In Colonial times, the area now encompassing the Garden was tidal marshland, sometimes known as Round Marsh, on the western edge of the venerable Common. It was a flat and desolate shore on the great bay of the Charles River. Here, depending on the tide, Bostonians dug clams, shot snipe, swam, fished, and sometimes skated.
In 1821 the Mill Dam was built, extending Beacon Street from Charles Street to Brookline. Its main purpose was to provide water power for mills and factories, but the marshes became stinky mud flats. Three years later, the exasperated citizens voted to keep the area public and begin the process of filling it in. A proposal to sell the land for house lots was defeated, but the land remained empty and foul smelling.
The Garden’s First Chapter as a Private Venture
In 1837 the City Council received a petition from a private association of seventeen Bostonians to establish a botanical garden on this uninviting ground. The Council promptly leased about twenty acres to the group, incorporated as “Proprietors of the Botanic Garden in Boston,” and in 1838 the area was first designated as the Public Garden. Financial reverses forced the proprietors to return the Garden to city care in 1852, but their achievements provided inspiration for succeeding generations.
Secured and Designed as a Public Garden
Throughout the ensuing years, citizen groups successfully opposed city plans to sell the land. In the final settlement of state, city, and private claims in the Back Bay, it was agreed that the area between Charles and Arlington Streets be devoted forever to public use. In 1859 the indenture was confirmed by act of the Legislature and ratified by the citizens of Boston by a margin of sixty to one.
In the next decade the city filled the remaining area and laid out its twenty-four acres according to the landscape plan of architect George F. Meacham, winner of a public competition that paid $100. The plan contained many features notable in today’s Garden, including the serpentine pond and winding paths. Fortunately, the inclusion of a city hall, allowed for in the plan, was averted when the city selected a more central site on School Street.
The Nineteenth Century: Enhancements and Encroachments
The 1860s brought many enhancements: four granite basins with fountains; the perimeter iron fence and gates; the bridge crossing the lagoon, designed by William G. Preston; the equestrian statue of George Washington by Thomas Ball; and the Ether Monument. In 1877 the Swan Boats, designed by Robert Paget, first appeared on the lagoon. By 1880 the Garden numbered among its choice collection of plants 1500 trees, and each spring bedding plants provided ribbons of color along the principal paths.
A disruptive change came in 1897. Despite strenuous opposition, the Garden became the site of an “incline entrance” to America’s first subway. Down came many of its oldest trees. When the subway was removed to Boylston Street in 1914, a strip of the Garden forty feet wide went with it.A disruptive change came in 1897.
Yet the Garden remained a place of special charm and beauty well into the twentieth century. Seasonal displays of flowers were still set out, while shade trees planted in the previous century began to reach stately maturity. Statuary had continued to arrive: Sumner, Cass, Channing, Hale, Phillips, and the Japanese lantern by 1915, Kosciuszko and the White Memorial in the 1920s. An ample staff kept the Garden in “almost perfect condition,” in the words of Charles Francis Adams.
Decline, Battles, and Restoration in the Twentieth Century
When the Garden began its serious decline is difficult to say. As the city of Boston entered a time of drift and stagnation, the Garden and other parks suffered from neglect. Through the 1950s and ‘60s, a downward cycle reflected in urban parks across the country after World War II, the process accelerated until the once proud jewel of the city was almost beyond saving, its bridge unsafe, its fountains inoperable, its fencing gone or falling down, many trees diseased, its staff reduced, and its equipment so broken or obsolete that nearby residents offered rakes and hoses for maintenance.
It was those conditions that led to the formation in 1970 of the Friends of the Public Garden, another in the long line of civic groups that have rallied to the Garden’s defense. The fledgling group immediately faced a challenge even more daunting than the Garden’s deplorable state—the Park Plaza Urban Renewal Plan proposed in 1971. Friends joined with other civic groups to defeat the plan, which would have brought six million square feet of mixed-use skyscrapers to Boylston Street, up to 650-feet high, casting damaging shadows over the Garden and Common. It was those conditions that led to the formation in 1970 of the Friends of the Public Garden.
The pitched battle against Park Plaza brought about a unexpected and positive outcome for a young and small organization: enormous attention to the Garden and Common and to their deplorable state. Vital capital improvements were carried out in the Garden, most importantly the restoration in 1978 of the perimeter fencing and gates, which enclosed the Garden for the first time in sixty years. Improvements to the vegetation, sculpture, fountains, and other infrastructure followed. Over the years, through the partnership between the Friends and the city, the Garden was once again restored to its former glory.