Franklin Field: First of Many Firsts

Zack J. Leder, C’22

Located between South 33rd Street and South Street at the edge of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, Franklin Field, named after the university’s revered founder Benjamin Franklin, is more than just your average collegiate athletics venue. The original wooden structure was opened on April 20, 1895, with a seating capacity of 30,000 as a venue for the Penn Relay Carnival. Now colloquially known as the Penn Relays, it was originally a track meet for the the most notorious college and high school athletes at the time, and is still held annually [1]. As the oldest continually used college stadium in the country, Franklin Field is the home of some historic college and professional football firsts [2]. To put this into perspective, when Fenway Park, the oldest ballpark in professional baseball, was opened in 1912, Franklin Field was already 17 years old. Franklin Field immortalizes the collective memory of various groups of individuals that span multiple demographics and time periods to function as an unintentional monument. Austrian art historian Alois Riegl defined an unintentional monument as “those monuments that are not deliberately made as such, but considered so in posterity through the value they have accrued over time” [3]. This is an analysis of Franklin Field’s role as an unintentional monument for Penn, the city of Philadelphia, and sports fans around the country.

Figure 1: Franklin Field before the second deck was added (Picture taken at Army-Navy Game on November 26, 1910) Credit: Penn Archives [8].
Its value can be seen through its role as a breeding ground for several practices central to the modern American athletic zeitgeist. Currently serving as the location for Penn’s football, lacrosse games, track meets, and even the graduation ceremony, Franklin Field plays an important role in the hearts of Penn students and alumni. Franklin Field was the location of the first radio and television broadcasted collegiate football game, and allows for the stadium’s historic influence to surpass the borders of Philadelphia, and infiltrate the rest of the country. People’s eagerness to commemorate firsts in sports unintentionally allows Franklin Field to fall into the arc of a national collective memory narrative. The field hosted the Philadelphia Eagles for 13 seasons after the team decided to relocate to a stadium that could hold more fans and was essential in developing and cementing the city’s intimate relationship with its professional sports teams, a common quip when observing Philadelphia stereotypes [4]. Beyond its founders’ intent, Franklin Field functions in the collective memory of its communities of memory, which include the families of the dead buried beneath it; the Penn community; Eagles fans; and sports fans at large.

Before examining how Franklin Field serves as an unintentional monument for the city in the current day, we must first understand how the nation’s first college football stadium came to be constructed. The land where Franklin Field is now situated was once a potter’s field for the Blockley Almshouse from 1835 until the stadium was constructed. A potter’s field is a burial place for individuals who were unknown, unclaimed, or lacked sufficient funds to afford proper burial arrangements, and many excavations in Philadelphia have unearthed mass burial grounds used for African Americans in the 1800s. An article from the Penn program on Race, Science, and Society said:

Excavations later revealed stacked burials descending twenty feet below the field; the connection of 33rd to Spruce Street yielded many skulls and other ghastly osseous reminders. In 1966, [Samuel] Morton’s collection of skulls was transported from the Academy of Natural Sciences to the Penn Museum, across the street from the grounds into which the bodies of Philadelphians whose skulls were taken by Morton were discarded [5].

Famous Philadelphia physician Samuel Morton would rob graves in the 1830s and 1840s, and steal these skulls to assist his racist studies comparing brain sizes between white and African American individuals. He would then discard the decapitated bodies in the mass burial ground that now resides below Franklin Field. Although it does not intentionally do so, Franklin’s Field’s role as a historic building allows for us to research its history and memorialize the memories of the mostly anonymous souls buried beneath the stadium.

The stadium was opened in 1895 and was constructed for only $100,000 ($2.8 million in today’s money) by architects Frank Miles Day and Brother Charles Klauder [6]. Franklin Field was notoriously the first stadium in the United States to have a functioning scoreboard. The April 21, 1895 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “The spacious grand stand was appropriately decked with flags and streamers, while from every quarter could be heard the challenging slogans of the college boys” [7].

Several other “firsts” can be identified in the period between 1895 and 1922, when the stadium underwent several renovations to increase its seating capacity, and the wood was replaced with concrete, forming the foundation of the building as we know it today. On October 1, 1895 the Penn football team played their first game in their new stadium, and beat Swarthmore 40-0.

