Earl Santee: The godfather of ballparks
There have been plenty of laudatory labels thrown in the direction of Earl Santee over the years, including “visionary” and “artist.” But there is also a more basic idea at the root of Santee’s innovative stadium design work spanning more than three decades.
“As some people will also attest, I get bored easily,” said Santee, founder and senior principal of Kansas City-based design firm Populous. “I love finding new experiences and seeing things for the first time. And I love the diversity of things to do.”
That lifelong restlessness has fueled a highly impactful career that has made Santee one of the most influential sports industry executives in the country. Despite not being a household name, or even known at all, among mainstream sports fans, Santee’s outsized imprint is dotted all over the country. He has played a lead role in the initial design or renovation of 15 Major League Baseball ballparks, 22 minor league and spring training facilities, several college football stadiums and dozens of other projects and site studies, and he’s helped lead an offshoot of design firm HOK into Populous and its current status as the most prominent sports architecture firm in the business.
This is the second installment in the series of profiles for the 2019 class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business. This year’s honorees and the issues in which they will be featured are:
Feb. 11 — Kevin Warren
Feb. 18 — Earl Santee
Feb. 25 — Bob Kain
March 4 — Debbie Yow
March 11 — Ron Semiao
March 18 — Buffy Filippell
Iconic ballpark images such as the Great Hall at Yankee Stadium and the sweeping vista of downtown Pittsburgh from PNC Park owe themselves in large part to the work of Santee. The urban ballpark boom of the last quarter century, launched by Camden Yards in Baltimore and the work of Santee’s partner Joe Spear, has continued under Santee in Detroit, Houston, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., among other locales, in turn helping transform each of those cities’ downtown cores.
And when comparing the traditional stylings of Busch Stadium in St. Louis to the modernist flair of Marlins Park in Miami, for example, one can easily see Santee’s deft touch in conforming his projects to the feel and style of their respective communities, as opposed to importing any preconceived notions.
“I always try to create a sense of place early on in the things I do,” said Santee, 63, who typically makes a point of embedding himself in a community before embarking on a project (see related story). “Teams have to understand who they are.”
But in a sports business also marked by outsized egos and often-conflicting agendas, Santee has also been able to hold his own and then some against multimillionaire and billionaire clients through a powerful combination of his 6-foot-5 height, a noted stubborn streak and heavy passion for his work.
“Earl is really a larger-than-life presence,” said Derek Schiller, Atlanta Braves president and chief executive. Santee also led the design of SunTrust Park, part of a radical new concept for ballpark design that included its own adjacent mixed-use development, The Battery (see related story). “He’s a large man physically, but he also has a strong personality. You combine that with him being an extremely creative-minded architect and an out-of-the-box thinker, you’re talking about something really potent.”
Kevin Uhlich, Kansas City Royals senior vice president of business operations, has known Santee for roughly 30 years and has worked with him on projects in Anaheim, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; and Kansas City, and offers a similar assessment.
“He’s a great, great architect, and someone with deeply held convictions, extremely involved and detail-oriented,” Uhlich said. “You sometimes end up fighting with him on some things. But we’ve really relied on his experience, which is second to none in the business.”
Santee didn’t know it at the time, but as a kid growing up in Kansas City, his path was already beginning to lead him toward a career in architecture. He picked up a love of drawing and art from his mother, and his father had a construction firm where he required Santee and his three brothers to help out starting at the age of 10. That construction background in particular helped give him an easy adaptability across multiple trades, one that later proved quite useful in his design work.
“We definitely grew up blue collar,” Santee said. “I can do carpentry, I can do plumbing, I can do electrical. There’s really little I can’t do, whether it’s residential or commercial [construction]. That’s what my dad taught me, and I still have those hands-on skills today.”
Santee would head 40 miles west to college at the University of Kansas and begin studying architecture. But it wasn’t until late in his college years that any sort of career focus truly began to coalesce. A self-admitted late bloomer, Santee said he initially drifted a bit among various collegiate activities as varied as throwing the shot put and practicing judo.
“I never did track in high school. But again, I get bored easy,” he said. “I joined the judo club, did that for a year and a half because I was bored.”
But more than four decades later, Santee said those years of flitting about ultimately paid dividends.
“Because I was doing so many different things, I met a lot of different people, learned social skills, and it helped define who I am now,” Santee said.
After graduation, he acknowledged he still “didn’t really have a plan” and spent several years bouncing among several architecture and construction firms, and spent a brief period working in Tulsa, Okla. But an interview with HOK in late 1984 helped define what has since been the rest of his career.
Major League Baseball stadiums that Earl Santee has designed:
■ Wrigley Field / Chicago Cubs / 1989-91 renovation
■ Coors Field / Colorado Rockies / 1995
■ Angel Stadium / Los Angeles Angels / 1998 renovation
■ Comerica Park / Detroit Tigers / 2000
■ Minute Maid Park / Houston Astros / 2000
■ PNC Park / Pittsburgh Pirates / 2001
■ Citizens Bank Park / Philadelphia Phillies / 2004
■ Busch Stadium / St. Louis Cardinals / 2006
■ Nationals Park / Washington Nationals / 2008
■ Citi Field / New York Mets / 2009
■ Kauffman Stadium / Kansas City Royals / 2009 renovation
■ Yankee Stadium / New York Yankees / 2009
■ Target Field / Minnesota Twins / 2010
■ Marlins Park / Miami Marlins / 2012
■ SunTrust Park / Atlanta Braves / 2017
Dennis Wellner, known as a dean among football stadium designers, was helping build out a dedicated sports practice at HOK at that point and brought in Santee to assist with a suite renovation project at the Denver Broncos’ Mile High Stadium. Santee said he had some initial trepidation about the prospect of such a specialized practice. But the Denver project very soon led to others in both football and baseball as the concept of multipurpose stadiums was rapidly giving way to sport-specific venues.
