Boston/Cambridge, Landscape History, Parks, Public Realm

Boston's Charles River Esplanade: An Urban Jewel

March 7, 2015


Several weeks ago, after one of our frequent storms, I decided to get up early on a Sunday morning to walk along the Esplanade. It’s a park I know well, having been the first executive director of The Esplanade Association.


Inspired by Elizabeth Hope Cushing’s recently published book, Arthur A. Shurcliff: Design, Preservation, and the Creation of the Colonial Williamsburg Landscape, I planned to write about the Esplanade, one of his major Boston projects. As is often the case, although I have spent endless hours in the park, I didn’t have any winter images. At the time I didn’t realize how much snow would fall and that I need not hurry.



Shurcliff has been very much in the news of late with Cushing’s book and a citation in the January 23rd Boston Globe op-ed piece, “Olympics can give Boston its overdue urban transit ring” by Alex Krieger. Described by Krieger as “Boston’s greatest transit ring dreamer” Shurcliff, who never drove an automobile, proposed a plan for a circumferential boulevard around the city that was never implemented. According to Krieger it remains a relevant concept and today “It’s hard to imagine a better line for creating social, economic, and transportation connectivity.”


While Shurcliff’s vision for Boston’s transportation system was not fully realized, his vision for the Charles River Esplanade, the three-mile long, 65-acre park that stretches from the Museum of Science to the Boston University Bridge, was. Here he worked for more than twenty-five years, designing and redesigning the park to accommodate the construction of Storrow Drive in the early 1950’s.

Childe Hassam - 1892

Charles Hassam, 1892. Charles River Basin and Beacon Hill.

The history of the Esplanade has been extensively documented. Made possible by the transformation of the Charles River from a tidal estuary to a fresh water river basin through the building of a dam, the park is a totally man-made creation, conceived as “the central court of honor” in a Metropolitan park system proposed by landscape architect Charles Eliot (1859-1897). His vision, for a waterfront park rivaling those of Europe, imagined the Esplanade as the “crown jewel.”


The Charles Eliot Monument, designed by Shurcliff, is the focal point of the recently restored Charles Eliot Memorial.

In it earliest iteration, the Esplanade was just that, a promenade along the water’s edge. Officially opened as the Boston Embankment in 1910, the 100-foot wide walkway provided a clearly defined, formal edge between the river and the public realm.


“Back Bay, Waterfront View: Looking Toward Longfellow Bridge,” June 3, 1916 by Leon Abdalian. BPL Print Department.

It was through possibly one of the most egregiously violated public gifts of all time, the $1,000,000 donation of Helen Osborne Storrow, “to carry out a comprehensive plan for the beautification and improvement of the Charles River Basin,” honoring her late husband, that the park as we know it today was created.



Following Storrow’s gift a Special Commission on the Charles River Basin recommended that recreational opportunities be expanded along the river by removing the embankment walls and widening the park, using fill pumped from the river bed.

Augmented by $2.3 million dollars of public funding, the project added more than 40 acres to the Esplanade, creating the first lagoon, boat landings, plazas, playgrounds and a music oval following Shurcliff’s plan.


Although in his later life Shurcliff lived in Ipswich, where he and his wife, Margaret Homer Nichols built a home on Argilla Road, he was born on West Cedar Street on Beacon Hill and both lived and maintained an office in the community throughout his lifetime. I like to imagine that his work on the Esplanade was for him the perfect project; the reclamation of the river that he knew as a child as a public space where formal and natural features combined to allow access for boating, fishing and swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter.

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Boys Fishing (approximately 1950). Copyright Leslie Jones, Courtesy of the BPL Leslie Jones Collection.

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Swimming at Charlesbank (1940). Copyright Leslie Jones. Courtesy of the Leslie Jones Collection, BPL.

In 1936, the Esplanade was formally dedicated as the “Storrow Memorial Embankment,” a name that never took hold. Four years later on July 2, 1940 the Hatch Shell, designed by architect Richard J. Shaw, was dedicated, replacing the temporary wooden shell seen in the image dated 1930, below.

Arthur Fiedler and Symphony Players 1930 BPL

Here, under the direction of noted conductor Arthur Fielder, the Boston Pops Orchestra performed summer concerts which have now been reduced to only one – the annual Boston Pops Fourth of July celebration. Fortunately the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, founded by the late Charles Ansbacher in 2001, has chosen the Hatch Shell as its principal home, returning the tradition of summer concerts to the park.

