As quickly as the Back Bay developed in the 1870s, another problem festered. A mill company’s dam’s basin became an increasingly noxious open sewer, particularly at low tide. Even then, pollution was a problem, and Bostonians demanded a solution. Enter Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-creator of New York’s Central Park and father of American landscape architecture. He proposed to flush out the stagnant waterway and add naturalistic plantings to emulate the original tide marsh ecology of the Fenway area.
Today we find in the Fens different charms from the ones Olmsted created. The 1910 damming of the Charles River changed the water here from brackish to fresh, rendering his plantings unsupportable. Only two of the original “strong but unobtrusive” bridges, the parks general boundaries and some early trees remain of Olmsted’s design.
The Fens continues to be much loved and utilized. Community gardens; the elegant Kellecher Rose Garden; World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorial; busy ball fields; and the unusual range of bird species are major attractions. The design of the Fens today mostly reflects the work of landscape architect Arthur Shurtleff. He added the Rose Garden, turned the focus to the Museum of Fine Arts on the east side of the park, and yielded the more formal landscape style popular in the 1920s and 1930s.
Our walking tour will explore the park and surrounding neighborhood, roughly east to Huntington Avenue and Northeastern University, north to I-90 and west to Fenway Park...
Back Bay Fens at Westland Road
Frederick Law Olmsted pictured the entrance to the Back Bay Fens as a sweeping natural gateway but it did not work out that way when the entrance was shifted to Westland Road in 1905. Guy Lowell, who designed the Museum of Fine Arts, contributed the Westland Gate to the park. The fountain was a gift from Ellen Cheney Johnson, an influential American prison reformer, who gave it as a remembrance to her husband Jesse. Each of the square pillars flanking the street is guarded by a pride of bronze lions near its base. The Beaux Arts-style Boston Fire Department alarm center dates to 1927.
WALK SOUTH ON THE FENWAY.
Students House/Kerr Hall
96 the Fenway
Today many more women than men attend college but a hundred years ago women students were such a novelty that there were few Boston colleges that provided womens’ residence halls. This facility was built in 1914 as dorm rooms for 85 women at the New England Conservatory of Music, constructed by the Emmanuel Church in the Back Bay that started Students House in 1902. Architects Walter Harrington Kilham and James Cleveland Hopkins, who became famous for early 20th century reform housing projects, provided the Georgian Revival design. Part of Northeastern University since 1972, Kerr Hall now serves as a residence hall and faculty club.
Forsyth Dental Infirmary
140 The Fenway
Brothers Thomas Alexander Forsyth and John Hamilton Forsyth started the Forsyth Dental Infirmary for Children in 1914 to provide free care to children. It would become a model for preventative care centers for disadvantaged children around the world. The Neoclassical building was the work of Boston architect Edward T. P. Graham, who made his reputation designing Catholic churches; sculptor Roger N. Burnham created the bronze relief doors. The Forsyth Institute stayed here for a century before moving to Cambridge in 2010.
Stone Field Houses
Back Bay Fens
These fieldstone buildings were added to the park date to 1928.
Museum of Fine Arts
465 Huntington Avenue
This is the rear of one of the world’s finest museums,The Museum of Fine Arts (the tour will reach the front after one more stop). Founded in 1870 and opened in 1876 with a large portion of its collection taken from the Boston Athenaeum Art Gallery, it has grown one of the largest museums in the United States attracting over one million visitors a year. It contains over 450,000 works of art. This wing opened in 1915 and houses painting galleries.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
280 The Fenway
A plain exterior to this 1902 mansion belies the Venetian treasures inside. Architect Willard Thomas Sears, who had been designing important Boston buildings since 1861, drew up plans for Fenway Court in the image of a 15th century Venetian palace to hold the art of Isabella Stewart Gardner who first welcomed visitors to her museum on New Year’s Day, 1903. On that evening guests listened to the music of Bach, Mozart, and Schumann, sipped champagne and noshed on doughnuts while viewing one of the nation’s finest collections of art. The Gardner Museum has remained essentially unchanged since its founder’s death in 1924.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON THE FENWAY TO MUSEUM ROAD AND TURN RIGHT. TURN LEFT ON HUNTINGTON AVENUE.
