The University of Washington is about to dedicate a remodeled Husky Stadium, which was originally built in 1920 in large part due to the vision of one man, Darwin Meisnest.
By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
Had he been given to wild dreams, and to a degree he was, it’s doubtful Darwin Meisnest (1896-1952) could have conceived of the scale of the new Husky Stadium, which will receive a public unveiling Saturday when Washington commences its 124th football season opposite Boise State. But that hardly detracts from the vision Meisnest had for the facility when the idea to build it struck him. Looking back, it was remarkable for its time.
Meisnest was not the first to propose that Seattle, 10 years following the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition (held on the footprint where Husky Stadium stands today), required a site for mass gatherings — athletic, political and social. University of Washington officials and Seattle civic leaders had been talking about such an ambitious construction since 1911, when President Theodore Roosevelt visited Seattle and Everett for two days to trumpet the economic potential of Alaska.
Seattle did not have a venue to accommodate the many thousands who wanted to hear Roosevelt speak, and the wooden amphitheater on the UW campus in which Roosevelt orated had decayed beyond repair by the time Meisnest started to whip up enthusiasm for a new stadium.
The son of Dr. F.W. Meisnest, a professor emeritus of German at the University of Washington, Darwin Meisnest was born in Wisconsin Jan. 25, 1896 and came to Seattle with his family when his father joined the university staff in 1906. He attended Lincoln High School, where, though slight of build (5-foot-8, 140 pounds) he participated in a variety of sports.
During his final two years at Lincoln, Meisnest worked as a part-time reporter at a short-lived daily, The Seattle Sun. Upon receiving his diploma in 1914, he took a position as vice principal at the Index, WA., high school despite the fact Meisnest was all of 18 years old. In his first summer out of Lincoln, Meisnest worked in the fruit orchards of Central Washington.
“When he made his return to Seattle,” The Seattle Times reported, “he brought back a carload of peaches, rented a store room in the University District, and disposed of them at a good profit.”
Meisnest entered the UW that fall, and became so socially and politically active in his freshman class that the student body elected him as sophomore representative on the Student Board of Control, which consisted of undergraduate officers, alumni and faculty members, and was responsible for all student activities, including athletics, publications, dramatics and social events. As a sophomore, Meisnest became business manager of The Tyee, the student annual.
Until Meisnest ran the yearbook, securing advertising for it had been entrusted to downtown agencies. But Meisnest assumed charge of that work and not only made The Tyee pay for itself, but saved the student body nearly $500 in commissions, a notable accomplishment in pre-World War I economic conditions when advertising dollars were hard to come by.
In addition to his Tyee duties, Meisnest served as student manager of head coach Claude “Jump” Hunt’s 1917 football team. As such, Meisnest supervised the team’s finances – in 1917, he spent $250 on jerseys, $189.90 on footballs, $159.21 on scouting expenses, $69.47 on socks, $22.93 on telegrams and $5 on doctor’s bills – and also created the team’s schedule.
Meisnest ultimately became student manager for varsity basketball and coach of the freshman basketball team. When he reached military age, he tried to enter the service. But he was rejected for physical reasons, an operation for appendicitis having weakened him.
On March 12, 1919, the UW Board of Regents selected Meisnest as the school’s athletic manager (athletic director) replacing Hunt, at which point he added the duties of scheduling baseball games and crew races.
“He is strictly a businessman, having received his first training as an assistant under J. Arthur Younger (UW’s first athletic director),” The Times wrote in reporting Meisnest’s appointment.
Meisnest’s eureka moment occurred Nov. 28, 1919, while he attended the UW-California game. That day, 19,000 fans flooded Denny Field to watch the Sun Dodgers, as the Huskies were then known, defeat the Golden Bears 7-0 and stake a claim to the Coast Championship. The attendance more than doubled the previous high for a UW game, 8,000 for Oregon nearly a month earlier (Nov. 1) and generated $16,600 in gate receipts.
The haul would have been far more substantial if Washington had played in a larger facility. Although Washington had made use of hastily constructed temporary bleachers along the running track, and thousands had stood on the sidelines, additional thousands stayed home because of the impossibility of getting seats.
When the season ended, Meisnest totaled up the gate receipts and discovered that the football program had made a $10,865.63 profit for 1919. But the program needed more funding. It cost the Washington student body $29.40 to outfit each player. Five years earlier, in 1914, the cost was $14.88. Meisnest recognized the cost would double again within five years. A new stadium, Mesinest believed, would provide UW with a much-needed new revenue stream.
Shortly after Washington’s rousing victory over Cal, Mesinest made a proposal to UW students at a school assembly at Meany Hall that was, according to The Times, “jammed from gallery to pit with eager listeners packing the halls and corridors.”
