Breese Stevens Municipal Athletic Field holds a special place in the hearts of many Madisonians. Not only is the field the oldest city-owned and -operated athletic field, it’s also the oldest surviving masonry grandstand in Wisconsin.
Breese Stevens Field opened on May 5, 1926, as a baseball stadium consisting of a grandstand and playing field encompassing an entire city block. The field’s Mediterranean Revival-style grandstand was designed by Claude and Starck, an important Madison architectural firm in the early 20th century.
The first night game of baseball in Wisconsin using portable lights was held at Breese Stevens Field in July 1930. Attendance was such that the field was outfitted with permanent lights the next year and was the only city park with floodlights until the mid-1960s.
In 1934, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), a Depression-era jobs program, made several additions to the structure, including the concrete bleachers along the north wall, that still exist today, and a perimeter wall. This makes Breese Stevens Field one of the few baseball facilities built or expanded by the short-lived CWA.
The bleachers are backed by an imposing 20-foot high sandstone wall. The sandstone came from the Hoyt Park quarry on Madison’s west side. At the east end of the bleachers, the wall drops to a height of eight feet and continues around the field as a perimeter wall.
A wooden press box was added in 1939. Three heating units were installed in 1945, and in 1947, the first electric scoreboard was erected on the field. In 1982, a rehabilitation project converted Breese Stevens Field to a soccer facility.
The City of Madison, owner of Breese Stevens Field, has invested approximately $4 million in nearly a decade to rehabilitate and restore the facility. The intent was to preserve the facility and to create better future-use opportunities. Major projects included repairing bleachers; installing accessible seating, entrances, and restrooms; roof canopy repairs; installation of a new press box; improvements to the entrances; deck waterproofing repairs; and lighting and sound system improvements.
Four years ago, the installation of synthetic turf, a $1 million project, resulted in a field that could see more use because it didn’t have to be closed down due to the grass having to grow back after some athletic events.
Currently, the city’s Parks Division is in early stages of design development with Isthmus Architecture to add a new concession and restroom building. The addition will be located west of the athletic field and adjacent to the older 1925 portion of the stadium.
Breese Stevens Field was designated a Madison landmark in 1995 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. According to the National Register nomination, the 1925 grandstand, the 1934 CWA bleachers, and perimeter stone wall have been painstakingly restored and retain a high degree of historic integrity. This historic stadium seats 3,740 in its grandstand and 5,593 on its field only, with a total capacity of 9,333.
Breese Stevens Field was the home of the Madison Blues semi-professional baseball team. Following a game in 1938, sprinter Jesse Owens, 1936 Olympic gold medalist, ran in three exhibition races at the field. In 1931, a rodeo occurred over a period of six days. Later in the 1930s, midget auto races were held but were subsequently canceled because of noise concerns and damage to the field’s cinder track.
Over the years, Breese Stevens Field has also hosted track and field competitions, circuses, drum and bugle corps competitions, religious services, and concerts. Currently it is home to Edgewood College soccer teams; Madison East High School teams; the Madison 56ers amateur soccer team; and a professional ultimate frisbee team, the Madison Radicals.
In August 1922, a joint athletic field for the old Central High School (located on the site of today’s Madison College downtown campus) and the city was first proposed. More than a year later, Madison’s city council voted 19 to 1 to purchase property owned by Mrs. Breese J. Stevens for an athletic field that would be named in honor of her late husband. The purchase price was $35,000, reduced by $10,000 from the original asking price.
The dissenting alderman thought the council was moving too fast on the project and residents should be given an opportunity to be heard on the matter, according to a report in The Capital Times. But he was countered by another who said that Madison was about 20 years behind the times already.
The block that Breese Stevens Field occupies was originally owned by Sidney Breese. He sold it to his nephew Breese Stevens (1834-1903), an attorney who had moved to Madison from New York in 1856. Stevens was elected mayor of Madison in 1884 and served one term. At that time, he was president of the Madison City Gas Light and Coke Company. A mayoral committee had been studying the feasibility of electric lights, but Stevens declined to reappoint the committee, preserving the city's use of gaslights for five more years. Stevens was also a University of Wisconsin Madison regent from 1891 to 1903.
The city hired Big Top Baseball in 2015 to operate Breese Stevens Field, due largely to the company's success in reviving the baseball stadium at Warner Park. Under Big Top's management, Breese Stevens has hosted several concerts, local sporting events, and community festivals.
The first concert of the 2018 season features rock band Queens of the Stone Age, scheduled for May 22. Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers play on June 16. For concerts, the stage is on the east side of the field. Concertgoers with general admission tickets on the field can bring blankets, according to Liz Kern, vice president of Big Top Baseball.
Beer & Bacon, a celebration of the best craft brews and bacon-inspired foods in the Midwest, will be hosted by Run Strong Madison Inc. on June 23 at Breese Stevens Field.
The popular Bodega, a free public market featuring farmers, artisans, antique dealers, and craftspeople selling locally sourced goods and produce, returns as well. A growing variety within the vendor lineup, live entertainment, food carts, interactive displays, a zip line, free yard games, and local beers and wines will highlight the 2018 series. Check for more information at breesestevensfield.com/bodega .
Along with hosting Madison Radicals home games, Breese Stevens field will also host the league’s championship August 11 and 12. Later, on August 19, is the fifth Yum Yum Fest, a celebration of artistry in food from the Madison Area Chef’s Network.
Breese Stevens Field is available for private events and weddings. “It’s a beautiful site in the heart of the east side of Madison. We can do a variety of events and will work with individuals and organizations to create an awesome experience,” Liz says.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.
Breese Stevens Field
917 E. Mifflin Street
Madison, WI 53703