Power Bowl


Once they got the name right, the Rose Bowl truly bloomed.

Story By: Cuyler Gibbons

Images: Courtesy of the Rose Bowl

Based on notoriety alone, the Rose Bowl itself is one of Pasadena’s true power players. Known across the world as the host stadium of the eponymous annual football game, the Rose Bowl’s massive shallow dish catches the seemingly perpetual sun that falls at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains and reflects it back for a global audience to see, and envy, each January. A United States National Historic Landmark, and a California Historic Civil Engineering landmark, the Rose Bowl is a much lauded, iconic symbol of Pasadena. Renown is one thing, however, the power to alter the lexicon is another.

The first “Tournament of Roses,” a parade and athletic games, took place in 1890, and the first football game in 1902, at Tournament Park, now on the campus of Caltech. Unfortunately, the mayhem surrounding that game, both in the crowd and on the field, led to a 14 year pause where football was not played, replaced instead with chariot races. In 1916, the game was resumed at Tournament Park, but it soon became evident that a new more expansive venue was required.

On a recent visit to the Rose Bowl, Jens Weiden, Rose Bowl Chief Revenue Officer, showed me around and explained the genesis of what is now the 11th largest capacity football stadium in America. “It’s kind of a funny story,” he says, “given Pasadena’s reputation for getting construction projects approved.” It seems the wooden bleachers at Tournament Park were insufficient and dangerous and in 1922 William L. Leishman, the Tournament of Roses president, decided that a stadium should be built, and that they should build it in the Arroyo Seco. “At the time, the Arroyo was the city dump,” says Weiden. “There were piles of trash, old cars, washing machines lying around.” With the Arroyo Seco in mind, Leishman, a Yale alumnus, communicated his fondness for the design of that school’s new stadium, completed in 1914, to his chosen architect Myron Hunt.  

Leishman, Hunt and Pasadena’s mayor, William Wadsworth, then climbed above the Arroyo to the current location of Chandler School and looked down searching for an appropriate site. In what passed for a planning commission of the day, as Weiden tells it, Hunt cut a rough oval from a piece of card-board and held it out at arms length. The trio then sited down his arm imagining the stadium below from the cut out in his hand. Having agreed on the spot where the stadium now sits, “They all said, ‘Okay, looks good,’ they shook hands, and then they went and built it!” says Weiden. A real example of gilded age efficiency!

Hunts original design was open at one end, forming a horseshoe. And construction began in 1922. The Arroyo was strewn with boulders left over centuries of flooding, most of which found their way into the structure’s foundation, hauled, as was all material of the time, by horse and wagon. The tunnels were poured first and it is those original tunnels, displaying the evidence of their early, stacked concrete construction, that still remain. Despite the emerging nature of concrete construction techniques at the time Hunts design has proven far more durable than that of the Coliseum which hails from the same era. Like much of his work it also displays some ingenious design elements. The steps throughout the bowl for instance, increase a ¼ inch in height, from 4 inches at the bottom to a 19 inch riser on the last step, making climbing easier and improving site lines. In the end the Rose Bowl was completed in less than a year, and, at about $250,000 (approximately $3.5 million today), was brought in under budget. In 1928, the Tournament of Roses added end zone seating closing the horseshoe, and completing the oval.

In 1932, the Rose Bowl held Olympic cycling when Los Angeles hosted the ’32 Summer Games. And in 1935 lights were installed for the first time. In 1938, a flash flood in the Arroyo Seco threatened the Rose Bowl’s foundation but miraculously veered onto another course. Having narrowly survived early disaster the Rose Bowl has gone on to host not only every Rose Bowl game since 1923 (except for the 1942 game that was held on the East Coast following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), but also five Super Bowls, two Summer Olympics, two FIFA World Cup Finals, and a number of world class superstar concerts. And it has been named by Sports Illustrated as the number one venue in college sports, and one of the top 20 sports venues in the world.

Impressive but what about the Rose Bowl’s impact on our language? As Weiden tells me, the Tournament of Roses people didn’t put a lot of imagination into naming the Bowl when it was first built. In fact, for the first game, as vintage pictures of the time verify, the structure was simply called “Stadium.” A local reporter, by the name of Harlan Hall, is credited with coining the name Rose Bowl, and that has stuck for both the game and the edifice in which it is played. More than that however, as a result of the Rose Bowl’s tremendous popularity and notoriety, the term “bowl” is now synonymous not only with a saucer shape, but with a premier post season championship game generally, of course including the now 51 year old Super Bowl, and college’s BCS Bowl Series. That’s real power.

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