the street to football practice at University Field, where the E-Quad is now, and hang around. There was a wall around the practice field because spies were feared to be coming from Yale or Harvard. There were only about two apertures, and everybody who went in was checked. As the mascot, I went on the field with them on Saturdays.”

Walters recalls that when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the football game was postponed for a week. “Then they played Dartmouth, and lost,” he recalls. “Then in the fall of ’64, we had a really strong team. The stadium in those days was packed. Everybody went in suits and ties. It was a big social time. The school wasn’t coed yet, and the undergrads brought their dates. That team set the stage for ’64-’65.”

Palmer Stadium has been gone since 1996. But in the centennial year of its construction, it evokes memories for so many. “In the four major sports at that time, we were dominant,” says Walters of his own college years during Palmer’s heyday. “It was a magical time.”

 

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