Wide, straight, and paved with crushed stone, this “noble central avenue” was an immediate draw for promenades, carriage races, and parades, as well as a route to the open country. It served as a model for boulevards across America. Linking the parklands of the Public Garden with those of the Fens, the Mall would come to form a precious link in Boston’s “Emerald Necklace.”
The street was the site of the grandest new mansions, setting a tone of elegance for the entire district. The houses had to be set back twenty feet from the property line, giving extra breadth to the two-hundred-foot-wide boulevard with its two roadways and central Mall. The variety of building styles was unified by the trees on the Mall; the architecture and planting reinforce each other in a unique and powerful way. The green corridor of the Mall enhances and complements some of the country’s finest examples of nineteenth-century residential architecture.
Contrary to popular belief, Frederick Law Olmsted had nothing to do with the Mall’s original design. In 1880, however, he and Charles Sprague Sargent, his partner in creating the Arnold Arboretum, were asked for their advice on the tree planting patterns. They proposed removing the existing four rows of American and European elms and replacing them with two single rows of European elms. The City Council rejected the proposal, however, fearing a public outcry.
Olmsted did design Commonwealth Avenue west of Massachusetts Avenue, making a curving transition between the formal boulevard and the informal park at the western end. The work was completed in 1885, but the area later had to be redesigned.