The quilt below, Esplanade on the Fourth, is by local fiber artist Sue Colozzi


The country’s first community boating program was begun on the Esplanade in the mid-1930’s and a boathouse, designed by Kilham, Hopkins and Greeley, constructed in 1941.


When Storrow Drive was built in the early 1950’s Shurcliff was retained to assist in both the layout of the road and replacement of parkland lost to the highway. According to Cushing he was at first opposed to the highway, which was highly contested by many, including his Beacon Hill neighbors.


“The beautiful driveway along the Esplanade running along Charles River to Charles Street connects traffic to all northern points and Boston through underpass of West Boston Bridge.”

The two postcards from my collection, above and below,show the transformation of the carriage drive to Storrow Drive. 


Charles River Basin from John Hancock Building, showing Storrow Drive and the Longfellow Bridge spanning the basin between Boston and Cambridge, Mass.

Shurcliff did, however, in collaboration with his son, Sidney, work to ameliorate the impacts of Storrow Drive on the park. According to Linda M. Cox in The Charles River Esplanade: Our Boston Treasure, he devised a “brilliant and simple solution to replace this lost parkland.” To do so he lengthened the outer barrier of the existing lagoon, created a new island connected to the original shoreline by footbridges, added a series of lagoons and added an undulating shoreline between the Harvard and BU Bridges. According to Cox, “trees, shrubs, and grass were planted everywhere.”


Shurcliff was deeply impacted by the New England landscape with an affinity for historic sites and structures  and is described by Cushing as “an appreciator of and by extension a preservation advocate for, old places and open spaces.” It is ironic that his masterpiece, the Esplanade, owned and managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation, has throughout the years suffered from a lack of funding and maintenance, in need itself of preservation and ongoing restoration.

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During the last decade much of this work has been accomplished by The Esplanade Association, the non-profit friends group formed in 2001 to work to restore and enhance Boston’s Charles River Esplanade on behalf of the greater Boston community.


In 2010, in recognition of the Esplanade’s one hundredth anniversary, The Esplanade Assocation, launched Esplanade 2020, “to forge a shared vision for the park’s future—one rooted in its nineteenth century origins, but looking forward to address the needs of the broad contemporary public.”



It remains an interesting balance, weighing the restoration of historic park elements with the addition of new park features. Cushing quotes historian Karl Haglund author of Inventing the Charles River as describing Shurcliff’s plan for the Esplanade as superb,“grounded in simplicity and restraint.” These qualities are, for many, what continues to make the Esplanade a special place regardless of the season.  Hopefully they will not be lost or else, like the snowman on the river docks below, we will all be very grumpy.


For additional information read: The Esplanade Cultural Landscape Report by Shary Page Berg, FASLA

Copyright © 2015 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Pam Steel March 7, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    As a Back Bay resident, I thank you for your succinct history of a place that is dear to my heart. You have a great way of condensing down historical facts, adding your own voice, and combining it with an ample amount of images—making it such a pleasure to read. I look forward to your future posts!

    • Reply Patrice Todisco March 7, 2015 at 4:14 pm

      The Esplanade is such a beautiful place in every season and a gift to those who live nearby. Lucky you!

  • Reply Of Gardens March 11, 2015 at 2:34 am

    Can you go into more detail about this: “It was through possibly one of the most egregiously violated public gifts of all time”? I would love to know more. Thanks

    • Reply Patrice Todisco March 14, 2015 at 6:23 pm

      Great question! Helen Storrow donated $1,000,000 (equivalent to $13,000,000 today) to create the park in her husband’s honor in 1926 and although it was dedicated as the Storrow Memorial Embankment that name never took hold. Instead, the Storrow’s legacy is remembered through the name of the highway that she was ardently opposed (and delayed) and was built shortly after her death, effectively cutting the park off from the surrounding neighborhoods it was designed to serve.

  • Reply Maureen Bovet April 1, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Just found your blog and wanted to thank you for your wonderful postings. I live in the suburbs but love to walk the city especially the parks. Your writings are such a great tool to encourage support for the green spaces which feed our souls and enrich our knowledge of all the hard work that went into creating our public parks.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco April 6, 2015 at 9:50 pm

      I am pleased you enjoy my blog, Maureen. I spent many years working on Boston’s parks and open spaces and, like you, enjoy them immensely.

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