Boston/Cambridge, Gardens, Landscape History, New England Gardens, Parks, Public Realm

Two Boston Rose Gardens

June 12, 2012

“Desconsol, a gift from Barcelona, is a focal point in the garden”

While I have never been a big fan of roses there is something magical about a rose garden in full bloom, particularly at the end of a dreary week in June.  In Boston there are two public rose gardens that I recently visited.   Both were later additions to parks that played an important role in Boston’s landscape history and both provide discrete experiences within larger designed landscapes.

The James P.  Kelleher Rose Garden is located in the Back Bay Fens within walking distance of the Museum of Fine Arts.  Designed by noted landscape architect Arthur Shurtleff, the garden is enclosed by evergreen hedges, hidden from view.  It is accessed from Park Drive – a secret garden in the heart of the city.

“The Entrance”

Of formal design the garden contains an inner circle built in 1930, connected to a rectangular lawn panel which was added in 1933.  At the terminus to the lawn, on axis, is a reproduction of  Desconsol (Distress) by  Catalan modernist sculptor, Josep Llimona. A gift from Boston’s sister city Barcelona in 1986, Desconsol, distressingly, has lost her lower arms and hands.

To view a plan of the rose garden and learn more about its history visit:

The design of  rose gardens (or rosarie gardens) has changed very subtly over time and Shurtleff’s plan for the Kelleher Rose Garden is no exception.  In her book, Creating Period Gardens, Elizabeth Banks (current president of the Royal Horticultural Society) devotes a chapter to “The Rosarie Garden” noting that, “enjoyed only in summer, when at perfection this garden is a collector’s paradise displaying all kinds of roses.  Romantic, fragrant and secluded, the delicate blooms are sheltered by tall evergreen hedges.”

Banks further describes the rosarie form, circular, square or rectangular and materials, gravel for paths or brick in smaller gardens and the use of “fresh green grass” to set off the color of the blooms.  The paths should, as Bank quotes architect Charles McIntosh, “bring the visitor close to the object to be viewed….and enable him to reach the flowers without going off the walks”.

“Cascades of climbing roses adorn each walkway”

Roses were first cultivated in Persia but it is the French who are credited with creating the first  formal display in 1799, for the Empress Josephine at Malmaison.  Over one hundred years later in the Parc de Bagatelle, purchased by the city of Paris for public use in 1905, Commissioner of Gardens Jean-Claude Forestier expanded upon the tradition by laying out a rose garden and sponsoring the first international competition for roses in 1907.  This coincided with a surge in interest for “all things roses” here in the States.

In Boston, Mayor James Michael Curly, led the charge for a public rose garden. In a 1924 report written by Shurtleff for the Boston Park Department he states, ” Over two years ago his Honor Mayor Curley brought to the attention of the Board the growing popularity of rose gardens in City parks.  Near at home, in Springfield and in Hartford, displays of this kind attract great crowds to the parks on Sundays and holidays,  and  bring flower lovers to these centers from all parts of New England.”

The rose garden mentioned by Mayor Curley in Hartford, Connecticut is the oldest municipal rose garden in the United States.  It was established in 1904 in Elizabeth Park, bequeathed by industrialist Charles Pond as a memorial to his wife in 1894.  The garden, 2¼ acres in size,  featured 1,000 varieties of roses, Victorian arches, a gazebo, and Lord & Burnham greenhouses.  In 1937–38 the garden was expanded and it has recently been restored.  For more information about Elizabeth Park and the rose garden visit:

Curley’s enthusiasm led to the addition in 1923, of a public rose garden adjacent to the herbaceous garden near the zoo at Franklin Park.  Shurtleff estimated that the rose garden attracted  50,000 visitors during the first year and perhaps it was the popularity of this garden that precipitated the addition of the rose garden in the Fenway seven years later.


Rose gardens are maintenance intensive and the Kelleher Rose Garden is fortunate to have an active volunteer program that meets on Tuesday evenings when the garden is open, from May to September.

