Boston’s Public Garden is the groomed and formal younger cousin to the more casual and boisterous Boston Common. The first public botanical garden in America, its form, plantings, and statuary evoke its Victorian heritage. This green and flowering oasis in the heart of a great metropolis has become a Boston icon. No visit would be complete without a stroll in the Garden and a voyage on one of its Swan Boats.
The Garden is truly a people’s park and a public pride. It is not only accessible to everyone, but citizens have always played an extraordinary role in protecting and preserving it. Observing the Garden on a peaceful summer’s day with the trees in leaf, the flower beds bright with color, and the Swan Boats tracing their tranquil course around the serpentine pond, you would never think of it as a civic battleground. In fact, it has been an ongoing struggle to keep these twenty-four acres of reclaimed land as a place of quiet beauty for the enjoyment of all.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
The public art in the Garden adds immeasurably to its unique charm. The oldest monument is the 1868 granite and marble Ether Fountain, the gift of Boston resident Thomas Lee. It honors the discovery of the anesthetic qualities of ether, first used in 1846 at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Designed by Henry Van Brunt, the figures and bas reliefs are the work of John Quincy Adams Ward, executed by a local stonecutter known as “a famous fellow with the chisel.” The Angel of Mercy is shown in one panel of the bas relief, and the granite figures at the top portray the parable of the Good Samaritan. The brick-lined pool surrounding the monument was waterless for most of its history, until the Friends led a campaign to restore both the monument and fountain.
The magnificent equestrian statue of George Washington was the second monument to arrive in the Garden. Thomas Ball, a little-known sculptor from Charlestown, received the commission in 1857 after the first choice died. Ball worked single-handedly on the plaster cast for four years, mixing the plaster a bucket at a time. His primary model for the horse was a local charger named Black Prince. The piece could not be cast until after the Civil War because bronze was needed for the war effort.
On July 3, 1869, the statue was unveiled in a grand ceremony with a thirteen-gun salute. It was a moment of intense local pride. A poor Charlestown boy had sculpted the statue, Boston masons had raised the granite base, and a Massachusetts foundry had successfully cast the giant piece.
Four bronze statues on granite pedestals facing Boylston Street have stood as a group for more than eighty years. The men honored at either end, Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips, were both Boston-bred statesman and champions of the cause of anti-slavery. Sumner’s statue (1878) was sculpted by Thomas Ball; Phillips (1915), by Daniel Chester French. The two central statues are of Thomas Cass (1899, Richard E. Brooks) and Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1927, Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson). Both were born abroad, and each achieved distinction through military service, Cass as Union colonel in the Civil War, and Polish general Kosciuszko as a trusted aide to Washington in the War for Independence.
Two Boston clergymen are honored with bronze portrait statues on opposite sides of the Garden. A leader in establishing Unitarianism, WilliamEllery Channing (1903, Herbert Adams) stands in a marble and granite niche at the Boylston-Arlington corner, facing the Arlington Street Church. Author, historian, and Unitarian clergyman Edward Everett Hale, best remembered for his story “The Man Without a Country,” has a more modest statue (1913, Bela Pratt) near the central Charles Street Gate.
The large iron Japanese lantern on the western shore of the lagoon was a gift to the city in 1904 from a well-known Japanese antique dealer. In 1993 the lantern was restored and placed, Japanese style, on a natural stone base, a huge granite boulder from a quarry in Rockport, Massachusetts.
Near the Beacon-Arlington corner stands the beautiful angel monument and fountain honoring George Robert White, one of Boston’s greatest benefactors. When he died in 1922, his will included a charitable trust for public art, with $50,000 set aside for his own memorial. Erected in 1924, the monument is the last of the many collaborations by the sculptor Daniel Chester French and architect Henry Bacon. Symbolizing White’s largesse are the two cornucopias that feed the cobbled granite pool and the graceful bronze angel “casting bread upon the waters.”
The four small basin fountains, two near the George Washington statue, and second pair on the opposite side of the lagoon all date from the twentieth century. Each was sculpted by a woman, and each subject is associated with childhood. Boy and Bird by Bashka Paeff, and Small Child by Mary E. Moore flank the Washington statue. Near the Tool House, Triton Babies is the work of Anna Coleman Ladd, and across the main path, Bagheera was created by Lilian Swann Saarinen.
The immensely popular Duckling Sculpture at the corner of Beacon and Charles was presented to the city in October 1987 by the Friends of the Public Garden. Based on Robert McCloskey’s 1941 bestseller Make Way for Ducklings, the bronze figures by sculptor Nancy Schön represent Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings as they head toward their final destination, the island in the Garden’s lagoon.
The newest and most somber piece of public art is the 9/11 Memorial, a Garden of Remembrance for the Massachusetts victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Designed by landscape architect Victor Walker and dedicated in 2004, this secluded sitting area with an inscribed parapet is a perfect spot for quiet contemplation.