Excerpted from the book “Football in a Forest—The Life and Times of Kenan Memorial Stadium,” due out in August:
The clock was ticking the week of November 7, 1927. In five days, Davidson would come to Chapel Hill for its twenty-fifth meeting against the Tar Heels, and Kenan Stadium was set as the venue. The Tar Heels had played their last football game on Emerson Field.
The goal posts were positioned early in the week and painted white on Thursday night. Gravel was spread on the walkways running through the woods and alongside the concrete stands, and horse-drawn rollers packed it down. The scaffolding was removed from the walls of the field house and the red tiles laid on the roof. The bronze tablets honoring benefactor William R. Kenan Jr.’s parents were mounted on the north and south sides of the stadium, and Dr. William C. Coker, the University’s first professor of botany, completed his landscaping design that included placing shrubs around the entrance and planting dogwood, wild plum and cedar trees between the fences and seating areas.
Tickets were priced at $2—for all seats. “The design of the stands is such that there are no bad seats,” the Chapel Hill Weekly noted. “A good view of the match is obtainable from anywhere in the concrete.”
An estimated nine thousand fans convened to watch Carolina thrash the Wildcats 27-0, the second most-lopsided score in the three decades of the rivalry. Edison Foard scored the first touchdown in Carolina’s “new grid temple,” as The Tar Heel ascribed it, bursting over from five yards just six minutes into the game.
Twelve days later on Thanksgiving afternoon, the official christening and dedication game was held against old rival Virginia. An estimated 28,000 spectators jammed the newly minted facility, and WPTF radio in Raleigh orchestrated the first live broadcast of a sports event in the state.
“The University of North Carolina, leading and pioneer educational institution of the South, now possesses the finest example of gridiron architecture in the country,” The Tar Heel proclaimed the day of the game.
Kenan and wife Alice sat in stands with Francis Venable, John Morehead and their wives. Governor Angus W. McLean accepted the stadium for the state and the University. John Sprunt Hill paid tribute to the Kenans in remarks before kick-off, saying for a century and a half “my people have known his people, and to have known them is to love them. The Kenans have always run true to form—modest, courteous, courageous—a race of gentle women and gentle men.” Hill noted that James Kenan assisted in laying the cornerstone of Old East and that the stadium “comes out of the fine spirit of the donor representing glorious traditions enriched by long and affectionate service.”
The media waxed poetically after the opening. Mary Graves, sister of Chapel Hill Weekly editor Louis Graves, wrote of the “simple Grecian symmetry of the stadium, of the incense floating up from the Golden Leaf that has made many in the seats rich … Grass, sky and foliage lend charm and color to a white concrete bowl fitted gracefully into the gentle curves of the valley. Spectators, who individually might not take a prize at a beauty show, collectively make a harmonious panorama of a myriad of hues.”
The influx of spectators certainly created logistical challenges, as the Greensboro Daily News explained in its coverage of the opening: “Chapel Hill five hours after the game was over had not recovered from the rush of fans which filled its every side street and alley and hostelry. Automobiles were packed back into the residential district, and police from half a dozen cities were working feverishly to clear them out and return the city’s traffic problems to normal.”
Roland Giduz, who grew up in a house on Pittsboro Road, recalled the six foot paths leading to the stadium from different directions made for a boon to kids living in surrounding neighborhoods. “There was no central parking lot, so people looked to park all around town,” Giduz said. “I parked cars in our yard for ten cents a game—twenty-five cents for the Duke game.”
Kenan was delighted with the end result and would remain actively involved in providing ideas to improve the stadium and money to underwrite its evolution. Woollen wrote him in late January 1928 and mentioned the total cost for the stadium was $303,190.76 and that the athletic department would take care of the $190.76 overage above Kenan’s pledge and payment of $275,000 for the stadium and $28,000 for the field house. Kenan promptly wrote back and said he was having his accountant dispatch a check for the overage amount immediately.
Kenan wrote Woollen in July 1928 to say he’d heard that Virginia was considering building a new stadium (it would break ground on 25,000-seat Scott Stadium in 1930) and mused that if Carolina could attract 28,000 for the 1927 Virginia game, should the University already be thinking about expanding the stadium’s capacity?
“I feel absolutely sure that the effect of this Stadium will be untold to the benefit of the University in many ways,” Kenan wrote. “I also feel that it will have a direct influence on the construction of other stadiums throughout the South.”
The Greensboro Daily News agreed: “There seems to be little doubt now that the tremendous interest in intercollegiate athletics will continue and that this stadium is a forerunner of others in North Carolina and the neighboring states.”
Woollen responded to Kenan and suggested a wait-and-see approach and that a 1928 home schedule of Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, South Carolina and Duke would be a good litmus test. He further noted that the venue had gotten quickly on the radar of other universities.
“The Stadium continues to attract visitors almost daily, and inquiries concerning it come in from many sections of the country,” Woollen said. “The University of Georgia and the University of Alabama have employed Atwood and Nash to design their stadia.”
Indeed, following the 1927 opening of Kenan Stadium, the dominoes began falling throughout the South. The 1929 football season saw the opening of new stadiums in Athens (Sanford Stadium), Tuscaloosa (Denny Stadium, which would later add the name of legendary coach Bear Bryant) and Durham (a venue that would become Wallace Wade Stadium).
Max Hannum of The Pittsburgh Press visited Chapel Hill in 1929 and wrote of his impressions: ”We have been privileged to see many of the beautiful football stadiums in the country, including the Rose Bowl at Pasadena, and others, but none can even approach the one of the University of North Carolina campus at Chapel Hill. Where some of the gridiron structures run to massiveness, attempting to draw attention to their imposing grandeur, the simple setting, clever architecture, and splendid arrangement of the Tar Heel Bowl could hardly be matched.”
Photos and memorabilia from the early days of Kenan Stadium courtesy North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, Chapel Hill.