Among other things, the Penn football program has several other impressive accomplishments to its name. As of 2018, the Quaker football team played 1,383 games, making it college football’s most historic program. It holds the record for the most Ivy League championship titles and had a 24-game winning streak between ‘1992-’95, an NCAA record from 1995-2014. Franklin Field’s historic past certainly aided the Penn football team’s status as one of the most famous and once most successful programs in collegiate athletic history. Shown below, are images from the 2018 Penn football fact book, which show how many “firsts” really did occur at Franklin Field [9].

Figure 2: Franklin Field Milestone Timeline from the 2018 Penn Football Fact Book [10].
Franklin Field was home to the first radio and television broadcast of a college football game in addition to housing the nation’s first double-decker stadium (a stadium with multiple stories of seating). Watching football is central to many Americans’ Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays and college football teams are even considered more important than the regional NFL team in certain locales. Traditions that are central to the American experience were tested for the first time on these very grounds, and while unintentionally so, Franklin Field serves as an homage to the double-decker concept and the inception of broadcasted events in collegiate and professional sports. These practices, which are now a given in all professional and most collegiate football programs, add to the stadium’s communities of memory. Many Americans are eager to revere and monumentalize the location of where many “firsts” happened, especially in sports. Franklin Field is still in use today, so there is no museum in its place to physically remind us of all the sporting world milestones that occurred there. However, Franklin Field unintentionally serves as the breeding ground for several practices which are now crucial to the sporting world, and folds the stadium into an arc of collective memory for historians and sports fans alike.

Beyond the world of sports, Franklin Field also was the site of many events broadcasted to the entire nation as well as a filming site in several movies. President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted his bid for re-nomination as the democratic presidential nominee at Franklin Field in 1936. A broken country, who trusted their leader to bring them out of the pits of the Great Depression, listened to President Roosevelt affirm, “Philadelphia is a good city in which to write American history. This is a fitting ground on which to reaffirm the faith of our fathers; to pledge ourselves to restore to the people a wider freedom; to give to 1936 as the founders gave to 1776—an American way of life” [11]. This is considered one of Roosevelt’s most famous speeches.

Figure 3: Franklin D. Roosevelt accepting the Democratic nomination for President at Franklin Field when running for his second term. (June 27, 1936)[12].
In 2000, the M. Night Shyamalan classic Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis, was released, with a lot of the film portraying Bruce as one of the stadium’s security guards. Additionally, the 2006 film Invincible starring Mark Wahlberg as Philadelphia hero Vince Papale had Franklin Field stand in for the demolished Veterans Stadium. The Roosevelt speech and these two films further exemplify how although it does not intentionally do so, Franklin Field functions as a monument. It acts to strengthen the field’s historic value while also invoking the collective memory and attention of both history and movie buffs alike.

Figure 4: Bruce Willis as a Franklin Field security guard in Unbreakable (2000) [13].
The next period in Franklin Field’s long tenure as a mecca of Philadelphia sports was from 1958 to 1970, where the Philadelphia Eagles used the stadium as its home field. The Eagles previously spent 18 seasons in the Connie Mack stadium in North Philadelphia, and elected to move to Franklin which could hold 60,000 spectators. Fans and players alike described the atmosphere as electric, with former Eagles cornerback Tom Brookshier saying:

It was an incredible amphitheater… There wasn’t a bad seat in the house. The stands went straight up so everyone was close to the field. We could hear the fans. If somebody in the upper deck called you a name, you could look up, point at the guy and say, ‘I’ll see you after the game’ [14].

