Boston Public Garden defines Boston.
For more on the story of its creation and preservation, Mary M.B Wakefield’s “Boston Public Garden: Showcase of the City” is a terrific history of the Public Garden.
Whose Idea was This?
Horace Gray, Sr., a Boston businessman (his father was the wealthiest man in New England) began pushing for Boston to create a public botanical garden in the 1830s. Gray was an avid horticulturalist–he is credited with introducing tulips to the United States, and at the greenhouse behind his Summer Street mansion he also raised camellias. He raised grapes on Nonantum Hill in Brighton, which was one of the real horticultural centers of North America. Gray helped to fund the Public Garden in its early years, and his vision lives on. His two sons overshadow him–Horace Gray, Jr., became Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, leaving in 1881 for the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served until 1902, Oliver Wendell Holmes succeeded him both times. And John Chipman Gray was the Story Professor of Law at Harvard, and founder of the Boston firm Ropes & Gray. Horace Gray’s second wife (his first, Harriet Upham, died in a shipwreck in 1834) was Sarah Russell Gardner, whose family gardens on Summer Street were as noteworthy as Gray’s greenhouses. Sarah’s younger brother Jack later married Isabella Stewart of New York, who created the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with its own distinctive gardens and artwork.
Proprietors maintained the conservatory (for growing plants) and the plantings on marshy land on the edge of the Back Bay Gray’s bankruptcy in 1847 forced the other proprietors to support the Garden, which they did. As part of the filling in of the Back Bay, the legislature in 1859 called for creating a Public Garden, and a competition for design selected a plan proposed by George F. Meacham, an architect and landscape designer. Meacham’s plan included a City Hall, formal flower beds, and other amenities. The City Hall and formal flower beds did not materialize, but the winding paths and other features did.
For much of the 20th century the Public Garden, like Boston itself, was in a state of decline. Mayor James Michael Curley suggested selling the land and building parks and gardens in other neighborhoods (where his constituents lived). In 1900 a crew of fifty maintained the Garden; by 1970, only four. Statues were missing, plants and trees were dying. In that year the Friends of the Public Garden formed to protect the Garden from further decline, and to bring it back. One of the founders of the Friends, Henry Lee, tells us something of their work in this video. Did you know that as part of its plan to revive the City, Boston’s leaders wanted to allow huge towers to be built on Boylston Street, on the Garden’s southern edge? The Park Plaza project would have brought needed revenue to Boston, but would have cast shadows on the Garden and increased the winds across this open area. Thanks to the Friends, whom Henry describes as “a bunch of nobodies, do-gooders with $200 in the bank,” the project was scaled back; and the Legislature prohibited any buildings that would cast a shadow on the Common or Public Garden, and also requires studies of the environmental impact–including wind-0f projects.
Here is a report of the Boston Landmarks Commission done in 1977.
Monuments in the Public Garden
The first Monument in the Public Garden is the “Good Samaritan” monument, commemorating the first use of ether at Massachusetts General Hospital on October 16, 1846. Mass General continues to commemorate Ether Day every year. This monument, by John Quincy Adams Ward (don’t let the name fool you–he was born in Ohio and spent most of his life in New York) was dedicated in 1867. There is, and was, some dispute about who “invented” or “discovered” ether. The demonstration on October 16, 1846 was conducted by dentist William T.G. Morton, who then received credit, much to the anger of another dentist, Horace Wells, with whom Morton had been in a dental practice in Hartford. Wells had pioneered the use of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, but his 1845 demonstration of nitrous oxide at Mass General had failed when the patient felt pain. Wells’s life went into a downward spiral influenced by the overuse of nitrous oxide and other pain relievers; he took his own life while incarcerated in New York. While Wells and Morton were disputing their primacy, Dr. Crawford Long, a doctor in Georgia, was using ether on his patients–beginning in 1842–though he neglected to publish the fact until 1849. The Good Samaritan monument does not mention any of the pioneers–not Morton, not Wells, not Long. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., said at the time of the dedication, “It is a monument to Ether, or either.”
The next monument to appear (in 1869) is Thomas Ball’s equestrian George Washington,
certainly a Boston icon. Ball was born in Charlestown, though he would spend most of his career in Florence, Italy. One of the many striking things about this monument is that it was entirely done in Massachusetts. Typically statues would be cast in Munich, but this one was cast at the Ames Foundry in Chicopee, after Ball had carved his model at the Piano Factory in the South End.
Where is Edward Everett?
But before there was Washington, there was Edward Everett! Actually the planning for the Washington statue began in 1859, but before the work was done,
William Wetmore Story’s statue to Everett went up in 1867. Everett–Senator, Governor, President of Harvard, greatest orator of the 19th-century, is today almost forgotten. His orations helped raise money to save Mount Vernon from demolition in the 1850s, and he was asked to give the principal address at Gettysburg in 1863 (the reason the dedication happened in November, when the battle took place in July, was that Everett needed sufficient time to prepare his speech). Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., said that in Boston they measure land by Boston Common, buildings by the State House, and men by Edward Everett.
Just two years after his death, his statue was standing in the Public Garden. But in 1911 he was moved to Dorchester, where he now declaims in Edward Everett Square, across the street from the site of his birth.
More Monuments and Icons
The Footbridge was built across the lagoon in the same year Washington’s statue arrived. It is a suspension bridge–sometimes called the world’s smallest suspension bridge.
