Mag Excerpt: Soderstrom on The Big House

Dr. Robert Soderstrom chronicled the stadium project of the mid-1920s is his wonderful book The Big House, Fielding Yost and the Building of Michigan Stadium (Huron River Press, 2005). He chose an appropriate title. The story is foremost about the structure itself, but without Yost's vision and willpower, the project probably wouldn't have happened for another few decades.

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On September fourth fans assembled in Michigan Stadium for the season opener against Connecticut will celebrate the unveiling of most significant renovation to a campus facility since Yost Field House was converted into an ice arena in 1973.

Dr. Robert Soderstrom chronicled the stadium project of the mid-1920s is his wonderful book The Big House, Fielding Yost and the Building of Michigan Stadium (Huron River Press, 2005). He chose an appropriate title. The story is foremost about the structure itself, but without Yost's vision and willpower, the project probably wouldn't have happened for another few decades. Dr. Soderstrom was kind enough to speak with GoBlueWolverine earlier this year his book project:

Greg Dooley, GoBlueWolverine: What drove you to write The Big House?
Robert Soderstrom: I've always been a crazy football fan, I actually grew up in Illinois and was kind of an Illinois football fan and knew all about Memorial Stadium down there. When I came to Ann Arbor for medical school in 1968, I was intrigued by Michigan Stadium when I saw it for the first time. That was the year before Schembechler arrived here but I thought at the time, even though it was only half full those days, it was an awesome edifice as a stadium. I hadn't seen anything like it.

What really triggered it was a trip to Italy around 1998 that I took with my daughter, who was in the engineering school at the time. While we were down there we spent a day at Pompeii and outside the city they had excavated the old stadium. Walking into that stadium, you come into it just like when you're coming through Michigan's tunnel. You come in from the outside and you walk into the arena. It's the oldest existing stadium in the world, it was built around 80 B.C. and it's an absolute microcosm of Michigan Stadium. It seats 25,000 people instead of 100,000 and the tunnel is at the end of the field, not on the side like ours. It's built into the side of a hill and seeing that place I thought, ‘Fielding Yost must have known about this place when he built that stadium.' I told my daughter, when we were inside the stadium, that when I got back home I was going to try to find out what I could about the building of Michigan Stadium.

Dooley: So what was out there about the stadium project, before you started?
Soderstrom: Basically what I found were a few magazine articles here and there, but nothing that really discussed it in detail or at least in the detail that I was looking for. So I thought, ‘Maybe there's a story here.' So I called up the Bentley Historical Library to see what they had, and it turned out they had a whole collection of Yost's old personal papers and all the old athletic files, year by year. They are not in any category that makes any sense, they're just filed year-by-year, month-by-month. So I just started poring through that stuff to see if there was even a story worth telling. The more I dug in, the more I thought that it was really an interesting tale and one that needed to be told.

Dooley: Could you have done this book without the records at the Bentley?
Soderstrom: Oh no way. No way. And the librarians at the Bentley , as I mentioned in the introduction to the book, they were great to me from the minute I showed up. As far as they were concerned I was Mr. Nobody. I'd never been in there before, I was an alumnus but I wasn't a faculty member. They were great in helping me find my way through the resources that they had. What the library has is awesome, really, but all I could do to find out what was available was to go through those athletic files month-by-mouth, page-by-page. Sometimes I'd be in there for an afternoon and I was like, ‘I'm not finding anything here,' but then you'd turn the page and there'd be a letter that was exactly what I was looking for. There were a lot of hours in the library, I can tell you that. That place in an amazing resource for the university. I was researching the Red Grange game at the University of Illinois, and this was six or seven years ago, and their historical library was a dark, dungy looking thing in the basement of their undergraduate library where they had stacks and stacks of old file cabinets and stuff. It was a mess!

Dooley: When they had public forums debating the whether to proceed with the current renovation, certain speakers came including Fielding Yost III. Did you ever meet or speak to him?
Soderstrom: No, never met him. I tried to make contact with him via the athletic department, but they had no contact info that they would provide to me. I wasn't able to talk to him about what he knew about those times. When it came up that he was an opponent to the stadium, and this was a couple years after the book came out, I got his address and sent him a complimentary copy of the book.

My own feeling? I was a little reserved about the idea of the renovations frankly, but I could never see how you argue that Yost would be opposed to it. When you read my story it's clear that Yost is very interested in the finances of the athletic department, and he built that stadium by selling bonds to people that could afford it, and they were all going to get 50-yard line suites. I don't think Yost would have any problem with putting up luxury boxes once that became the idea of how you raise a lot of money. My concern was all about how it was going to look when it was done, because I loved the symmetry and the simplicity of the bowl. But to tell you the truth, now that it's done, my feeling is that they've done a beautiful job. Both inside and outside, the place is beautiful. Looking at the old pictures, the stadium almost looks naked without the new additions.


For more from Greg Dooley, check out MVictors.com

For the rest of this interview, an in-depth preview of the Michigan defense, and more, check out the next issue of GoBlueWolverine The Magazine.

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