Breese Stevens Field is sort of the Lambeau Field or Wrigley Field of soccer in Wisconsin," says Eric Bertun. An NCAA and high school soccer referee, he has seen his share of soccer venues. A short time after moving here from Virginia 15 years ago and settling with his family in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood, he attended a UW soccer game at Breese. His first impression? "I immediately fell in love with the stadium."
Named for a 19th-century Madison mayor, the 4.5-acre pitch was established in the mid-1920s. Its grandstand was designed by Claude and Starck, the Madison architecture firm that drew up Doty and Lincoln schools, the Majestic Theater, Lutheran Memorial Chapel and other notable buildings here. Its sandstone walls were erected in the mid-1930s with blocks quarried from Hoyt Park and labor supplied by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Depression-era Civil Works Administration.
Wedged between East Washington Avenue and Mifflin Street nine blocks east of the Capitol, the venue has hosted events ranging from football and baseball games to boxing matches, midget-car races, circuses and concerts. For the last 25 years, it has served foremost as a soccer stadium. The state high school soccer tournament was held at Breese until five years ago, when deferred maintenance issues and the facility's age led WIAA officials to relocate the event to Milwaukee. Bertun, 52, has been among those leading the drive to restore Breese Stevens Field and lure the tournament back.
"I've refereed many games here, including four state championship high school games, finals," he says. "Back in the day when the WIAA state tournament was held at Breese, players from all around the state would just love the opportunity to come and play here."
He chaired the Breese Stevens Neighborhood Planning Committee that was convened five years ago to hold public listening sessions and chart the stadium's future. The final report recommended restoration.
Funding delays for the project came to an end last year, when the city's capital budget included $1.125 million for phase one of the restoration. This first phase addressed the "nonglamorous nuts-and-bolts renovations," Bertun says, such as bringing the facility up to contemporary electrical and plumbing codes and into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Repairs were made to its concrete decking and improvements to its field and bleacher drainage.
"That's really the foundation for creating a long-term future for the stadium," Bertun says. "At first glance, driving by, there's not a lot that is evident. But if one goes into the bowels of Breese Stevens, underneath the grandstand, it's much cleaner."
Local officials marked the completion of phase one with a dedication ceremony late last month. Phase two, scheduled to begin next March with a $600,000 budget, will include improvements to the locker rooms, tuck-pointing of the walls, installation of a public-address system and construction of a new press box. The old press box "was sort of an accident waiting to happen," Bertun notes, "with kind of a ship's ladder entrance to it, kind of swaying in the wind - although it was a great place to watch soccer."
A native of Wilmington, Del., Bertun is president of Madison FC soccer club, former president of the Madison East Soccer Club and now an assistant varsity coach at East High School. He has coached all four of his children in games at Breese. A daughter and son now attend East. Another daughter is at O'Keeffe Middle School, and his youngest daughter is at Marquette Elementary.
The Madison East boys' soccer team returned to Breese Stevens Field last week after a one-year absence, defeating Stoughton 1-0. Along with Edgewood College, East soccer is the venue's primary tenant. But adult and club teams and leagues push the number of games played at the stadium to about 100 per year. Bertun hopes the renovations will bring Breese into even greater use by the community.
Toward this ambition, he notes, there has been talk of establishing a Friends of Breese group and a proposal to convert the field from natural to artificial turf at some point down the road. He is ambivalent about the latter possibility.
"The installation of an artificial surface at Breese, such as Fieldturf, would be in my mind a little bittersweet," he says, "because the natural grass is superb. But maintaining a surface like that requires restricted access, and it's a very labor-intensive, costly endeavor."
Budget constraints mean some kind of public-private fund-raising campaign might be prerequisite to the installation of an artificial surface. But the long-term payoff, he says, would be lower maintenance costs and greater public access.
"Losing beautiful turf is never a great thing," he allows, "but in the grand scheme of things, it increases the potential use for soccer and other recreational activities."