Boston/Cambridge, Landscape History, Parks, Public Realm

Where the City Meets the Sea: Boston’s John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse Harborpark

August 15, 2013


Landscape Architect Laurie Olin has been awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government to artists and art patrons “… deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States.”

Olin, the fourth landscape architect to be acknowledged in twenty-seven years, was recognized for his “acute sense of harmony and balance between nature and design.”  His portfolio of projects is noteworthy and includes; Bryant Park, Battery Park City and Columbus Circle in New York; the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles; and the National Gallery of Art of Art Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C.

In Boston Olin is responsible for the design (in partnership with Carol R. Johnson) of an important project, the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse Harborpark. Yes, it’s a long name and often is referred to simply as the park at Fan Pier.

Prominently located at the entrance to the emerging Seaport/Innovation District the park, one of the earliest (if not the first) open spaces in the area was designed in an intensely collaborative, public process with the client (the federal government) the architect (Harry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners) and the community (through a task force and advisory committee mandated by the Office of Coastal Zone Management within the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs).


The result, by all accounts a success, is a welcoming and thoughtfully designed public space that according to Olin, was intended to ” stimulate our senses and our spirit and educate our minds about Boston’s encounter between land and sea.”

As the first project to be built on the Fan Pier the park established a standard for future public spaces and the Harborwalk. This remains a relevant consideration as the Seaport/Innovation District is developed and new parks and open spaces are built by the private sector without benefit of the intense public process that vetted the design of the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse Harborpark.  That process ordained that a landmark park be created on the site with a unique identity within Boston’s park system employing public art and plantings as significant elements in the design.


Located on a prominent site contiguous to the Northern Avenue Bridge, the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse Harborpark is at the entrance to Fort Point Channel.   Despite its proximity to the downtown the district, a thriving shipping area during the early part of  the twentieth century, remained undeveloped until the past twenty-five years.  Now it is one of the city’s most active development areas.

The view below, from the nineteenth century, shows the distinctive shape  of the Fan Pier, the terminus for railway lines used to transport raw materials, including wool, stored in the district’s brick warehouses.

Bos Freight Terminals

When the decision was made to construct a new federal court house on the Fan Pier, deemed “the most beautiful site in Boston,” it was controversial.   Critics were concerned that the building’s scale would be oppressive and the landscape inadequate (which somehow seems quaint given the scale of the development that now dwarves the building).   According to Olin, a courthouse on this parcel of land was seen “by certain vocal critics as the wrong way to begin the rehabilitation and transformation of this derelict waterfront property,” part of a larger development scheme yet to be realized.

(The image below is from Childs Engineering Corporation the consultant responsible for the project’s marine components including the floating docks and piers). 


To offset these concerns half of the 4.5 acre site was dedicated to a public park and the landscape and building designed to “welcome, encourage and enrich” the public experience of the site.   The dramatic views of Boston, where the city meets the sea, remained accessible and the civic nature of the building and space were conceived as a harmonious unit, a distinct challenge given the security considerations of the courthouse.

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Following the park’s completion in 1998, The Meeting of City and Sea: A Guide to the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse Harborpark was published.  This document, combined with the Final Recommendations of the Federal Courthouse Special Task Force published in 1993 provides remarkable insight into the process through which the park was designed.

Included are essays by historian William M. Fowler Jr. and Hon. Gerry Studds on the site’s history and the clean-up of the harbor and an introduction by Hon. Stephen Breyer and Hon. Douglas P. Woodlock, the justices representing the courts in the design of the courthouse and park.

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The Meeting of City to Sea: A Guide to the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse Harborpark also serves as a guide to the interpretive themes integrated throughout the park providing additional insight into the thought processes supporting the design.

Three key areas are highlighted; the history of Boston and the harbor during the 200 year period in which the federal courts were established; the use of horticulturally diverse plantings found along the New England shore; and the inclusion of a vantage point to view the harbor and learn about the federal litigation responsible for its clean-up.

All three themes are realized in the design and highlighted in eleven interpretive panels sited throughout the 2.3 acre park.  “The Way to a Clean Harbor” and the “Future of Boston Harbor” are below.