Also in the 1870s, Robert Paget created the Swan Boats–pedal-operated boats to give tours of the lagoon. Paget introduced the Swan Boats in 1877, then died the following year. Julia Paget, his widow, and now with four small children to support on her own, carried on the enterprise, and the Paget family has been operating the Swan Boats now for four generations. Her youngest son John and his wife took over the business in 1914, running it with their 6 children until 1952, when their son Paul took on the responsibility, which has since passed to their daughter Lyn and her cousin Phil.
Four statues facing Boylston Street have a related theme==all had something to do with ending slavery.
Thomas Ball’s statue of Charles Sumner was the first of the group, dedicated in 1878, just a few years after Sumner’s death. Elected to the Senate in 1851, to succeed Daniel Webster, Sumner is perhaps best known for being knocked senseless on the floor of the Senate by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, after Sumner had some unflattering things to say about Brooks’s uncle, the Senator from South Carolina. Sumner had argued a case for the desegregation of Boston’s schools in the 1840s, and pushed for the Civil Rights Acts of 1865 and 1875.
The next proposed statue was of Colonel Thomas Cass, commander
of the Massachusetts Ninth Volunteer Regiment, the “Irish Ninth.” Cass, an immigrant from Ireland, was elected to the Boston School Committee in 1860–the first Irish immigrant elected to office in Massachusetts. He might have become mayor, but in 1862 was mortally wounded at Malvern Hill, Virginia. The first monument to Cass was almost universally scorned; Mayor Josiah Quincy began a fund to replace it, and in 1899 the monument by Richard Edwin Brooks went up, to greater acclaim. This statue won a gold medal at the 1901 Paris Exposition.
Daniel Chester French is best known for the Lincoln Memorial, but he has two statues in the Public Garden. The first is of Wendell Phillips, (1915), son of Boston’s first mayor, and one of the leading abolitionists and proponents of reform in the 19th-century. The caption reads “Whether in Chains or in Laurels Liberty Knows Nothing but Victory.”
did the monument to Thaddeus Kosciuzsko in 1927. Kosciuszko was a Polish patriot who fought in the American Revolution, then returned to Poland and led an unsuccessful revolution in his homeland. He returned to America in the 1790s, then lived out his life in exile in Switzerland. The land given him by the grateful American republic he wanted sold to pay for the liberation of enslaved people in America.
Historian Gary Nash has written about Kosciuszko’s relationship with Jefferson and with Agrippa Hull, who was his aide during the War, and later became Stockbridge’s largest black land0wner, in Friends of Liberty. Kosciuszko thought that Jefferson had agreed to free all his slaves when he died.
George Robert White
Three years before Kosciuszko, at the corner of Beacon and Arlington a monument to George Robert White appeared. White had been in the pharmaceutical business, and also
dealt in Boston real estate. Both had made him a wealthy man, and he became one of the city’s great benefactors. According to Mayor Curley, this was because of Curley’s convincing him to do so; but White left five million dollars to the City in 1922. From this the City created public health units throughout Boston neighborhoods (a priority of Mayor Curley’s) and to improved parks and public places. White Stadium in Franklin Park bears his name. White also left $50,000 for a monument to himself. Daniel Chester French created this one, Cast your Bread Upon the Waters, as well as the monument to White in Forest Hills Cemetery, the Angel of Peace. , both by Daniel Chester French.
The White Monument was the last collaboration between French and architect Henry Bacon, who designed the Lincoln Memorial.
Daniel Chester French originally from New Hampshire, moved to Concord when he was 17. Though he spent two semesters at MIT (which was then in the Back Bay), he withdrew, studied with Abigail May Alcott and John Quincy Adams Ward, and through the intercession of Emerson, received the commission for the Minuteman Statue at Concord. He went to Florence for four years, studying there with Thomas Ball, and became one of the most prolific American sculptors, with studios in Concord, New York, and Washington, D.C. For decades he was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and chaired the sculpture department. His home in Stockbridge, Chesterwood, is a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Old and the New
The oldest piece of artwork in the Garden is the Japanese Temple lantern, which was crafted in 1587, 53 years before Boston’s founding. Bunkio Matsuki, a dealer in Japanese art, gave the lantern–which had once graced a temple in Japan, to Boston in 1904. Matsuki had studied to be a Buddhist monk in Japan, but after migrating to America he pursued a career in promoting Japanese art in America.
The Public Garden has much worth finding. The fountains in particular are full of surprises. For example, Lillian Swann Saarinen’s Bagheera Fountain was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Here Bagheera, the panther, lunges at an eagle.
Like the Bagheera fountain, the Garden’s most photographed monument is to a work of fiction. Nancy Schon‘s “Make Way for Ducklings” statue commemorates Robert McCloskey’s classic book, with Mrs. Mallard leading her children–Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Oack, Pack, and Quack–to their new home on the island in the Public Garden.
There is much more to the Public Garden–have not mentioned the varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowers, the statue of Edward Everett Hale or the September 11 Memorial. There is much to explore on your own !
How can I get involved?
Do you want to help care for the sculptures in the Public Garden and Common? The Friends have established Sculpture Care, a fund that will allow you to do that!
If you want to learn more, or want a souvenir of the Boston Public Garden, click on this link for the Friends of the Boston Public Garden web-site!