The Fabulous Forum: Successful Preservation of a Historic Sports Arena

By Christine Lazzaretto
 
Located in Inglewood, CA, the Forum opened with great fanfare in 1967 as the home to Los Angeles’ newest sports franchises: the Lakers (basketball) and Kings (hockey). When the Forum opened in the late 1960s, it had an immediate and significant impact on the cultural landscape of Southern California. To the City of Inglewood, the Forum was an important part of the local economy and inextricably linked with the City’s identity – Inglewood became known as the “City of Champions” due primarily to the success of the Lakers. In 1999, the Lakers and Kings relocated to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles – a move that was devastating to the City of Inglewood – and the Forum was sold to a local church. The Forum was underutilized, in disrepair, and faced possible demolition when it was purchased by the Madison Square Garden Company (MSG) in 2012. 
Photo (above): Composite image showing the condition of the Forum prior to and during rehabilitation, 2013. Credit © Stephen Schafer.
 
Sports arenas present specific preservation challenges, and, as evidenced by recent high profile battles, the treatment of such facilities is an ongoing struggle for preservationists. This is an important issue for advocates of modernism in particular: between 1910 and 1959, 22 new professional sports facilities were constructed in North America; between 1960 and 2000, 100 new facilities were built (per the Handbook on the Economics of Sport). Sports arenas are large, purpose built facilities with limited opportunities for adaptive reuse, a limited number of potential tenants, and features that can quickly become outdated in terms of technology and user expectations. As a result, even those facilities constructed in the recent past quickly become outdated relics. The Forum went from celebrated to vacant in a span of just over 30 years. 
 
The Forum was designed by Charles Luckman and Associates. It exhibits the monumental scale and massing, classical proportions and motifs, and strict symmetry associated with New Formalist buildings. The Los Angeles Times described the Forum as a “modern and highly stylized version of the Colosseum of ancient Rome.” The Forum is circular in plan and stands on an elevated concrete pedestal at the center of the 29 ½ acre site. The exterior has 80 sculptural precast concrete columns; each one is 60 feet high and weighs 57 tons. The columns form an arcade that serves as a continuous covered passage around the circumference of the building at the first level. In order to improve the visitor experience, Luckman employed a tension ring suspended roof system which allowed for an absence of interior columns – a pioneering technology not yet widely used, and the largest compression ring in the country at the time of its construction. The Forum received critical acclaim when it opened, and it is often cited as one of Luckman’s most successful designs. 
 
Photo (left): Architect Charles Luckman and Jack Kent Cooke on site during construction of the Forum, 1967. Credit: Los Angeles Public Library.
 
The Forum is an important local example of Luckman’s work, and an excellent and prominent example of New Formalism in Southern California. But the significance of places like the Forum also lies in the role they play in the community, and in social and cultural history. The Forum is a place of collective experience, and nearly everyone who grew up in Southern California from the late 1960s to the late 1990s had a formative experience at the arena. The Forum was built by prominent businessman Jack Kent Cooke, who also owned the resident sports franchises. During Cooke’s tenure as owner of the Lakers, he signed legendary players including Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Magic Johnson. The team reached the NBA finals seven times, winning the championship in 1972. In the 1970s, the Kings also made three consecutive playoff appearances. After Cooke sold his West Coast sports empire, the “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s won another five NBA titles at the Forum. The Forum hosted a variety of other events including tennis and boxing matches, ice shows, rodeos, and political conventions. The Forum served as the basketball venue for the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. It was influential in the birth of “arena rock,” and all of the biggest names in music played there, including Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin
 
The rehabilitation of the Forum by MSG and the project team breathes new life into a beloved and iconic structure that otherwise may have been demolished. The loss of the Forum’s long term tenants and premiere musical events in 1999 led to uncertainty about the future of the arena and a period of economic decline in the city. The project illustrates how historic sports facilities can be sensitively updated to accommodate the latest technological advancements, code requirements, and visitor expectations, while maintaining a sense of history. MSG made a commitment to Inglewood that the Forum would be a source of employment for its residents and a catalyst for its rebirth.
 
Photo (right): The exterior of the Forum prior to rehabilitation, 2012. The metal parapet was added in 1989 to accommodate corporate signage; it was removed during the rehabilitation to return the exterior to its original appearance. Credit: © Stephen Schafer.
 
The Forum rehabilitation project meets the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, and will be partially funded by Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credits. The Forum has been nominated for listing in the National Register of Historic Places (which will be discussed at the August 1 meeting of the California Historical Resources Commission, if anyone would like to submit a letter of support). Legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn referred to the arena as the “Fabulous Forum,” and with its reopening in 2014, the Forum is fabulous once again.  
 

 

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