This era of interactions between players and the fans played a large role in helping create the prideful, yet raucous identity of Philadelphia sports fans. Referencing an incident in the late 1960s, a Daily Pennsylvanian article says, “In part because of what occurred at Penn’s stadium, Philadelphia sports fans have forever been characterized by the national media as being rowdy, obnoxious and having booed Santa Claus himself” [15]. Most important during this time period was the NFL Championship game in 1960. The Eagles played the Vince Lombardi-led Green Bay Packers and won 17-13 in front of 67,325 spectators. They would not go on to do this again until February of 2018. This would be Lombardi’s only playoff loss, and he would go on to be one of the most successful coaches of all time, racking up five championships with the Packers thereafter. The Eagles transitioned into the newly built Veterans Stadium after the 1970 season, and they would never move after, with the current stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, sitting on the same grounds as “the Vet” once did. Although it was only for 13 seasons, the Eagles’ tenure at Franklin Field was integral for the city’s relationship with professional sports. This can be encapsulated perfectly with Eagles owner and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell previously saying that “moving the team’s games to Franklin Field saved pro football in Philadelphia” [16].

Finally, while the scope of this aspect is limited to mainly Penn Students, West Philadelphians, and alumni, the impact Franklin Field has on the Penn experience while at Penn and in the decades after you graduate is unable to be ignored. When you are a freshman, you go there to take the famous picture of your entire class forming the year you graduate. I will always remember coming to a Penn football game with my dad when I was about 10, and he brought an entire loaf of bread with him. I asked him why and he said “just wait.” Suddenly at the end of the third quarter of the game, he and the rest of the crowd erupted into “Drink a Highball” and at the end when the song goes “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn,” he handed me a piece of bread to throw onto the field. It was the first of many times I got to participate in this famous Penn tradition, where nearly 30,000 pieces of bread are tossed onto the field at one time! [17].

More important to Penn students, is how the graduation ceremony occurs at Franklin Field. Just as we stepped on there as eager freshmen, nervous yet excited for the four years to come, it is only appropriate to enjoy our last moments as undergraduate students at this historic venue with our family and friends. Hearing from world-renowned guest speakers like Joe Biden, Lin Manuel Miranda, Mayor Bloomberg, and John McCain in the last twenty years alone, these venerated individuals impart their words of wisdom on the rising class of the world’s future leaders. Especially at a top institution at Penn, the memory of graduation, especially in such a historic place like Franklin Field, sticks with you forever and adds an almost necessary appreciation and connection to the campus from wherever you may go after you graduate.

It can be seen that while actively functioning as Penn’s athletic stadium and commencement location, Franklin Field unintentionally serves as a monument to not only Penn Students, West Philadelphians, and alumni, but to the American populous as well. Franklin Field functions in the collective memory of its communities of memory. These communities include the dead buried beneath the bleachers, college football fans, Eagles Fans, sports historians, movie fans, and of course Penn students and alumni. Things that now act as an integrated and almost relied-upon part of our society, like broadcasting sporting events to our homes and stadiums being able to hold tens of thousands of spectators, were tested out for the first time at Franklin Field, and ties it in as a landmark in the world of American sports history.



[1] John Maxymuk, “Eagles by the Numbers: Jersey Numbers and the Players Who Wore Them,” Goodreads, 1 September 2005,

[2] Greg Johnson, “125 Years of Franklin Field,” Penn Today, 23 April 2019,

[3] “Runa Johannessen, “Unintentional Monuments,” 23 August 2015,

[4] Adam Winer, “The Worst Sports Fans in America.” GQ, 17 March 2011, sports-fans-in-america#slide=14.

[5] Paul Wolff Mitchell, “Black Philadelphians in the Samuel George Morton Cranial Collection,” 15 February 2021,

[6] Krissy Kowalski, “125 Years of Franklin Field: The History of the Oldest College Stadium in the Country,” Daily Pennsylvanian, 20 August 2019,

[7] Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 April 1895,

[8] Greg Johnson, “125 Years of Franklin Field,” Penn Today, 23 April 2019,

[9] 2018 Penn Football Fact Book,

[10] 2018 Penn Football Fact Book.

[11] Frank Burt Freidel, Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990).

[12] “FDR at Franklin Field: A Rendezvous with Destiny,” University of Pennsylvania Almanac, 9 June 2020,

[13] Robert Patterson, “Unbreakable,” 19 January 2019, https://www.set-

[14] Matthew Frank, “Long before the Linc, the Eagles Called Franklin Field Their Home,” Daily Pennsylvanian, 15 February 2021, penn-history.