“You could see and feel things changing very, very quickly and that separation happening,” said Santee, who then spent much of the late 1980s and early ’90s cutting his teeth on various minor league baseball and spring training projects. “Things that we were doing at places like Pilot Field [in Buffalo, now Sahlen Field] were definitely setting a new course. And it really changed the sports world’s life.”
The major pivot point in this development, of course, was Camden Yards in Baltimore, a still-influential project led in part by Spear that would help usher in the concepts of urban-based sports development, retro-influenced designs and single-sport use. But Santee said the goal of the emerging HOK Sport practice, even amid the buzz that the Baltimore project generated, was more straightforward.
“We really just wanted to be good architects,” he said. “The idea was and still is to do good work so you can get the next project.”
Santee also would begin to forge a potent working relationship with Spear in which the two would collaborate on numerous projects, work in parallel on many others and help make introductions for each other to various team owners and potential clients, which is critical in a referral-based business such as architecture. Deep into their fourth decade working together, the pair remain close and often take fishing trips together.
“It’s been a really great relationship,” Spear said. “It started very straightforward. He simply came in as a new guy and we liked his work. But our skills have been very complementary. And he’s been excellent at linking ballparks to their communities.”
Baseball’s historic ballpark construction boom would continue to gather steam in the 1990s and see buildings designed at least in part by Santee open in Denver with Coors Field in 1995 and in Anaheim, Calif., with a substantial renovation of Angel Stadium in 1998, and a further spurt of openings with Detroit’s Comerica Park and Houston’s Minute Maid Park in 2000 and PNC Park in 2001.
The work would see Santee spend more than 200 nights a year on the road and help solidify HOK Sport’s leadership status in sports architecture. But it was only a warmup for an even more frenetic run of building activity that was to come in the early 2000s.
Between 2005 and 2012, Santee would be heavily involved in the development of Busch Stadium, Nationals Park, Citi Field, Yankee Stadium, Target Field, Marlins Park and a substantial renovation of his hometown Kauffman Stadium.
“There wasn’t much left of me after the end of that run,” Santee said.
Target Field in Minneapolis, which opened in 2010, would particularly test Santee’s mettle. After years of unfruitful discussion about a new facility for the Minnesota Twins to replace the Metrodome and threats of contracting the team, local designers and officials began to focus on a potential site in the city’s North Loop district. At just eight and a half acres, the site was roughly half the size of many other big-league ballpark sites and was hemmed in by highways, local streets and railroad tracks.
But the site was also near the Target Center and offered expansive views of the downtown Minneapolis skyline, and Santee’s stubborn streak kicked in again to help see what was possible amid the heavy obstacles.
“It was a really hard project,” Santee said, “but I like the challenge of all this. When somebody says it can’t be done, that motivates me. And on Target Field specifically, I really loved the singularity of that challenge.”
Dave St. Peter, Twins president, also credits Santee for helping coalesce a broad, diverse group of local officials and government agencies involved in the project and holding differing priorities behind a single purpose.
“This was an incredibly complicated, really small, extremely atypical site with very significant impediments. And it required a healthy dose of imagination to see what was possible,” St. Peter said. “But Earl really took it as a personal challenge to turn those drawbacks into positives, and we had a united front and all bought into his vision. You look at what we have now, and it’s an engineering marvel. And in many ways, Earl is the artist behind Target Field.”
Ballparks of the Future
During the midst of the Target Field construction, Santee helped lead a buyout and separation of the HOK Sport practice from HOK, with the new company named Populous in early 2009.
“There was limitation within the HOK structure and we wanted additional freedom,” he said. “We’ve always followed the market, and that’s been our driver. We also really wanted to push into the convention center business, and that was one of the separation points. We needed to be more nimble, and the buyout has allowed us to become who we are today.”
The last decade also has seen a dramatic shift in how Santee and Populous go about their design work. Not only is Santee in several cases now renovating buildings he originally designed a generation ago, most new buildings are conceived to be essentially living entities that are in a near-constant state of upgrade and improvement.
“It used to be that we designed buildings for 50 years,” Santee said. “Now it’s whatever the lease term is,” with significant updates often happening within those contractual timelines.
Schiller said a similar dynamic has already emerged for SunTrust Park and The Battery, now entering just its third year.
“A project of this scope and integration essentially requires now that there are continual improvements along the way,” he said. “So we’ve continued to lean on Earl and it’s been an ongoing relationship.”
Santee is also directly in the midst of an emerging and radical industry rethinking of stadium design in which traditional, rowed seating continues to give way to many different types of communal spaces, more feature-laden seating areas and larger mixed-use projects connected to stadiums. Food and beverage operations also are being fundamentally reconceived into much more flexible designs. After roughly a century of stadium design typically existing within certain parameters, sacred cows of the business are quickly eroding.
“We’re really 100 percent into fan experience-based design work,” Santee said. “The communities are telling us what they want. You just have to pay attention. We’re putting in much more entertainment into the buildings, for example. And we’re obviously moving much more into what I would call transitional seating.”
Though Santee is nearing typical retirement age, he has no imminent plans to walk away from Populous and his day job. He said he is invigorated by a recent influx at the company of younger talent, as well as newer entries into emerging areas such as esports.
“If anything,” he said, “I have more energy now.”