“First, we want to build the finest athletic field in the United States,” Meisnest told the assembled. “We will erect our grandstands and bleachers, unit by unit, as fast as we can afford them.”
In the Nov. 9, 1919 Seattle Times, under a headline that said, “Varsity Planning An Athletic Oval; Graduate Manager Meisnest Tells Students Fund Will Grow,” The Times quoted Meisnest:
“Plans for the construction of the finest athletic oval in the West are fast shaping themselves into reality. Not only has the student body cleared away a debt of more than $7,000 during the past year, but the expenditure of the present annual budget will leave a small profit in the coffers. This surplus will be turned over to the concrete oval fund.”
Less than a month later, Meisnest and his assistant, student manager Torchy Torrance (see Wayback Machine: Roscoe “Torchy” Torrance), had secured support for the project from prominent Seattle businessmen and alumni, as well as numerous U-District merchants.
“Students expect to present to the Board of Regents Dec. 15 the matter of preparing plans for the construction of a huge athletic field and stadium comparable eventually to the famous Yale Bowl,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported. “For several years student authorities have been contemplating such a construction but it is the impetus now being given the project by businessmen which brings the matter to an immediate issue.
“Such a bowl constitutes an actual civic necessity. Seattle has no place of assembly suitable to hold great mass meetings, such as a visit of the president or other dignitaries. The small size of the university’s athletic field is another case cited by public-spirited Seattleites, who see in the lower campus and ideal spot for the erection of a stadium which will be suitable to their needs for many years to come.”
Along with Carl F. Gould of the architectural firm Bebb and Gould, and Charles C. May, a UW engineering professor who played right guard under former coach Gil Dobie (1909), Meisnest paid a one-month visit to the East, where he, Gould and May studied several stadiums, especially the Yale Bowl and Princeton Stadium.
When they presented their vision for Washington Stadium, it called for a lower “bowl or horseshoe of seats,” 55 rows encircling the facility, patterned after the Yale Bowl. In addition, Washington Stadium, as the press referred to it, would be built in the “Collegiate Tudor Gothic” style that had been used at Princeton.
Meisnest told the press the stadium would provide seating for 60,000 and feature a covered cantilever overhang, or roof without supporting columns held up by balancing weights. This section would seat 13,000. The stadium would rise 72 feet, 45 to 50 feet above ground level, and its footprint would be 630 feet by 665 feet, large enough to accommodate football and baseball games.
The stadium would be on the same plot used by the Amateur Athletic Union for the track and field events it conducted during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Just north of a former naval training station, the site had been heavily wooded until the addition of the Students’ Army Training Corp in the fall of 1918 necessitated substantial clearing.
Bounded by Lake Washington Canal on the south, Montlake Boulevard on the west, the Northern Pacific trestle on the north and Union Bay on the east, the site was selected for three reasons:
On Nov. 27, the sun’s rays would strike perpendicular to the sides of the gridiron, giving to neither team a disadvantage (no record of who made that determination); the view through the open end of the horseshoe, and the economy of transporting materials to the site.
After consulting architects and engineers, Meisnest estimated the stadium’s proximity to water would mean a savings of nearly 20 percent on the cost of construction (nearly all construction materials were available in the state and the largest portion could be transported by ship from Puget Sound directly to the dock at the foot of the stadium).
Meisnest penciled out the cost of the project at $500,000 and said the funds, including up to $100,000, would come from student fees while the balance would be donated by alumni groups and generated through an aggressive, statewide sale of stadium plaques.
The bronze souvenir plaques, about the size of a modern-day business card, would entitle the purchaser to a specific seat at all events held in the facility.
For those residing within a 50-mile radius of Seattle, a plaque good for two years cost $50. A plaque good for five cost $100. Purchasers were entitled to buy as many as they wanted.
On Feb. 1, 1920, the UW Board of Control voted 6-1 to raise student fees from $5 to $10 to help finance the project. By March 21, Washington alumni pledged an additional $157,000, much of that coming from an auction held at the Seattle Elks Club.
The same day students agreed to double their activities fees, Meisnest formally entered into an agreement to host eastern power Dartmouth in the scheduled stadium opener, Nov. 27.
”We welcome the game with Dartmouth in the interest of fine intercollegiate sports,” proclaimed UW President Dr. Henry Suzzallo. “Dartmouth has the reputation for maintaining, without compromise, the very highest eligibility rules for its players. Dartmouth plays the game in a manner becoming a university. We uphold the same great ideas and hence are glad to meet a representative Eastern team here in Seattle.”
