The Charlesgate area has a rich and distinguished history.

Charlesgate is part of the Emerald Necklace park system, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. It is on the National Register of Historic Places as part of that system.

What is now known as Charlesgate was originally known as the Beacon Street Entrance to the Back Bay Fens.[1] The Back Bay Fens was the first park designed by Olmsted for the City of Boston in 1878.[2] Construction began in 1880.[3] The scheme of a connected series of linked parks was set up in 1881.[4] Creating the Back Bay Fens was as much a sanitary as an aesthetic project, because the water was heavily polluted and often stagnant.[5] As Karl Haglund wrote, Olmsted “envisioned Charlesgate as the meeting point of the Back Bay Fens with the Charles River.”[6] The original plan was designed to mimic salt marsh.[7] Olmsted also did the original design for the extension of Commonwealth Avenue past Massachusetts Avenue in the new Charlesgate neighborhood.[8]

After the Charles River Dam was constructed between 1905-1910, the water in this area turned from brackish to fresh, and plantings changed. A large sewer, the Boston Marginal Conduit, was built at the same time along the entire length of the embankment. At Charlesgate, the Marginal Conduit joined with Stony Brook conduit, designed earlier by Olmsted to divert polluted water from Stony Brook directly into the Charles, bypassing the Fens.[9] A gate house, constructed at the junction of these two conduits, remains intact to this day.[10]

The Charlesgate area was cut off from the Charles River in 1951 with the construction of Storrow Drive.[11] A State Senator who was instrumental in the effort was Philip G. Bowker.[12] Storrow Drive was widened in 1954-55, which further increased this isolation. Muddy River water quality in the Charlesgate area deteriorated.

The Charlesgate area was seriously compromised by the erection of the Philip G. Bowker Overpass, completed in 1966.[13] This was the same year in which Bowker died.[14] 1966 was the last year in which it was legal to use Federal funds to take park land for highway development. Section 4(f) of the U.S. Department of Transportation Act of 1966 stopped this sort of action.[15]

Although aspects of the park survived on either side of the overpass, and new park elements were introduced on the eastern side, much of the area lives under the shadow of the Bowker Overpass. Other parts of Charlesgate not under the Bowker’s shadow have been neglected. More recently, repairs to the Bowker Overpass by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation have threatened vegetation, including large, established trees in Charlesgate, which is currently under the care and custody of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. The Charlesgate portion of the Muddy River continues to have problems with stagnation and pollution.

The National Register of Historic Places document for the Olmsted park system, which we call the Emerald Necklace and includes the Charlesgate area, is here.

Recent History

The Charlesgate neighborhood is on the upswing, and the time is ripe for corresponding improvements to the neighborhood’s centerpiece, the park area between Charlesgate East and Charlesgate West. The neighborhood’s upswing is driven by a demographic shift from more temporary residents toward a stable and committed population of owner-occupants.

For example, in 1998 a design charrette for the Charlesgate area, called Under the Overpass: A Day of Visions for a Sad Landscape yielded a number of innovative ideas, but they languished without a community organization to push the proposals to fruition.

Today, the dedicated residents who lead the Charlesgate Alliance are devoted exclusively to advocating for the area and its adjoining neighborhoods. Founded in late January 2017 by Pam Beale and Parker James, the Charlesgate Alliance has a supporter list of over 170 and 37 affiliated organizations, who are committed to bringing rapid improvement to the Charlesgate and its surrounding area.

On Wednesday, September 13th, 2017, the Charlesgate Alliance and Emerald Necklace Conservancy in conjunction with the Department of Conservation and Recreation were happy to announce that we chose Landing Studio to be the architectural firm for the Charlesgate Improvement Outreach Process and Concept Design. Going ahead with the project at this time would not have been possible without the help of neighbors and the Solomon Foundation.

A key early funding came to the Emerald Necklace Conservancy with $250,000 in early December 2018 for Charlesgate Park improvements from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in association with the Charlesgate Alliance. This grant — a result of the Charlesgate Alliance’s partnership with the Conservancy — supported planning, design, and engineering work for improvements to Charlesgate Park, which were developed in a public community process co-led by Charlesgate Alliance, Landing Studio architects, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, and the Solomon Foundation in partnership with the Department of Conservation and Recreation from Fall 2017 to Summer 2018. We are grateful to State Senator Will Brownsberger and Representatives Jay Livingstone and Byron Rushing for their help in stewarding this support.

The City of Boston’s Community Preservation Commission approved $400,000 from Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding for design and engineering of Charlesgate Park improvements on February 11th, 2019. The recommendation was approved by the Mayor and then unanimously by the City Council on March 6th. Special thanks to Christine Poff, Mayor Marty Walsh, and City Councilor Josh Zakim for their support on this funding. For more information see this Boston Guardian article.

What is now known as the Charlesgate Revitalization Project continues to get funding from area residents, the Commonwealth, and other interested parties. We are particularly pleased to be consulted as a part of the process with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), which is working on two projects for Bowker Overpass improvement that will sandwich our heart of the park between the Massachusetts Turnpike and Storrow Drive.

[1] Referenced a number of times in Carr, Ethan et al, editors, The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: Volume VIII, The Early Boston Years, 1882-1890 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2013).

[2] Haglund, Karl. Inventing The Charles River (Cambridge, MA: Charles River Conservancy and MIT Press, 2003), page 402.

[3] Seasholes, Nancy. Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), page 217.

[4] Roper, Laura Wood. FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), page 388.

[5] Hall, Lee. Olmsted’s America: An “Unpractical” Man and His Vision of Civilization (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1995), pages 228-230.

[6] Haglund, page 402.

[7] Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1982), page 57.

[8] Bunting, Bainbridge. Houses of the Back Bay: An Architectural History, 1840-1917 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1967), pages 384-385.

[9] Seasholes, page 217.

[10] Haglund, page 404.

[11] Haglund, page 402.

[12] Cutler, Samuel. “Esplanade Road, Bond Issue Get Committee OK’s” Daily Boston Globe, March 16, 1949, page 1; and “Revolt Beats Esplanade Highway” Daily Boston Globe. April 13, 1949, page 1.

[13] Haglund, page 402.

[14] Obituaries, Boston Globe, August 31, 1966.

[15] https://www.environment.fhwa.dot.gov/4f/4fAtGlance.asp