A property of the City of Boston’s Park & Recreation Department (, the Kelleher Rose Garden is located within the Emerald Necklace, the chain of parks in Boston designed by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.  The Emerald Necklace Conservancy (, a public private partnership formed to 1996 to preserve the Emerald Necklace parklands in Boston and Brookline, works with the City (and Commonwealth) to manage and maintain the Fens where the garden is located.  Beginning in 2001 the organizations collaborated on an ambitious restoration of the Kelleher Rose Garden, completed in 2008.  During that process an irrigation system was installed, paths and beds were recut, new roses were planted, signage was updated and turf improved.

According to the Emerald Necklace Conservancy’s website restoration work continues on the fountain, shown above.

“Berries n’ Cream” a large flowered climber

The Boston Parks & Recreation Department’s Rose Garden Party Committee holds an annual Rose Garden Party benefitting ParkARTS, Mayor Menino’s initiative to support free art, cultural and enrichment programming in Boston’s parks, in the Kelleher Rose Garden.   Scheduled for June 28th tickets can be purchased by calling: 617.635.4032.

In 1987, when the Central Artery/Big Dig project was in its preliminary planning stages and the surface corridor was yet to be named for Rose Kennedy, the Rose Kennedy Memorial Rose  Garden and Fountain were added to Christopher Columbus/Waterfront Park in Boston’s North End.

Honoring both Rose Kennedy and the Gold Star Mothers, the garden is likely the most recent public rose garden designed in the City.  Unlike the Kelleher Rose Garden, the Rose Kennedy Memorial Rose Garden is designed to be visibly accessible, enclosed by a wrought iron fence accentuated with granite pillars.

At one entrance to the garden is a granite and marble fountain set in a brick plaza as seen in the photo below.

At the other entrance is a semi-circular brick walkway which is bordered by shrub roses.

Boston does not have many gardens in the downtown which adds to the appeal of this intimate space.  Simple and  elegant the rose garden provides an opportunity to be apart from the surrounding activity.  A flower bed, edged in granite, is surrounded by stone dust paths providing a formal center to the rose garden.

Christopher Columbus/Waterfront Park was built in the mid 1970’s on land  made available when Atlantic Avenue was realigned.   One of the first waterfront parks in the country, it was designed by Sasaki Associates in conjunction with the Urban Design Satff of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) as part of a larger initiative to revitalize the waterfront and  Quincy Market/Faneuil Hall for Boston’s bicentennial.

The rose garden and fountain were added approximately ten years later on an area of the park that was a large lawn.  The garden was designed by BRA landscape design staff (of which I was a member) headed by Shirley Muirhead and Roger Erickson, with input from the original designers.  A picture taken shortly after the garden was built is below.  Christopher Columbus/Waterfront Park was redesigned in 2008 by Halvorson Design Partnership and exists today as a hybrid of the three efforts.

The Friends of Christopher Columbus Park’s Horticultural Committee (  works in partnership with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department to maintain the rose garden.   Volunteers meet twice each week on Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. and on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. to care for the rose garden, wisteria plantings on the pergola arch and perennial plantings throughout the park.
Taken in the Kelleher Garden this image of a bird that was building its nest in the rose arbor evokes for me the magic of a garden in the city.
Copyright © 2012  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved


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  • Reply Kathi March 8, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Wow! Thanks for finding my blog, and for sharing this! I’ve been to Boston oodles of times (had a son who lived there for a while) and didn’t know about these beautiful gardens! Blessings—

  • Reply Kit Barry December 20, 2017 at 10:38 pm

    Thank you for your article. As a social historian of American culture, this piece touched a number of interest points for me. I found your article by accident while trying to find contact information on a possibly Boston-based landscape architect named Sherrie Geldersma. She worked for the architect I used for renovation of a Main St. building here in Brattleboro, Vermont. She may recently have worked for Boston Parks. I would like to contact her. If you can help in any way, I would greatly appreciate it. Sincerely, Kit Barry 802: 380-5611

  • Reply Patrice December 23, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    Sorry but I do not know Sherri. I’d give a call to Boston Parks to see if she is still there and, if not, if they have any information about where she works now. If she is a member of the BSLA she might also be listed in their directory.

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