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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Creating the Jewels of the Emerald Necklace

Frederick Law Olmsted began his first Boston park project in 1878 in the newly created open land known as the Back Bay Fens (marshy area or swamp.) Olmsted worked with city engineers not only to solve the sanitation problem but to restore the area to its original salt marsh condition. His design allowed for a continuous flow of water by using flood gates to control the levels of the water. The Muddy River, which flowed into the area, was diverted to flow into the Charles River. Olmsted commented on the idea of having a marsh in the city saying that: "there may be a momentary question of its dignity and appropriateness. . .but [it] is a direct development of the original conditions of the locality in adaptation to the needs of a dense community."¹

At the same time that Olmsted was working to create the Back Bay Fens he also became involved in another project in Boston. Charles Sprague Sargent turned to Olmsted for help in establishing and maintaining an arboretum, a collection of trees and shrubs, from all over the world. Olmsted initially worried that combining a park and an arboretum would be difficult because they were created for different purposes. One of the challenges was to try and blend the scientific world with a picturesque world. However, Olmsted gradually embraced the idea and developed preliminary plans in 1878. Olmsted and Sargent, first director of Boston's Arnold Arboretum, spent four years trying to convince the park commission to allow the Arnold Arboretum to become a part of the growing Boston Park System. In 1882, an agreement was signed between Harvard University and The City of Boston by which the city would own the land and lease it to Harvard for a dollar a year for a thousand years. The Arboretum is now a 265-acre jewel in the Emerald Necklace.

Construction of the Arboretum began in 1883 and was well under way when Frederick Law Olmsted undertook his next project for Boston, Franklin Park. Originally called West Roxbury Park, the name was changed in hopes of attracting funding from the Benjamin Franklin estate. The funding did not materialize, but the name has endured. Olmsted felt that Franklin Park was the most critical link in the whole system because its size and topographical features helped people feel more in contact with nature: "The all important feature of the West Roxbury (Franklin Park) site is a gentle valley.... Relieved of a few houses, causeways, and fences, left with unbroken surface of turf and secluded by woods on the hillsides, this would at once supply a singularly complete and perfect though limited example of a type of scenery which is perhaps the most soothing in its influence on mankind of any presented by nature."²

Some of the landowners around the proposed Franklin Park were reluctant to give up their land. In order for Olmsted to create the park, some land had to be secured by the city through eminent domain. Eminent domain gives the city the right to purchase land from owners at a fair price for the good of the city. Eventually, 500 acres of land were secured, Olmsted finalized the design plans in 1884-1885, and construction began in 1885.

In 1880, Frederick Law Olmsted suggested to the Parks Commission that the Muddy River be included in the plan for the Emerald Necklace. The little stream was brackish (a mixture of salt and fresh water), a source of disease, and a breeding ground for mosquitoes. In 1881, John C. Olmsted, Frederick Law Olmsted's stepson, drew up plans for the Muddy River improvement. This plan included changes such as making the Muddy River a gently winding stream, converting a cattail swamp to a large pond (Leverett Pond), and connecting it to Ward's Pond by a stream. Sensitive to the landscape, Olmsted blended man-made portions with natural water and land formations. Olmsted described it as "a chain of picturesque fresh-water ponds, alternating with attractive natural groves and meads, the uppermost of these ponds being Jamaica Pond."³ His plan also included parkways, paths, and bridle paths (for riding horses). Construction began on the Muddy River in 1890, 10 years after Olmsted's initial suggestion for improvement. The area that includes Leverett Pond, Willow Pond, and Ward's Pond was singled out and called Leverett Park. In 1900, the named was changed to Olmsted Park to honor its designer.

Jamaica Pond, located right next to Olmsted Park, was the only large fresh-water pond in the city (it provided water to residents until 1848), and it was a logical place for a park. Ice houses built in the 1870s detracted from the scenery and contaminated the water, which convinced both the park commissioners and Olmsted to incorporate the pond as a park in the Emerald Necklace. Olmsted saw Jamaica Pond as "a natural sheet of water, with quiet, graceful shores, rear banks of varied elevation and contour, for the most part shaded by a fine natural forest-growth to be brought out over-hangingly, darkening the water's edge and favoring great beauty in reflections and flickering half-lights."4

Because Jamaica Pond was a popular area for large summer homes, it was necessary for Boston to use eminent domain to acquire the land around the pond. Olmsted retained two of these houses in his plan so that the buildings could be used as refectories—places to get refreshments. Olmsted made few changes to the landscape, and Jamaica Pond still largely reflects Olmsted's vision for it.

Olmsted's chain of parks was almost complete. He wanted to integrate the existing open green spaces in Boston into the park plan. He used Commonwealth Avenue as a connection between the Back Bay Fens and the Public Garden. Although he did not design Commonwealth Avenue Mall, the Public Garden, or the Boston Common, Olmsted either modified already existing plans or implemented new plantings and pathways. Frederick Law Olmsted had succeeded in encircling Boston with a living, invigorating "green ribbon."

Questions for Reading 3

1. What problems did Olmsted face in creating the individual parks and the connections between them?

2. What is eminent domain? Why did the city use it? How do you think the people felt who were forced to move, even though they were paid?

3. Why did Olmsted see Franklin Park as the critical piece in his plan?

4. Why did Olmsted feel it was important to include Jamaica Pond in the Emerald Necklace?

5. Based on the descriptions, which of the parks or elements in the Emerald Necklace appeals to you the most and why?

Reading 3 was compiled from S. B. Sutton, Civilizing American Cities: A Selection of Frederick Law Olmsted's Writings on City Landscape (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971) and Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Publishing of Harvard University Press, 1982).

¹Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Publishing of Harvard University Press, 1982), 57.
²Ibid., 66.
³Ibid.
4Ibid., 87.

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