Flickr/werkunz

The historic ballpark fought off demolition and ended up better off for it.

When the Boston Red Sox trot out over the lush green grass and fine-combed infield dirt to face the Tampa Bay Rays in the season home opener today, they will be doing so in a stadium famously celebrating its 100th birthday. But in the 1990s, Boston almost tore the place down. The survival and transformation of the ballpark is a telling story of economic development and historic preservation.

Fenway Park was built in 1912, after then-owner John L. Taylor, readying the team for sale, scouted out a new location to replace the Huntington Avenue Grounds where Northeastern University is located today. The choice was The Fens, adjacent to Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace by Kenmore Square at the foot of Back Bay. It was an ambitious and state-of-the-art development for its day, though it was a bit of a tight fit – requiring the infamous shortened left field and taller wall now known as the Green Monster.

Over the years, Major League clubs built facilities on the outskirts and in the suburbs, surrounded by parking lots. But Fenway Park’s cozy urban location became a model for a downtown ballpark, accessible on foot and by transit, as teams rediscovered the value of returning to the city, beginning arguably with Camden Yards in Baltimore. Ballparks went to the suburbs and then came back to town – and Fenway Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago stayed the course throughout. They simply bypassed the fad, and endured right where they started.

In the 1990s, however, Boston was sorely tempted. I was the City Hall bureau chief for The Boston Globe in those years, when the campaign started to demolish Fenway Park and build a new facility. The ownership said it couldn’t possibly survive without more seats – about 55,000 for most new ballparks, versus a little over 33,000 at the time in The Fens. We were told the infrastructure of the place was on the brink of collapsing.

Among the leading proposals for redevelopment was a plan to rebuild Fenway Park brick by brick, with a modern-day replica next door – requiring a massive redevelopment with eminent domain for the businesses all along Brookline Avenue and Boylston Street. A part of Fenway Park would be preserved, right down to the turf, as a museum and Red Sox Hall of Fame.

Then feverish talk of a new ballpark on the emerging South Boston Watrerfront began, on the land close to downtown Boston owned by Frank McCourt, who later became owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Boston looked to San Francisco and imagined home runs being struck out of the park toward Fort Point Channel. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft wanted to build a new football stadium a few blocks east. It all began to be quite tantalizing. This could be a mecca for a town that loved sports, a New Boston on reclaimed industrial and maritime land, with condos and SoHo-style lofts and restaurants and bars.

It’s easy to see how a city can get swept up in this kind of vision, contemplating whether to tear an old building down. Cities evolve and change; they can’t be frozen in amber. But Mayor Thomas M. Menino was never fully convinced. I remember walking with him on the left field grass before one Opening Day in the late 1990s, as he spread his arms wide and said, “Why would we ever get rid of this?” The Save Fenway Park bumper stickers – yellow letters on the understated green of the ballpark – began appearing. The Citgo sign in Kenmore Square was landmarked. New ownership concluded that the park could be renovated and expanded – and the steel pillars never did disintegrate.

Today Fenway Park has the Monster Seats and hand-crafted ales and delicious clam chowder, expanded and more comfortable seating all around, the ubiquitous luxury boxes uniquely close to the action. Watching a game at Fenway Park is an experience unlike any other.

One downside, as my Boston Globe colleague Bob Hohler points out, is that it is an experience increasingly out of reach for middle-class families. The Red Sox lead the league in actual average home ticket prices at $151.10, followed by the Cubs ($108.70), the Phillies ($100.71), the Yankees ($90.21) and the Nationals ($88.24). It’s hard to say how much the cost of all the renovations and improvements at a 100-year-old facility factors into this – the major cost being the payroll for the players – and harder still to imagine that a brand new ballpark wouldn’t trigger this same kind of impact on fans. But historic preservation is always costly.

Looking back, Bostonians might be comforted that they didn’t listen to the economic development hype, in the same way New York refused to go along with the proposed modernist redevelopment of Grand Central Terminal, which was beaten back beginning in 1975 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Ed Koch and many others. Pennsylvania Station had no such luck. And Tiger Stadium in Detroit, perhaps lacking the charm of Fenway, bowed out to make way for a new ballpark that has seen huge success.

What is the history worth saving, and when should the metropolis embrace a new vision? Cities surely must make the calculation on a case-by-case basis. The hopeful fans streaming into Kenmore Square today seems to suggest one right choice.

Top image courtesy Flickr user werkunz.

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