Museum of Fine Arts
465 Huntington Avenue
America’s fifth most-visited museum got underway in 1876 on Copley Square. Guy Lowell, whose architectural talents included landscapes as well as monumental classical buildings like this one, designed the current museum building that was raised in stages as money became available. The main museum, with a 500-foot Ionic facade and a grand rotunda, opened along Boston’s “Avenue of the Arts” in 1909. Addition wings, including the West Wing by modern architectural maestro I.M. Pei, have opened in the century since.
Site of first World Series game
360 Huntington Avenue
On October 1, 1903, The Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates played the first World Series game on this site at the Huntington Avenue Grounds. Pittsburgh won, 7-3 before more than 16,000 fans, but Boston eventually won the series, 5 games to 3, with the final victory coming at the Grounds on October 13. The playing field was built on a former circus lot and was fairly large by modern standards-530 feet to center field, later expanded to 635 feet in 1908. It had many quirks not seen in modern baseball stadiums, including patches of sand in the outfield where grass would not grow, and a tool shed in deep center field that was actually in play. The Huntington Avenue Grounds were demolished in 1912 and the Boston American League club moved to Fenway Park. Now owned by Northeastern University, a statue of Cy Young, who pitched the first perfect game in modern baseball history in the Huntington Avenue Grounds, was erected on the spot of the original home plate in 1993.
New England Conservatory of Music
290 Huntington Avenue
The oldest independent school of music in the United States, the New England Conservatory was founded in 1867 by Eben Tourjee, who had been working towards the goal for 14 years. the first classes were held in rented rooms above the Music Hall on Tremont Street. Money for the main performance hall came from the family of Eben Dyer Jordan, whose dry goods emporium Jordan Marsh operated in town for more than 150 years. Opened in 1903, Jordan Hall was modeled by architect Edmund Wheelwright after the palaces of the Italian Renaissance, where courtyards often served as performance spaces. Today the Conservatory is the only music school in the United States to be recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
Boston University Theater
264 Huntington Avenue
This Georgian Revival playhouse was constructed in 1923 as America’s first tax-exempt theater. J. Williams Beal & Sons provided the design, the sons carrying on for their recently deceased father. Opening night was November 10‚ 1925 with a production of Irish playwright and poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals. The five-act comedy of errors was Sheridan’s first play, performed for the first time 150 years earlier.
southwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Huntington Avenue
When the celebrated New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White won the commission for Symphony Hall in 1898 they retained Wallace Clement Sabine, an assistant professor of physics at Harvard as an acoustical consultant. Symphony Hall thus became the first stage designed in accordance with scientifically derived acoustical principles. Relatively long, high and narrow, the Hall was modeled on the second Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig, Germany, which was later destroyed in World War II. Designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1999, Symphony Hall, home to the fabled Boston Pops, remains, acoustically, among the top three concert halls in the world and is considered the finest in the United States.
TURN LEFT ON MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE.
300 Massachusetts Avenue
The Massachusetts Horticultural Society, founded in 1829, is the oldest, formally organized plant-based institution in the United States. It has built and occupied a series of halls, including its first on School Street (1845), the second on Tremont Street (1864), this third hall (1901), and its current home at the Elm Bank Horticulture Center, located on the town lines of Wellesley and Dover (2001). Edmund M. Wheelwright, one of the founders of the Harvard Lampoon who went on to become one of New England’s most accomplished Victorian architects, tapped the English Renaissance for Horticultural Hall and decorated the facade with oversized garlands and wreaths set among the Ionic-capped brick pilasters.
Christian Science Plaza
210 Massachusetts Avenue
The first issue of the Christian Science Monitor was printed on November 25, 1908. Mary Baker Eddy, the 86-year old founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, had decided to start a newspaper based on a fair and balanced reporting of the news. After one hundred years in Christian Science Plaza the Monitor suspended daily print operations to carry on as a web-based publication. The 14-acre site also contains the Original Mother Church that was built in 1894. The Romanesque Revival building uses granite hauled down from Eddy’s home state of New Hampshire. Inside, the organ is one of the largest in the world with eight divisions a total of 13,290 pipes; it is the handiwork of local firm Aeolian-Skinner Company.
TURN LEFT ON MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE OPPOSITE CLEARWAY STREET AND WALK THROUGH THE PASSAGEWAY TO EDGERLY ROAD AND PICK UP NORWAY STREET.
