Boston’s Charles River Esplanade

Charles River Esplanade c. 1910

Charles River Esplanade, c. 1910. Courtesy Department of Conservation & Recreation Archives.

Boston, Massachusetts

In June 1931, the Boston-based landscape architect Arthur A. Shurcliff (1870–1957) finished the first of several plans to enhance the linear riverfront park along the Charles River Basin. As a member of a commission assigned to investigate how the bland parkland could be improved for recreation, Shurcliff had pondered the design for three years, and he had submitted other design ideas as early as 1911. The focal point of the 1931 plan was a ribbon of developed greenspace on the river’s Boston shore, which came to be known as the Boston Esplanade. The parkland abutted the city’s residential West End, Beacon Hill, and Back Bay neighborhoods. Anchored in Beaux-Arts geometry, Shurcliff’s layout provided an elegant clarity that extended the inland grid of residential streets—the chief exception to Boston’s meandering byways—into the park and across the river via three existing bridges that define three distinct, though clearly related, segments of the park. In broad strokes, the plan doubled the existing acres of parkland, removed a long-standing seawall to open up shoreline access for recreational boating, added a lagoon, and defined a network of walking paths and seating areas. Clustered shrubs and trees (lindens, pin oaks, red oaks, Norway maples, buttonwoods, and white willows) emphasized intersections and gathering spots.

Shurcliff revised the plan several times during the next few years, and the 1934 version remains the basis for the park that exists today. On that plan a grove of trees next to a seating oval in the Back Bay segment of the Esplanade encloses a memorial to his mentor, landscape architect Charles Eliot (1859–1897). “Shurcliff . . . began his professional career at the Olmsted offices, where he spent eight years acquiring a broad and sophisticated knowledge of landscape architecture,” writes Elizabeth Hope Cushing, the author of a forthcoming LALH biography of Shurcliff. “There, before his untimely death in 1897, Eliot deeply influenced Shurcliff’s perceptions in all areas of landscape practice.”

The Eliot Memorial, a simple clearing in the grove, honors Eliot’s larger role in envisioning, with journalist Sylvester Baxter (1850–1927), a network of public reservations that became the Metropolitan Park System. In 1893, largely owing to Eliot and Baxter’s advocacy, the legislature established the Metropolitan Park Commission, the nation’s first regional park system. Eliot viewed the Charles River Reservation, and within it, the river basin, as a prime opportunity to improve the health and happiness of Boston residents: “The broad Basin, surrounded as it will be by handsome promenades, is destined to become the central ‘court of honor’ of the metropolitan district,” wrote Eliot.

The redesigned Eliot Memorial

The redesigned Eliot Memorial. Sketch courtesy Halvorson Design Partnership.

At some point after Shurcliff completed the Eliot Memorial, an inscribed granite monument was added, but the squat gray obelisk was hardly noticed among the boathouses, playgrounds, and playing fields built in the ensuing decades. In 1941, a building to house Community Boating, a public program providing “sailing for all” regardless of physical or economic circumstances, shaved off part of the oval near the memorial. Then the construction in the 1950s of a parkway called Storrow Drive sliced significant acreage off the Back Bay section—including more of the oval next to the Eliot Memorial. The park commission tapped Shurcliff to knit the park back together along the new road, but paths and other features were permanently disrupted.

Meanwhile, the agency that managed the regional reservation system, the Metropolitan District Commission (successor to the Metropolitan Parks Commission), went through changes of its own, finally merging with a state agency to form the Department of Conservation and Recreation in 2003. Like similar agencies throughout the country, the department struggles to keep up with maintenance needs—especially in the Esplanade, where a half million people gather each year on the Fourth of July alone. The Esplanade Association formed in 2001 to help preserve and maintain the popular park.

Although historic preservation is a priority, the Esplanade Association also seeks to accommodate present and future uses through new design that respects the historic Shurcliff plan, says operations director Jessica Pederson. Guided by “Vision 2020,” a working document recently drafted by design professionals, residents, conservation department planners, and other involved groups, the association is working with the Department of Conservation and Recreation and Halvorson Design Partnership, a Boston-based landscape architecture firm, “to develop a design approach that we can apply throughout the Esplanade in the coming decade,” Pederson says. Their pilot project: the Charles Eliot Memorial.

1934 aerial of the Shurcliff design

1934 aerial of the Shurcliff design. The Eliot Memorial is located in the riverfront trapezoid below the lower curved “lagoon” wall. Courtesy Department of Conservation & Recreation Archives.

Over time, the Norway maples in the memorial grove have shaded out grass and killed off the band of shrubs around the nearby oval. “Shurcliff obviously did not know about the long-term damage these trees would cause with their allelopathic roots,” says Pederson, referring to the toxic mechanism that discourages competitive species. Packed-down patches of bare ground surround a square of granite paving stones on which the monument stands in near-perpetual shadow. The space, once clearly legible, has lost definition, as has the oval itself. “A big part of the work we’re doing is replacing the Norway maples, improving soil conditions, and repairing the lawn,” Pederson says. “We’re also going to plant new shrubs, install irrigation, and clean the monument. The Community Boating building is going to get some rebuilt paths at its entrance, and we’re adding some bicycle parking.”

“The Eliot Memorial will be more of a redesign than a restoration,” says Rob Adams, senior associate at Halvorson. “The Esplanade is a living, breathing, changing entity. Even Shurcliff’s plans changed numerous times due to intervention from the city. Then along came Storrow Drive, the Community Boating building, and so on. So, we’ve tried to think about this project in the larger context: What uses and pressures are happening in the park at large? What voids exist, and what’s an appropriate response to the voids that we can plan into this project?” Adams and the planning team identified midsized gathering spaces as one type of void throughout the Esplanade that provides intimate nooks and large-scale staging areas but little in between. The redesigned Eliot Memorial uses the seating oval surrounding the granite obelisk to fill the void, while also opening a view to the river now blocked by overgrown trees.

The new memorial space, which will open in late summer 2013, is a study in “the making of a place,” says Adams. “We took Shurcliff’s oval and shrank it, then moved it to encapsulate the memorial,” he explains. “We left the existing granite paving around the monument and created a surrounding surface of crushed stone, then re-graded the lawn in a gradual upward slope to a curve that defines that oval. This is a simple design, using fundamental landscape elements to create a strong space, all the while working with the Esplanade Association to find techniques that are effective and applicable in other areas.”

The team’s partners at the Department of Conservation and Recreation are happy with the project. “This is a good role for advocacy groups,” says Joe Orfant, chief of the agency’s Bureau of Planning & Resource Protection. “We’re so short-handed with people on the ground, so if you have a group with strong communication, good personal relationships, and the ability to work with one another, the result is a good project.”

As design progresses, the department has held public meetings and built consensus, says Rick Corsi, an environmental planner with the agency. The meetings have attracted a small but staunch group of enthusiasts for the Eliot Memorial project—including appreciative relatives of both Eliot and Shurcliff. “When you think that this memorial is the only one that honors Charles Eliot, save for a bridge in the Blue Hills Reservation south of Boston, it’s really nice to see it looking its best,” Corsi says. “Imagine someone trying to accomplish what he did in today’s world.”

—Jane Roy Brown


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