Raising the roof at Wrigley Field The views from the famed rooftops around America's best ballpark are no longer free. What's more, they're now licensed and inspected.

August 16, 1998|By Steve Rhodes | Steve Rhodes,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHICAGO - On a sunny summer day at Wrigley Field, time, at least baseball time, can seem to stand still.

In this most perfect ballpark in America (sorry, Camden Yards, you're only the perfect imitation), some things never change. There is the splendid grass, the ivy-covered outfield walls, the hand-operated scoreboard, the bleacher bums who toss every enemy home run back onto the field in righteous indignation. And, of course, there are the Wrigley rooftops.

"Look at the rooftops!" Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray used to bellow as TV cameras panned the crowded tops of the 20 or so apartment buildings on Waveland and Sheffield avenues across the street from Wrigley. Waving back were the lucky fans in lawn chairs who, by the happy accident of living in these buildings, had a prime seat for every home game.

But even at vintage-1914 Wrigley, things change. After 75 years of day-only games, night lighting finally arrived in 1988. This year, Caray is gone, off to that big ballpark in the sky. And then there are the rooftops.

They're still packed with people, but rarely are they the buildings' tenants anymore. Today most Wrigley roofs are not only commercial spaces, sold in group packages to tour groups and corporate outings, they're also government-regulated space.

This season, the city of Chicago has begun licensing the rooftops, and using its food and building inspectors to enforce the new arrangement. It's the latest chapter in the evolution of the rooftops from quaint idiosyncrasy to big-money real estate.

The transition began in earnest in the 1980s, when the traditionally underachieving Cubs fielded two division-winning teams at the same time as the surrounding Wrigleyville neighborhood began gentrifying. With the new base of affluent fans flooding the neighborhood, landlords realized there was gold on them thar rooftops. Baseball "clubs" and "alternative skybox" operators cropped up, buying and selling the Wrigley rooftop buildings at a premium.

Things didn't exactly get off to a fast start. In 1990, an enterprising developer bought a graystone on Sheffield Avenue, hoping to sell its units for $250,000 each - about the cost of construction for the original Wrigley Field. He called them "skybox alternatives," and included rooftop rights for personal or commercial use in the price. Only two years later, though, the company was trying to unload the unsold units.

But in the years since, the rooftops have become a prestigious locale. Today, with the Cubs chasing a playoff spot and outfielder Sammy Sosa chasing a home run record, a typical rooftop seating 60 people rents for around $3,000 a game, or about $50 a person (including beer and burgers). By comparison, the best of Wrigley's 63 private boxes, which seats 55, goes for $6,500 a game.

The rooftops usually sell out for the season shortly after the Cubs' schedule is announced in the winter. And spring through fall, hundreds of fans climb back stairways to the roofs for every game.

Thus the new regulations, which require rooftop operators to buy a "special club license" for $500 annually and meet inspection requirements for such things as exits, railings, roof strength and fire protection. Thirteen buildings on Waveland (with views above left field) and Sheffield (which overlooks right) have been licensed so far.

City officials bristle at the notion that they're trying to spoil the party - or even cash in themselves.

"When I say 'regulated,' I mean that lightly," says Charles Edwards, spokesman for the city's revenue department. "Our concern is mainly safety. The foundations of some of those buildings are really weak. And all we need is for someone to fall over. The citizens would be outraged, asking why we didn't regulate it."

In fact, the only significant complaints have come from rooftop building owners and operators, who have had to spend some serious cash to bring Wrigley's former cheap seats into compliance.

"It wasn't a surprise," says Beth Murphy, a rooftop operator who with her husband, Jim, also runs the popular Murphys Bleachers tavern on the same block. "They'd been talking about it for years."

But, she adds, "We've had to spend a lot of money fixing it up," including installing a fire-retardant floor.

Closing the rooftops down, a notion that's been floated by both city and Cubs officials at various times, would surely bring bigger objections. In 1989, word spread that the Tribune Co., owner of the Cubs, wanted to erect a barrier that would block the rooftops' views. This incensed the late Caray, who took credit for killing the idea.

"What the hell kind of thinking was that?" a mystified Caray is quoted as saying to fellow announcer Jack Brickhouse in a 1996 book by Janice Petterchak. "That's one of the mystiques of Wrigley Field. You look out and you see them on the rooftops, drinking, eating some barbecue, having fun ...

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