The Edward Ingersoll Browne Fund and Boston’s Public Realm
It’s easy to forget how places change over time. In Boston, one such place is Angell Memorial Park, located at the intersection of Congress, Pearl and Milk Streets, adjacent to the award winning Post Office Square (Norman Leventhal) Park.
Restored in 1981, Angell Memorial Park was one of the first projects funded through a trust bequeathed to the City of Boston eighty years earlier by the reclusive attorney, Edward Ingersoll Browne. The project initiated a process through which over 200 squares, parks and gardens in every neighborhood of the City has been improved. Look closely and you may find a small bronze plaque at many of these sites, embossed with the letter “B.” This clue identifies the project as a beneficiary of one of Boston’s best kept secrets – the Edward Ingersoll Browne Fund.
Like its benefactor, the Fund has quietly and effectively remained focused on Browne’s intent to beautify Boston through the “erection of statues, monuments, fountains for men and beasts and for the ornament of its streets, ways, squares and parks.” In modest ways and generous means, Browne’s legacy continues in all corners of the City.
Can’t imagine the Public Garden without the ducklings or the Charles River Esplanade without Arthur Fiedler? Keep time by the North Bennet Street School Clock? Bring your children to the fountain and gateway in Mission Hill Park? Admire the Harriet Tubman memorial? Luxuriate in the plantings in Ramler Park? Sit on a bench in Oak Square? Play at any number of Boston schoolyards? If so your life has likely been enriched through Browne’s bequest.
Born in 1823 to a proper and prosperous Boston Brahmin family, Edward Ingersoll Browne was educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard University. During his lifetime he established a reputation for generosity and discretion, choosing, in the words of his college classmate Edwin Hale Abbott, to “lend a helping hand whenever it was needed.” “Yet,” Mr. Abbott continued in his tribute to Browne in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, “conceal the case in which he had rendered aid.”
Browne traveled extensively and developed a passion for architecture, art and literature. Upon his death in 1901, he left one-third of his estate to the City of Boston to be placed in a trust for the beautification of Boston’s public spaces. The remainder of his estate was split between two institutions, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. While Browne contributed to many worthy causes in his lifetime he always did so anonymously. He burned his personal papers before his death, leaving no further clues about the genesis or intent of his philanthropy.
Seventy-five years later, the original $266,000 that Browne left to the City had grown to a size of nearly $4 million. In 1978, the City of Boston established the Browne Fund and a Commission was created to represent the Fund as Trustees. The Mayor serves as Chair with the Senior Member of the City Council and the Collector- Treasurer appointed fellow commissioners.
The timing could not have been better. The Fund became active during a period when Boston’s park and open space system was suffering from the impacts of inadequate funding, compounded by the passage of Proposition 2 1/2, legislation limiting property taxes and reducing the resources available to municipalities for basic services. The parks were a mess.
When the Browne Fund began searching for its first project, Angell Memorial Park was an unlikely choice. At the time there were very few public outdoor spaces in Boston’s downtown and many businesses were focused on keeping employees indoors. The Post Office Square area in which the park was located was distinctly unappealing, with a monolithic, city-owned, nine-story parking garage as its centerpiece.
The decision to restore and enhance Angell Memorial Park as a preliminary project was a calculated risk on the part of the project’s proponents and “counterintuitive.” If the Browne Fund was going to make a difference, this unlikely public space would serve well as a test case. If successful, the project would challenge the prevailing sensibility that office workers would choose to stay indoors.
“No one wanted to come outside in the business district at the time,” recalled a city of Boston official with knowledge of the project. “Downtown Boston was dismal and still suffering from the flight to the suburbs. There was no culture of public open space. Architects were focused on creating interior spaces to keep people inside. Civic minded officials wanted to challenge that instinct.”
Negative editorials appeared in The Boston Herald deriding the ill-conceived plan to restore the park, decrying it as a waste of taxpayers’ dollars. But as a private trust The Browne Fund was not spending public funds. The project proceeded.
In a bold move, a piece of artwork evoking a pond complete with a bronze collection of aquatic life was commissioned. The art was viewed as integral to the design of the site, and the artist was welcomed as a member of the design team – a partnership that became the model for future Browne Fund projects. Bronze plaques that detailed additional natural elements were interspersed in the brick paving.
The original fountain, a granite obelisk adorned with lion’s heads, erected by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to commemorate its founder, George T. Angell, was restored. This feature, designed as a watering trough for horses, had served until 1954 as the focal point for an annual Christmas dinner for Boston’s horses.
