Frederick Law Olmsted in Boston


Intrigued by a friend’s recent post about Olmsted, I borrowed an inter-library loan  book about his public parks.

In the late 1960’s I was in Nursing School in Boston and walking was my usual form of transportation.  The first year I did a lot of exploring on weekends because, unlike me, many of my friends lived close enough to go home, and I was often left alone. I remember one day I walked from Parker Hill (site of New England Baptist Hospital, and the School of Nursing) into Boston Common with a box of crackers and a jar of juice, and then spent much of the afternoon bench sitting, watching people and animals, and listening to the sounds of the city.

Over the years I’ve been in several of Olmsted’s Boston parks and planned areas including Commonwealth Avenue, Jamaica Park, Arnold Arboretum, the Arborway, and Back Bay Fens (pictured above), which was close to my school.  From the book, here is a little bit about the history of the Fens.

In the plan for a park system adopted by Boston in 1876, most of the area that became the Back Bay Fens was to be filled and a narrow park created with a sinuous waterway extending from near the Charles River to a small park overlooking it on Parker Hill.  A parkway was then to run from there to Jamaica Pond.  When the park commission turned to Olmsted to design this feature, he objected to creating a carefully tended park of turf and gardens on that site, calling instead for creation of scenery inspired by the tidal marshes of coastal Massachusetts.

The original Park Department Plan:


From another source, Planning The City Upon A Hill: Boston Since 1630, by  Lawrence W. Kennedy I found a little more:

Olmsted urged the commission to scrap plans for a park on top of Parker Hill and instead develop the area which he called the Back Bay Fens.  Under his guidance the region was transformed from an undesirable and nondescript border area into a lovely landscape which pleased the eye and provided a safe conduit for flood waters.

Looking through Olmsted’s detailed plans I appreciated that he thought carefully not only about landscape beauty, but also about safety, proper drainage, quality of life, and bringing nature into the everyday life of city dwellers.








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