In the BACkground :: The Back Bay Fens

Get Outside: The Back Bay Fens
A series from Phil Reville, M. Arch Candidate

As a first venture into the ‘In the BACkground’ series, I have decided to take a trip the the Back Bay Fens. Now that the brutal weather has finally subsided (hopefully for good), a trip outdoors seemed in order!  As the closest segment of the large chain of parks known as the Emerald Necklace to us here at the BAC, the Back Bay Fens has a surprising number of offerings.

In 1878, the often-considered grandfather of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmstead, began his design for what would be the largest park system in all of Boston, the Emerald Necklace. Along with his (often overlooked) partner, Calvert Vaux, Olmstead sought the creation of special places of intimacy and recreation, vast green and open spaces, and a park where people might retreat and find relief from the pressures of daily life. What many people don’t know is that a large part of the over 20 year project was devoted to the restoration of the area that has become known as the Back Bay Fens. Through close attention to plant species selection and the Charles River watershed, this once swampy area has become home to Victory Gardens, the Kelleher Rose Garden, the Clemente field, basketball courts, and meandering walkways. In this first visit to the Emerald Necklace, I will be looking at the Back Bay Fens, an area of the park at the doorstep of the BAC.

The Emerald Necklace is made up of a series of linked parks: Back Bay Fens, The Riverway, Olmsted Park, Jamaica Pond, Arnold Arboretum, and Franklin Park.  The Back Bay Fens stretches from Charlesgate by the Commonwealth Mall to the Fenway neighborhood, looping down by Northeastern University and the Wentworth Institute of Technology. Traversed by the aptly named Muddy River, this area of the park, while small, is home to more than you might think.

I started my trek through the park at the Boylston Street bridge, designed by notable 19th-century architect, H. H. Richardson (designer of Trinity Church at Copley Square). From here I made my way down into the Victory Gardens. Started during World War II, Victory Gardens popped up across the United States as a relief effort that might ease demand on wartime food supply. The gardens are still alive and well, some of which are tended to meticulously. Wrapping around the gardens is the Muddy River, and some seriously huge reeds - plants largely to thank for the success of Olmstead’s Fens water basin remediation plan. Once past the Victory Gardens, I walked across Agassiz Road to find the War Memorials to the men and women of Boston who served in the Korean War, Vietnam War, and World War II. Here I saw people sitting, reading or chatting, and enjoying the much needed turn in the weather. Walking southwest, following the turn of the Fens, I found the Kelleher Rose Garden. First designed by landscape architect, Arthur Shurcliff in 1920, the Rose Garden has been restored by the City of Boston and the Emerald Necklace Conservancy and boasts over 1000 different species of roses. This too seemed like a great place to sit and relax, and definitely a great place to sketch.  While the weather might need to improve a bit more to see some of these roses in bloom, it’s still certainly a great place to sit and relax. Looking south from the north end of the Rose Garden provides a well-framed view of the Museum of Fine Arts. Just a 15 minute walk from school, the MFA has an outstanding collection of art as well as architecture from the likes of Hugh Stubbins, Guy Lowell, I.M. Pei, and Foster & Partners… and BAC students get in for FREE.

Past the Rose Garden, the park begins to open up where the basketball courts and Clemente Field are located. This is a more high traffic area of the park, with people commuting through the park from Fenway to the area surrounding the MFA and Northeastern, others playing sports or jogging.  It seemed like the perfect place for frisbee or a quick game of basketball to get out of studio for an hour or two. Past Clemente Field is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, another of Boston’s great art museums. If you haven’t been yet, the museum not only holds an impressive collection of art from painters like John Singer Sargent, but the story of the museum itself is one that makes the visit altogether worth it.  It’s also a great chance to check out another of Renzo Piano’s innovative museum expansions. At $5 with your BAC student ID, you should definitely make the short trip.

Once at the ISG Museum, the park turns north and heads up towards the Fenway T stop where you can take a quick ride  back to the BAC if you’ve had enough walking.

Spring has sprung, finally. What better time to get outside and explore one of the best parks the city has to offer? The Back Bay Fens is in and of itself a masterpiece of design, surrounded by some world-class museums that ought to be taken advantage of. Even at it’s furthest end, the Back Bay Fens is no more than a 40 minute walk, and at it’s closest, a 10 minute walk. With the stress of all things work and school, sometimes it is important to just get outside and get some fresh air. The Back Bay Fens are right here, go and see. Enjoy the warm weather!

Check out the rest of the photos from this "In the BACKground"