What to name the stadium became a major issue. The original was “Memorial Olympian-U,” implying a giant “U” or horseshoe. That name didn’t last long, the public voicing strong opposition via letters to Seattle’s newspapers and telegrams to the UW athletic department. The Service Club of Washington wanted it christened “Washington Memorial Stadium” as a tribute to the 1,800 state residents who had died during World War I.
On March 11, in an attempt to put an end to the matter, the Student Board of Control authorized a $100 cash payment to the resident who came up with the best name.
“B.C. Beck, member of the Seattle Alumni Committee, says the name should be descriptive, catchy and popular,” reported The Times. “Darwin Meisnest is very anxious that the name is distinctive.”
“‘Yale has its bowl, Princeton its stadium,’” Meisnest explained. “Washington will have what? Students and alumni both want to get away from the name ‘stadium,’ which has such wide usage and also conflicts with Tacoma’s athletic structure.’”
Letters containing suggestions swamped the office of the Associated Students of the University of Washington. Ultimately, the winning entry: “Washington Field.”
Now all Meisnest had to do was raise $500,000, and many scoffed that he could do it. What, Meisnest was asked frequently, would happen if he failed to raise that amount?
Meisnest’s stock reply: UW would build on as large a scale as finances permitted. If certain amenities had to be left out short term, or if the facility had to be scaled back, so be it. The important thing was to get the main structure in place for the Dartmouth game. Fund raising would continue after the game, allowing for future expansion.
To raise the money, Meisnest moved his office from the UW campus to the ground floor of the Arctic Building at Third and Cherry, establishing it as headquarters to promote the sales campaign. From there, he and a student volunteer group numbering 200 would enjoy easy access to downtown Seattle businesses. Charles D. Davis, head of a committee charged with selling plaques state wide, would train the students on how to close sales.
Davis instructed student salesmen to emphasize that each purchaser would receive an “indestructible plaque” with the owner’s name engraved on it. The conveniently sized plaque would serve as a ticket of admission to all events in the stadium and provide evidence of the owner’s right to the particular seat as shown on its face.
Finally, student salesmen were told to underline the fact that potential purchasers would be helping finance a one-of-a-kind project: the largest stadium ever built in the United States. It would place Seattle on the map.
Meisnest and Davis launched the plaque-selling campaign April 12, convinced that a fully operational 60,000-seat football mecca would exist seven months later.
Twelve days later, The Seattle Times carried this headline: “Washington Will Have A Stadium!”
At the close of the initial period of selling, Meisnest’s volunteers had raised $234,000, which included significant sums from donors in Yakima, Bellingham and Everett. The campaign would continue, Meisnest said, to raise $171,000 more, for a total of $400,000, enough to build the stadium proper. While the campaigners did not reach their $500,000 objective, they found satisfaction in the fact enough had been raised to ensure the success of the project.
Excavation commenced May 1 and a completion date set for Nov. 1. Construction work began May 30 when Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging washed away tons of earth from the site to shape the mammoth horseshoe structure into the hillside. The company removed 127,000 cubic yards of dirt.
In addition to Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging workers, stadium laborers included, on a volunteer basis, UW students, athletes and coaches, who wielded picks and shovels seven days a week. Among their number: varsity crew coach Ed Leader, who took a month’s leave from his summer job as head bouncer at Seattle’s downtown “Dime A Dance” emporium to help with the work.
The scale of the project was so massive compared to any other that had ever been attempted in the city that it attracted daily throngs to the site.
“Although Washington Field is still an unsightly hole in the ground, each day hundreds of Seattleites, interested in the development of the stadium, make their way to the University of Washington campus to survey the progress of the new undertaking,” The Times reported July 11.
“People are interested. They want to see Seattle recognized as the possessor of a bowl second to none in the country. They are interested in watching the skilled workmen evolve a wonderful stadium from the muddy and roughened surface. Washington Field is the next step toward the increase of civic pride and municipal greatness.”
The Post-Intelligencer provided an update on construction progress and seat sales in mid-August.
“The total number of actual seat sales in the stadium to date amounts to 9,900,” the P-I reported. “This includes mail orders, plaque holders and student seats. Tickets to the general public will go on sale Nov. 15. Reserved sections will be $3 and unreserved sections $2.
“Difficulties in construction due to heavy rains, and the fact that hardpan was struck in erecting the structure, has caused the original estimated cost of $278,000 to advance to $350,000. The students are doubling their efforts to sell plaques to people who have not yet purchased them.
“Fourteen flagpoles have been erected at the entrance to the stadium, on which will be displayed the colors of the colleges in the Pacific Coast Conference, Dartmouth and other eastern colleges. Airplanes will drop footballs at the opening of the game when the dedication will take place.”
On Sept. 2, W.H. Lewis, manager of the sluicing department of Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging, announced that the stadium was half finished, declaring, “The work is continuous, night and day.”
