American Center in Paris Closes, Heralding the End of an Era

'S wonderful, 's marvelous ... and it's broke. The American Center closed its doors Feb. 11 after more than half a century as a fixture in the cultural life of Paris. The immediate cause: too much building for too little endowment.

Frank Gehry's stunning $41 million limestone building, which the architect once described as ''an American in Paris, a joyous dancing figure in the park,'' won critical praise when it opened 19 months ago to replace the original center. But it cost $6 million a year to run - money the center did not have. Fund-raising drives, corporate pledges, and 11th-hour appeals all failed to close the finance gap.

''It's the end of a beautiful adventure,'' says center spokesman Philippe Boulet.

But the closing also signals changes in how today's American in Paris lives and adapts to this city.

The center was launched in 1931 by the then-dean of the American Cathedral in Paris, to keep Prohibition-era American students out of Paris bars and cafes - and the pro-communist conversations deemed all too likely to take place in them.

The American community in Paris at the time numbered some 30,000. They included a talented group of expatriate artists, writers, and musicians; former GIs, many black, who stayed on after World War I. Many more were associated with business activities in the city.

This community established the densest network of American institutions in any city in the world, including an American church, chamber of commerce, university, hospital, club, as well as the American Center.

''This was a stable, national group of immigrants. Many had money, so there was never an American ghetto in Paris. They lived all over the city. Many spoke good French, made French friends, and headed up American businesses in Paris. But they did not want to lose sight of their American roots, so they re-created a structure of institutions much as they would have in Cincinnati,'' says Henry Pillsbury, who directed the American Center from 1969 to 1994.

But the days of $15-a-month rooms and 50-cent dinners wound down in the 1960s, as the postwar dollar dropped in value. Cheap charter flights made it easier for Americans to know Paris without actually sinking roots there. American businesses found they could hire multilingual, management-trained French employees. The days of the long-term American in Paris were numbered.

''In the late 1960s, Americans started coming over for three- four- and five-year stints, instead of decades at a time,'' Mr. Pillsbury says. ''They were very excited about learning about France, and less concerned about preserving ties to America. Their civic and donating sense remained connected to cities back home, such as Cincinnati and New York.''

''You don't find many Americans who need or want an American environment in Paris anymore,'' says Francis Dolan, president of the American Club in Paris. ''The Americans that are still here integrate well.''

Changes in the French tax code also changed the American community in Paris. In 1976, France began taxing non-French income of Americans living in France. Socialist President Mitterrand slapped on a retroactive wealth tax in 1982 that raised rates to 75 percent.

''The closing of the American Center reflects a changing American population in France,'' says Stephanie Simonard, an American tax lawyer in Paris. ''With the new wealth taxes, the very wealthy Americans who used to be the large major donors for American institutions in Paris left the city. When the center needed money, it didn't have this group to appeal to anymore.''

''The Americans had a beautiful building, but no base to support it,'' she adds.

Many Americans in Paris interviewed for this article criticized the board's 1986 decision to move out of the old center, located in the Montparnasse district in the heart of the Left Bank, and rebuild at such a high cost in the Paris district of Bercy. The new location is far from the center of the city. Many of its new apartments and offices are empty, and the cafes and associations that give a district ''life'' by Paris standards are absent.

''There have been delays in developing the neighborhood, but this is an area that will live some day,'' says center spokesman Mr. Boulet. ''We just didn't have the money to wait it out.''

At its best, the American Center was a place where people could go to hear free jazz concerts, learn to dance, see new films, speak English, or just talk.

''What most French people knew about the United States was Disneyland, Coca Cola, Hollywood, and a few writers. The American Center provided a different view of American culture, and people loved it,'' says Nelcya Delanoe, who wrote a history of the center from 1934 to 1994.

''The American Center was a place where you could try things out, a place for adventure, a place where good musicians could become great. You could hang out there, make connections,'' she adds. ''What we found at the American Center was a feeling of freedom.''

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