Boston/Cambridge, Landscape History, Parks

Boston Common

June 3, 2012

As the “Hub of the Universe” Boston touts many firsts.  The first public library, the first subway system, the first swimming school and pool in America, the first public secondary school and the first public park in America – the Boston Common.

For a list of Boston firsts visit:

Whether Boston Common is the first public park in America is open to interpretation.  Other parks, including Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut (the first city in America to spend public funds to build a public park), Central Park in New York City (America’s first major park intended solely for public use), Wilkes-Barre River Common in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (the first waterfront park in America located in the first town to design a park into its layout from the onset and  recognize it as a park by any form of government) and Plaza de la Constitucion in St. Augustine, Florida (a plaza established by Spanish Royal Ordinances in 1573), lay claim to the title.

“Each year a replica of an ancient fishweir is built on the Common”

Forty-eight acres in size, the Boston Common was purchased in 1634 from Reverend William Blackstone, Boston’s first known European settler.  Blackstone lived on the western slope of the Shawmut (Boston) peninsular, opposite the mouth of the Charles River where, records indicate, he planted an orchard and lived in happy isolation until joined by other early settlers who were unable to locate drinking water across the river in Charlestown.

Commons are central organizing elements in New England towns where, aside from serving as a location to graze livestock, they were used to train militia, hold outdoor religious assemblies, hang thieves, murderers, pirates and witches and more benignly, upon occasion, to plant communal crops.

A detail of the Boston Common from a 1728 map by William Burgis shown below highlights the site’s original natural features.  While a row of trees is visible on the Tremont Street edge, an early example of the tree-lined malls which would eventually be planted, much of the Common at this time remained virtually treeless.  Irregular in shape, the Common ended in the “Roxbury Flats.”  Approximately one hundred years later the Public Garden would be developed  in this area.  To view this map in its entirety, as well as other maps of Boston, visit the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library:  For information about the Ancient Fishweir Project visit:

“A depiction of the common in 1728”

In 1756 the Central Burying Ground was established on the Boylston Street edge of the property.

For over two hundred years the Boston Common was used  mainly for utilitarian purposes, a somewhat scruffy landscape, with few distinguishing natural features.  According to the Boston Common Management Plan, completed in 1991, the first walkway was created on the Common in 1675.

The Common’s evolution from a working landscape, where cows were pastured, rugs were beaten, and festivals with unsavory vendors (including those who sold alcohol) to an environment suited to genteel pastimes parallels the development of Beacon Hill into a neighborhood inhabited by Boston’s elite families.

The history of the Common, including an overview of the great debate about cows, is well documented in Eden on the Charles The Making of Boston, by Michael Rawson.    In 1830 cows were banished from the Common setting in motion a series of projects that transformed the Common into a park, a space that no longer was used as a working landscape but instead solely for pleasure.

As part of that transformation exterior malls for promenading and interior cross paths were added.  The Beacon Street Mall was laid out in 1815 followed by the Charles Street Mall in 1823.

“The Charles Street Mall”

A series of projects also altered the Common’s physical environment.  Today only one of the four original hills and one of the three ponds on the site remain.

“a view of the frog pond”

During the  nineteenth century, as Boston’s population grew, the Common continued its evolution from a utilitarian to a ceremonial and recreational landscape.   In deference to the fashion of promenading, malls were laid out on the Common’s peripheries, providing elegant tree-lined enclosures for strolling.  The early poplar trees planted on the Park Street Mall were replaced with elms. Fashionable homes were built on Park and Beacon Streets for some of Boston’s most celebrated families.  A handsome ornamental fence, a mile in length, was erected around the site in 1868.  Steps on the Beacon Street edge are a reminder of Beacon Hill’s original topography.
A series of public art projects were initiated beginning with the installation of the Brewer Fountain. Named for its donor, the fountain is modeled after a winning entry in the 1855 Paris World’s Fair and was originally placed across from Brewer’s home on Beacon Street.  It was relocated to the corner of Park and Tremont Streets at the base of Liberty Mall and has recently been restored after many years of neglect, providing a welcome focal point to the entry plaza.  The restoration has included a refurbishment of the plaza as well as tree plantings and additional site amenities.  It has been spearheaded by the non-profit organization, The Friends of the Public Garden and Common.  For a complete overview the Brewer Fountain restoration visit:
Other sculptures/memorials/works of public art on the Common include:
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument (1877)
Located atop the Common’s remain hill, the neoclassical Soldiers and Sailors Monument was designed by architect/sculptor Martin Milmore as a tribute to those who served in the Civil War. The column provides a striking focal point within the park as well as a vista of the park below.
Boston Massacre Memorial (1888)
Located along the Tremont Street Mall the Boston Massacre Memorial, by sculptor Robert Kraus, depicts Crispus Attucks, the first person shot to death by British redcoats during the Boston Massacre.
Shaw/54th Regiment (1897)
Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s famous bronze sculpture, Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial, located directly across from the main entrance of the State House, was dedicated in 1897.  This memorial, honoring the sacrifice of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Union’s first free black regiment, was designed in collaboration with Charles McKim.   During the early 1980’s a campaign to restore the monument was completed.
The Parkman Bandstand (1912)
In 1912 the Parkman Bandstand, honoring George Francis Parkman, a benefactor who left the city five million dollars for the for the care of the common and other city open spaces, was erected.  Replicating a Greek temple , the bandstand, designed by Robinson and Shepard, now serves as a focal point for theater and performances including those of the Boston Shakespeare Company.
The Founders Memorial (1930)
Sited long the Beacon Mall as part of the city’s 300th anniversary celebration, the Founders Memorial is a bronze bas-relief depicting William Blackstone welcoming Governor Winthrop to the Shawmut peninsula.
As the twentieth century evolved and the city continued to grow the Common was used and abused for diverse purposes.  The mall along Tremont Street, made famous in Childe Hassam’s painting Boston at Twilight, became the location of the nation’s first subway resulting in the Tremont Street edge losing its tree-lined mall and fence, which was removed to accommodate construction. Headhouses at Park Street and Boylston Street stations were built.  To read more about Boston at Twilight and Childe Hassam visit:
Today the Tremont Street Mall has been partially restored.   The view below looks towards the Park Street headhouse.
Other uses of the Common during the twentieth century included everything from victory gardens during WWI to large-scale events and celebrations by notable figures such as Charles Lindbergh, President Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Pope John Paul II.  In 1961 an underground parking garage was built beneath the Parade Ground.  An entrance to the garage is visible in the picture below.
Lack of thoughtful management and maintenance continued to plague the Common which fell into disrepair, emblematic of a larger failure citywide to value and care for Boston’s parks and green spaces.  In 1970 the Friends of the Public Garden and Common was formed, one of the first community groups to develop a public-private partnership for the restoration and enhancement of a public park.  A series of projects followed, including a master plan in 1972 by Carol Johnson Associates and a management plan in 1990 by Walker Kleusing Design Group.   In 1977 the Common was designated a Boston Landmark and in 1987 a National Historic Landmark.
To learn more about the ongoing work of the Friends of the Public Garden and Common visit:
The Boston Common has always served multiple functions and today it continues to do so.   As the starting point for Boston’s Freedom Trail the Common is a popular tourist destination.  The Frog Pond, playground and carousel attract families in the summer while ice skating and sledding are winter activities.  The Common supports both active and passive recreation and many local schools still use the grassy fields for games and picnics. The park remains “common ground” for all Bostonians.

“Bronze frogs by sculptor David Phillips preside over the Frog Pond”

Copyright © 2012  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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