New Riding Club
52 Hemenway Street, southeast corner of Norway Street
This Tudor Revival Building from Willard Thomas Sears in 1891 was spawned by the bridle paths in the Back Bay Fens. The horses have disappeared from the park but the stylish stables, fashioned with brick, stucco and wood remain.The Badminton and Tennis Club moved here in 1934 and put up tennis courts in the riding rink and fifty years later the last stables were converted into apartments.
TURN RIGHT ON HEMENWAY STREET. TURN LEFT ON BOYLSTON STREET.
St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine
1101 Boylston Street
The history of St. Clement begins on December 8, 1935 with the dedication of this former Universalist Church. The Second Universalist Society of Boston, with roots back to 1817, bought the property in 1922 and constructed this Gothic Revival church on plans by architect Arthur F. Gray.
Berklee College of Music
1140 Boylston Street
Lawrence Berk, an engineer trained at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and veteran arranger with the CBS and NBC radio orchestras, founded the Berklee College of Music in 1945 on the revolutionary principle that the best way to prepare students for careers in music is through the study and practice of contemporary music. Duke Ellington was awarded the college’s first honorary doctorate in 1971. Prominent alumni include Quincy Jones, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, Patty Larkin, Aimee Mann, John Mayer and Alf Clausen (Simpsons theme). The school moved into its current administration building in the 1960s, an exuberant design by prominent Boston architect Arthur Bowditch in 1901. In 1903 it opened its doors as the Carlton Hotel, said to be a replica of the fashionable Carlton Hotel in London, run by the Swiss hotelier César Ritz.
Massachusetts Historical Society
1154 Boylston Street
America’s oldest historical society was founded on January 24, 1791, by Reverend Jeremy Belknap to collect, preserve, and document items of American history. He and the nine other founding members donated family papers, books, and artifacts to the Society to form its initial collection. The organization’s current home is a dignified Georgian Revival double bowfront of brick and stone designed by Edmund March Wheelwright in 1899.
TURN RIGHT ON CHARLESGATE STREET TO IPSWICH STREET.
30 Ipswich Street
Fenway Studios is one of a few buildings in the United States designed from artists’ specifcations that is still in use by artists today and is honored as a National Historic Landmark. The studios were born of necessity after a fire in 1904 swept through Harcourt Studios that cost many artists their studios. Architects J. Harleston Parker and Douglas H. Thomas created Fenway Studios with abundant north light for all 46 studios, crafted with clinker brick in the Arts and Crafts style.
WALK WEST ON IPSWICH STREET.
Yawkey Way and Van Ness Street
Fenway Park opened in 1912, then the largest ballpark in the major leagues. As it celebrates its centennial only Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field remain from America’s “Golden Age” of baseball parks. Now the smallest of major league parks, Fenway’s intimate setting and proximity of seats to the playing field are cherished by fans who have packed the park for almost 800 consecutive sell-outs, the longest such streak in American sports history. Among the great Red Sox who played here are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Carl Yastrzemski. Fenway Park has hosted seven Red Sox World Series, including World Championships in 1912, 1918 2004 and 2007. It was also the host site for the “Miracle” 1914 Boston Braves’ World Series victory.
FROM THE INTERSECTION OF YAWKEY WAY AND VAN NESS STREET, WALK DOWN VAN NESS ALONG THE BALLPARK. TURN RIGHT ON IPSWICH STREET. TURN LEFT ON BOYLSTON STREET AND RETURN TO BACK BAY FENS.
Fenway Victory Gardens
Back Bay Fens
The Fenway Victory Gardens, officially the Richard D. Parker Memorial Victory Gardens, represent the nation’s last remaining of the original victory gardens created nationwide during World War II. At that time, demands for food exports to the nation’s armed forces in Europe and the Pacific caused rationing and shortages for those back home in the States. In response, President Roosevelt called for Americans to grow more vegetables. The City of Boston established 49 areas (including the Boston Common and the Public Gardens) as “victory gardens” for citizens to grow vegetables and herbs. The gardens carry the name of Richard D. Parker, a member of the original garden organizing committee, who gardened here until his death in 1975.
WALK SOUTH THROUGH THE PARK OR ALONG PARK DRIVE TO AGGASIZ ROAD. TURN LEFT AND RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE FENWAY AND WESTLAND AVENUE.