Olin’s essay, “Simple, Clear and Strong” underscores  his enthusiasm for designing a park “to make available to every citizen the extraordinary experience of the site at which, by virtue of its close encounter with Boston, the meeting of city and sea is most vividly dramatized.” He further notes that the park is designed “to show how civic building and civic space, conceived together, can each confer meaning and value on the other.”


The plan, seen above, illustrates how the concept “Simple, clear and strong” is realized in the design of the park and its relationship to the building and harbor.

The key organizing element is a 850 foot long waterfront promenade providing panoramic views of the inner and outer harbor.   To create the promenade the granite seawall was rebuilt and edged with additional granite detailing to create a broad cobblestone and brick paved walkway.  A floating dock provides access to ships

The promenade, the first section of the continuous public walkway around the entire Fan Pier was designed by Olin to be “robust”  and serve as a prototype for future Harborwalk segments.



Two outdoor rooms, depicted on the map as  the “Courthouse and East lawns”  overlook the harbor and provide distinctly different experiences.  Described by Olin as a circle and a lozenge these spaces “produce comfortably scaled rooms in which to stroll and sit between the wide-open expanse of the harbor and the tall building behind.”

The Courthouse lawn, supports programmed activities, as seen below and the trees which are planted on its periphery, provide shade while serving as sculptural elements during the winter months.



The East Lawn provides an intimate setting with gracefully curving paths and benches set within the landscape.



Plantings pay homage to the New England seaside, a hardy mix of species found throughout the coastal region with an ability to withstand the site’s harsh climatic conditions and endure potential challenges in long-term maintenance.    While chosen for their durability these are also plants of great beauty and character with deep associations to the history and horticultural identity of the region.  Hardy plants are sited nearest to the harbor and provide a buffer to the interior plantings.


Rosa rugosa, blueberry, bayberry and pines are planted in the park as well as other non-native species that are commonly planted along the New England coast.  In “Simple, Clear and Strong” Olin makes the case that just as American society has benefited from cultural diversity, so too, has the plant world pointing out that our landscape is “a cultural phenomenon built up over decades and centuries, like our cities, our way of life, and our legal system” and that “purist’s views that demand the use of only native species in the an urban region are limiting or worse…..fraught with contradiction and distortion, as any other doctrinaire form of “ethnic” or “original” purity when dealing with living systems.”


The plants are labeled individually and on interpretive panels.

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Olin concludes “Simple, Clear and Strong” with the observation that as the initial phase of a vast urban project to be realized by many designers over time it was important that the park design be “simple and clear” without attempting to be all things to all people.   Simple is not to be confused with utilitarian , for it is clearly noted that this park, the first in a new urban district was intended to an optimistic expression of future opportunity, designed to stimulate the senses and spirit elevating and educating our minds about Boston’s “encounter between land and sea.”


In both its creation and execution the park is a model to be emulated in a district of the city that is rapidly developing with an ambiguous strategy for the public realm.

For additional information about the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse visit:

To hear a recent interview with Laurie Olin visit: 



Copyright © 2013  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Brendan Vogt August 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    Never realized all of the nuanced ideas that went into the development of this park, and had no idea that it was the creation of such an esteemed designer. Very enlightening piece – thanks for sharing this.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco August 15, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      It is unusual to have a document that so clearly articulates (and celebrates) the design of a public park. What I enjoyed is learning how much thought went into designing a space that is easy to understand yet has layers of meaning.

  • Reply Brallier, Jess August 15, 2013 at 7:39 pm


    *Jess M. Brallier* SVP and Publisher Family Education Network

    office: 617.671.3500 mobile: 617.306.1172

    *Pearson * Always Learning

    And THANK YOU!

    • Reply Patrice Todisco August 15, 2013 at 9:24 pm

      Thanks Jess! It’s a treat to write about a place you know well and visit often that is changing quickly. It’s hard to remember when the court house was the only building on the Fan Pier.

  • Reply Kim Honetschlager August 21, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Lovely essay. Thanks for drawing my attention to an outdoor space that I knew nothing about (despite living nearby).

    • Reply Patrice Todisco August 24, 2013 at 7:23 pm

      It’s time for a visit! You’d be amazed at the changes in the Seaport.

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