History

The Charlesgate Park has a rich and distinguished history.

Charlesgate Park 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 the Charlesgate Park 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 park lives under the shadow of the Bowker Overpass. Other parts of the park 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 Park, which is currently owned by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. The Charlesgate portion of the Muddy River continues to have problems with stagnation and pollution.

Recent History

The Charlesgate neighborhood is on the upswing, and the time is ripe for corresponding improvements to the neighborhood’s centerpiece, Charlesgate Park. 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 Park and its adjoining neighborhoods. Founded in February 2017, the Charlesgate Alliance already has a membership list of over 100 and a core of more than 15 active members, who are committed to bringing rapid improvement to Charlesgate Park and the surrounding area.

[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