Fenway Park: What Really Needs Preserving?

The area surrounding Fenway Park, circa 1912.

Even as we struggle to come to terms with the Red Sox epic collapse, I still find myself enjoying the playoffs, and now the World Series, enormously. The two finalists: Texas and St. Louis are good, balanced teams, and they each play the game with what announcers often call “a real respect for tradition.”

And they try to respect that tradition in the design of their ballparks, too. Some, like the home of the Texas Rangers, are explicitly historical in architectural character and appeal directly to the early 20th century roots of Major League Baseball. Others, like the new home of the Milwaukee Brewers, attempt to stitch together modern functionality — like retractable roofs — with that deeply rooted attraction to the brick architecture of early stadiums.

But while Boston doesn’t have anything close to a championship team this year, we do have the real deal when it comes to ballparks. Fenway Park is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2012, and we are lucky that it didn’t get torn down back in the late 1990s before the new ownership took over. It is a wonderful, idiosyncratic place, whose uniqueness is surely worth preserving. But as we think about how lucky we are to have such a park for our own “Olde Town Team,” we should remember exactly what makes this park unique and why we should focus our preservation efforts where they matter most. Fenway Park is unique, not because of any particular architectural detail, but because the park was jammed into an irregular part of the city from the start. We have already changed a great deal about Fenway Park and all that surrounds it. Inside the park has seen new seating, luxury boxes, and dining, while outside the park, the Fenway/ Kenmore area has seen new residential buildings, restaurants, and research facilities. And there is more to come.

Many people imagine that the park itself is the jewel, and everyone around the league loves it. Sure, by modern standards, the seats are a bit small, and the legroom is like that of a legacy airline in coach, but an afternoon (or evening) at Fenway is like nothing else. Perhaps that indescribable experience is why it’s routinely called one of the best ballparks in the country.

But when you look at these new imposter ballparks, you notice right away that they get some of the early 20th century brickwork right (the arches and grandstands are pretty easy to simulate, after all). But those parks still don’t feel anything like Fenway. And that, of course, is because they are not located in the city. They are not cheek-by-jowl with other buildings. These other parks don’t sit on regular streets with other kinds of buildings adjacent to them. No, instead they sit at the crossroads of interstates, surrounded by a sea of surface parking lots (OK, Detroit’s new park is in the city, but it is in a pretty blown-apart city!)

These newer parks — and most baseball parks across the country — sit as free-standing objects in the landscape. But not Fenway Park, which is not only located right in the heart of a neighborhood, but it is actually shaped by the streets themselves. Far from an idealized palace, it is a large thing wedged into a small place. The Green Monster is not a stylistic addition, added for the sake of contrived character. It is the only way that a plausible left field could be made to fit on a parcel so limited by the presence of Lansdowne Street. By building a 37-foot wall in a very shallow left field, the park can still play like a major league park as it requires a very high ball to clear the short fence.

Fenway Park is the result of the development in the city of Boston. Any effort to maintain its authenticity requires that the park continue to be hemmed in by the adjacent development, not protected from it. So, let’s remind the Red Sox ownership and the outstanding preservationists who work alongside them to protect the park: the best way to keep Fenway Park real is to allow the city to continue to develop around it. It’s not the 1912 brickwork, and period lighting fixtures that make Fenway what it is, but the dense, irrepressible, city crushing in on it. That’s what these other parks can never hope to simulate out by the interstate. And that’s what we need to preserve. So, here’s to more buildings near Fenway Park — it’s the only way to preserve it.