Boston Common – The Esplanade

The history of Boston Common dates back to 1634, when it was no more than a cow pasture, a military training ground, and a place for public hangings. Today, the Boston Common is a 50-acre public park, one of the oldest in America, bordered by Beacon Hill, the Public Garden, and downtown Boston. In addition to softball fields, playgrounds, tennis courts, and memorials, the park has been the scene of civil protests, dog walks, baseball games, pumpkin festivals, free concerts, and holiday celebrations. The Boston Common marks the beginning of the Freedom Trail and the site of the Shaw Memorial honoring the 54th Regiment, the first of African American troops in the Union Army.

A unique feature of the Boston Common and the Public Garden is the Emerald Necklace, a series of seven connected parks that include the Esplanade, the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, the Back Bay Fens, Olmstead Park, Jamaica Park, Franklin Park, and Arnold Arboretum. The Esplanade runs for three miles along the southern banks of the Charles River from the Museum of Science to the Boston University Bridge. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was an unsightly mudflat at low tide filled with stagnant water, dead animals, and debris. Four leading citizens of Boston including Charles Eliot and Arthur Shurcliff, landscape architects, and banker James Storrow and his wife Helen, decided to develop the Charles River Basin into a tree-lined parkland that could be used for recreational activities. A dam was constructed in 1910 where the Museum of Science is now, effectively creating the Boston Embankment, or promenade, a 100-foot strip of land dredged up from the river bottom. Although the official name for this area of grass and concrete walkways from the Museum of Science to the Longfellow Bridge is “Charlesbank,” it became known as the Esplanade.

In 1926, James Storrow’s widow donated a million dollars in his name for the improvement of the Esplanade. In 1934, architect Shurcliff directed the planting of 1,200 trees and 12,000 shrubs and in 1936, the area between the Longfellow Bridge and the Boston University Bridge, the “Storrow Memorial Embankment,” was dedicated to James Jackson Storrow. Although three bronze markers were in place by 1939 with the new name, it is still referred to as the Esplanade. As the parkland was improved and widened for more recreation facilities, the Storrow Lagoon, designed for toy boats and small pleasure boats, was created. The Lagoon, a formal centerpiece in the Esplanade, is about 240 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. Granite overlooks with benches and numerous trees are located near the Lagoon.

After summer concerts were initiated by Arthur Fiedler, a violinist in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a wooden Music Oval was built in the Esplanade. This was later replaced with steel and finally, the granite Hatch Shell was built in 1940. By 1950, the Esplanade was again in need of restoration and architects Shurcliff and his son created a new island connected to the shoreline by footbridges, effectively establishing a series of smaller lagoons that extend as far as the Hatch Shell.

Within the park are bike paths, six boat docks, and three boathouses, along with swans, ducklings, flowers, and a Children’s Park and Frog Pond, which becomes an ice skating rink in the winter. There are several historical structures, as well, including the Lotta Fountain, a drinking water basin for animals that was given to the park in 1939 by the estate of Laura Crabtree, a child vaudeville star in the 19th century. In addition, there is a memorial to Arthur Fiedler and a fountain in the Storrow Lagoon, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the metropolitan park system. Interestingly enough, however, there is no memorial to Arthur Shurcliff, the innovative landscaper and designer of the Esplanade.

Today, the Esplanade is a popular gathering place for joggers, walkers, sunbathers, cyclists, and visitors who enjoy their time away from the sights and sounds of the city. The Boston Model Sailing Club, a part of the Esplanade Association, sponsors a fishing club for children and model boat racing and regattas on Sundays at the Storrow Lagoon. The Club provides remote controlled boats, or bring your own, for recreational sailboat racing that is free to the public.

Various citizens’ groups continue to advocate further improvement, landscaping, and restoration of the Esplanade, their “Boston Treasure.”

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