Great care was taken to ensure that Angell Memorial Park would become an attractive alternative to remaining indoors. High quality materials were specified and granite seating walls with bronze benches were installed to accommodate seating. Trees were planted to provide shade. A gourmet hot dog vendor, who remains at the park to this day, was brought in to activate the space.
Upon its completion, Angell Memorial Park emerged as a welcoming oasis in the business district and immediately became popular.
The park became a catalyst for the Post Office Square area and quickly set a new standard for the design of public open space. It was followed in rapid succession by the creation of a series of projects in the downtown, including plazas at the Grain Exchange and Jenney Buildings near the Custom House and several enhanced public walkways, such as Pi Alley in the theater district. Funds were used to install a ceremonial gate in Boston’s Chinatown, to build Chinatown gateway park, to light the Shaw 54th and Soldiers and Sailors Memorial on the Boston Common, and to restore the Westland Triangle gates in the Fenway.
Two hundred projects later, the Browne Fund has remained true to Edward Ingersoll Browne’s intent but has adapted its mission to the changing needs of the residents of the City. No longer constrained to projects in the downtown, the Browne Fund began a process of slowly investing in neighborhood projects, including the revitalization of squares and commons, schoolyards, public housing projects, streetscapes, community gardens, public art and commemorative memorials. Today 80% of the projects that are funded are in the neighborhoods.
Sarah Hutt, former Director of the Boston Arts Commission, worked closely with the Browne Fund. According to Hutt, the Fund, “provides an opportunity for a broad range of artists to work in neighborhoods where they have never worked before, invigorating both the artist and the community.” The planning process through which a Browne Fund project evolves knits together an overarching plan for a neighborhood, and Hutt notes, “is often the impetus for a broad range of civic improvements.”
The sense of freedom to take risks and explore new concepts has kept the Browne Fund fresh. Not constrained by the funding cycles of city agencies, the “fund” has had the flexibility to support projects that would otherwise never be “funded.” The Fund provides not only design and construction grants but also for capital repairs and improvements throughout the life of the project.
Charlestown resident Judy McDonough, who worked with the Browne Fund on Thompson and Winthrop Squares, is effusive in her praise for the role the Browne Fund played in assuring the completion of each project. The fund has had a “quiet and tremendous impact on countless small spaces in the city that would always be left out and never completed.”
The Browne Fund is a catalyst that can go into a neighborhood that no one has gone before and try new things. The process of creating a project requires good community interaction; every single site is a neighborhood site and every site has a constituency.
The Dorothy and David Ramler Park in the Fenway neighborhood serves as one such example that according to Freddie Veikley, “entirely accomplishes what Mr. Browne would have wished to see with the public sensibility of his investment.”
The park is built on an abandoned lot in a dense city block and took years of neighborhood advocacy to complete. The Browne Fund’s involvement occurred at a critical point in the park’s development, with funding to support the creation of the park’s signature component, an ornamental fence decorated with birds in flight. The fence established the park’s identity as a place of reflection and for the enjoyment of nature. After receiving assistance from the Browne Fund, according to Veikley, “things just fell together.”
Today, the park is a beautifully landscaped haven, lush with perennial beds designed to attract migrating birds and complete with an elegant fountain, arbor, benches and tables. It is a public space that exudes an aura of elegance – furthering Browne’s mandate that his legacy be used to elevate the good taste of the public.
To assure continued involvement on the part of the community, the Browne Fund requires that each project be properly maintained – be it by a public agency, neighborhood group or the private sector. Each year the Fund manager conducts an annual inspection of every site funded to monitor and record its condition. If necessary, the Browne Fund will provide resources to make necessary repairs in partnership with the project’s proponents.
According to Henry Lee, President of the Friends of the Public Garden, “The Browne Fund is a wonderful vehicle for initiating improvements and stimulating interest and support for parks in both the public at large and business and government circles.” The Fund has had an indelible impact on the quality of Boston’s public realm.
More than 20 million dollars in funding has been generated from Browne’s original bequest. 65 public art works, 20 civic memorials and 15 fountains have been either built or restored. Innumerable children’s parks and playgrounds, public squares, gateways and schoolyards exist through the Browne Fund’s support: every project, large or small, is held to the high standards established through the original project at Angell Memorial Park, where etched in the granite fountain is a quote from Edward Angell exemplifying the spirit of Edward Ingersoll Browne.
“Our human societies are now sowing the seeds of a harvest which will one of these days protect not only the birds of the air and beasts of the field, but also human beings as well.
Copyright © 2012 Patrice Todisco – All Rights Reserved