When it became clear to Meisnest that he and his sales volunteers would not be able to raise the full $500,000 to complete the stadium he envisioned by Nov. 27, he began to scale back the project. He had no other choice. Stadium contractors released an updated work schedule Sept. 5 outlining the remaining work:
Aside from heavy rains, one of the major impediments to completing construction: rocks, zillions of rocks, which was why contractors ran a huge rolling machine borrowed from the Seattle Parks Department over the playing surface for nearly a month, trying to even it out. Even with that effort, and the use of a tractor owned by the University of Washington ROTC, getting rid of all the rocks proved vexing.
Every day, construction workers and student volunteers, armed with buckets, walked the field surface picking up rocks, a residue of ancient glaciers. But no matter how many they picked up, there were always more (Harold Patton, who played on UW’s 1926 Rose Bowl team, once said, “That field GREW rocks”).
To hit the Nov. 27 target date, contractors reduced the number of rows around the horseshoe from the planned 55 to 27. At about the same time, the 1920 UW football team started preparing for its first game Oct. 9 against Whitman at Denny Field.
Although UW had won the previous year’s Coast Championship under coach Claude “Jump” Hunt, he had been invited to resign and did so, returning to his native Minnesota to enter the publishing business. Meisnest narrowed his list of replacements to three: Enoch Bagshaw, the highly successful coach at Everett High School; Tony Savage, graduate manager at the University of New Mexico who coached UW in 1918; and Stub Allison, a Hunt assistant and the school’s head basketball and baseball coach.
Meisnest gave Allison the job because he wouldn’t have to increase Allison’s salary, and it soon became clear Allison didn’t have a very good team. After opening with a 33-14 victory over Whitman, Washington lost to Montana 18-13 and suffered back-to-back 3-0 losses to Oregon State and Stanford, both defeats coming on opponent drop kicks.
Following a 17-0 loss at Oregon Nov. 12, Meisnest informed Allison his contract would not be renewed for 1921, but asked him to coach through the Dartmouth game, and he agreed.
A day before Washington lost to Stanford (Nov. 4), Seattle Mayor Hugh M. Caldwell issued a proclamation declaring Nov. 27 an official city holiday. The declaration said, in part:
“I, Hugh M. Caldwell, mayor of the city of Seattle, do hereby call upon all citizens of the city to observe the afternoon of Saturday Nov. 27, 1920 as a holiday, and I respectfully request all the people of Seattle, including the various city departments, to carry on during said afternoon only the necessary business that cannot be suspended, and that all employers excuse from work as many of their employees as possible during said afternoon, and that all of the people of the city of Seattle who can possibly do so attend said dedication of the Stadium and the intersectional football contest to be played on that afternoon.”
Due to 46 consecutive days of rain, workers did not put the finishing touches on Washington Field until 12 hours before the UW-Dartmouth kickoff. Final cost: $600,000, more than double the original estimate on a scaled-down stadium. The Times published a preview of what fans could expect.
“Mr. Seattleite, when you attend the Dartmouth game, you will be sitting in the only stadium in the world in which you can look over the head of the person in front of you and see the full running track which skirts the gridiron. The reason is the marvelously planned slope and elevated field, which together give the best possible sightline.
“The sandy soil complexion represents the fruits of an investigation of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. Cornell’s track furnished pointers for the construction of the track. The Yale Bowl’s wooden seats reappear in the new stadium. The horseshoe shape represents a combination of the Yale Bowl and Princeton Stadium.
“Credit for the actual building of the stadium belongs to three men. One is W.C. Morse, construction engineer in general charge of the work. Another is Carl F. Gould, university architect and designer of the structure. A third is Charles C. May, engineer in charge of construction.”
Coached by Clarence Spears, Dartmouth, the famed “Hanover Horde,” arrived in Seattle Wednesday, Nov. 24 on the Milwaukee Railroad, bivouacked at the New Washington Hotel and conducted two practices at Dugdale Park, home of the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Rainiers. The Dartmouth roster included 21 players, notably Amos Alonso Stagg All-America Jim Robertson, who beat Gil Dobie’s Cornell Big Red with a 55-yard drop kick the previous week.
“Dartmouth lines up very fast and gets its plays away quickly,” Allison told Seattle reporters. Dartmouth’s backs were way too quick for Cornell’s slow-moving bunch. Even Dobie (Washington’s head coach from 1908-16) can’t make racehorses out of elephants. But we expect to give Dartmouth all it can handle and an experience our supporters will never forget.”
Next week’s Wayback Machine: Washington inaugurates its new football facility in front of a record crowd.
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out David’s Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at firstname.lastname@example.org