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Lawrence Harmon

Saving Fenway

One small group fought for the park when the rest of the city wanted it gone

CHRISTOPHER SERRA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

EVERYONE IS gushing over the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. But it wasn’t long ago that anyone with clout in this town wanted to pulverize the “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark’’ and dance a jig on the rubble. It was mainly a small group of preservationists and neighborhood activists under the banner Save Fenway Park who challenged the official line that the nation’s oldest major league ballpark was beyond redemption.

By the late 1990s, Red Sox CEO John Harrington had sold the city on the bogus idea that Red Sox Nation would collapse unless the team built a new 44,000 seat ballpark adjacent to Fenway Park. Sure - it would require some tricky financing and land takings. Mayor Menino, John Hancock chief executive David D’Alessandro, advertising executive Jack Connors, and other city leaders stepped in to cut a deal with the Legislature. In July, 2000 - with an ill-advised push from the Globe editorial page - lawmakers passed a bill smoothing the way for the acquisition of a new stadium site for the Red Sox.

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Thankfully, it never happened.

Fast forward to Thursday at the Cask ’n Flagon, across the street from the ballpark, where eight members of Save Fenway Park’s board of directors were attending their - ahem - annual meeting, which always coincides with Opening Day. Over beers, they recalled the skewerings by sports columnists and the catcalls they endured when handing out flyers on game days.

“But we knew we were right,’’ said John Valianti, whose skill as a professional sign maker came in just as handy as the legal and financial expertise of other members of the group.

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Boston activists are known for matching wits with the best land-use attorneys and public relations types in town. But the battery of Save Fenway Park and its chief ally in the neighborhood - Fenway Community Development Corporation - rank among the best. The neighborhood activists understood the political and development process. And the preservationists understood the power of Fenway Park as a cultural landmark.

Harrington insisted that it was impossible to preserve the park, improve the fan experience, and increase revenue simultaneously. Save Fenway Park demanded proof. And when none was forthcoming, the group produced its own sophisticated reports showing that the ballpark was not economically obsolete.

Still, few in Boston would listen. In August, 2000, the group invited prominent architects and urban designers from out of town for brain-storming sessions on alternatives to demolition. Carl Nagy-Koechlin, former head of the Fenway Community Development Corporation, recalled that none of the local colleges or architectural associations would host the sessions for fear of alienating the city’s political leaders. Finally, the library school at Simmons College stepped up with meeting space on the urging of alumna Erika Tarlin, who still maintains the archives of Save Fenway Park in her home.

Fans today might recognize some of the improvements envisioned during those early skull sessions: creating seats above the Green Monster in left field; turning Yawkey Way into a fan concourse on game days; building new restrooms; and adding roof-box seats in right field.

On April 20, many will come to sing the praises of Fenway Park at its centennial celebration. Devotees will sprinkle themselves with Fenway dust from the cleats of Jimmie Foxx, Bobby Doerr, Ted Williams, and Carl Yastrzemski. But just 12 years ago, many of the same fans were eager to see Fenway Park demolished and dumped into the waste stream.

“Very simply, it was a lack of imagination and foresight,’’ said attorney Dan Wilson, who headed Save Fenway Park back in the days when things seemed darkest.

Wilson grew up as a Mets fan in New Jersey. In 2001, another group of outsiders headed by John Henry would come to town and question Harrington’s assumptions about the obsolescence of Fenway Park. Henry and the new owners considered the pitches from Save Fenway Park along with the advice of their own architectural consultant, who immediately recognized the historic and economic value of the ballpark as “the real thing.’’

Suddenly, no one was giving the bum’s rush to Wilson and his teammates from Save Fenway Park. Instead, the new ownership gave the group annual tours of the ballpark to see how its visions could be brought to life.

Baseball fans get the stadiums they deserve. Considering how few rose to defend Fenway Park, they are getting a lot better than they deserve.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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