The Fens (Boston, Massachusetts)

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The Agassiz Road Bridge from the Muddy River

The Back Bay Fens, often called The Fens, is a parkland and urban wild in Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States. It was established in 1879.[1] Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted to serve as a link in the Emerald Necklace park system, the Fens gives its name to the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood, and thereby to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox.


The Fens is a large picturesque park that forms part of Boston's Emerald Necklace. It is essentially an ancient spot of saltwater marshland that has been surrounded by dry land, disconnected from the tides of the Atlantic Ocean, and landscaped into a park with fresh water within. The park is also known as the Fens or the Fenway. The latter term can also refer to either the surrounding neighborhood or the parkway on its southern border.

When Boston was settled in the early 17th century the Shawmut Peninsula on which it was built was connected to Roxbury by a spit of sandy ground called "The Neck." The adjacent area of marshland to the west was a tidal flat of the Charles River. The area became malodorous with time as it became tainted with sewage from the growing settlement.

Sunset in the Fens viewed through Phragmites australis, a non-native reed. These are considered an invasive species by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which has applied for funds to remove them.

For the dual purpose of eliminating the health and aesthetic problem created by the polluted bay waters and creating new and valuable Boston real estate, a series of land reclamation projects was begun in 1820 and continued for the rest of the century. The filling of present-day Back Bay was completed by 1882. Filling reached Kenmore Square in 1890 and finished in the Fens in 1900. These projects more than doubled the size of the Shawmut Peninsula.

Olmsted's 1887 plan for the Fens

Olmsted's challenge was to restore the spot of marsh which was preserved into an ecologically healthy place that could also be enjoyed as a recreation area. Combining his renowned landscaping talents with state-of-the-art sanitary engineering, he turned a foul-smelling tidal creek and swamp into "scenery of a winding, brackish creek, within wooded banks; gaining interest from the meandering course of the water."[2]

Olmsted designed the Fens to be flushed by the tides twice daily. However, in 1910 a dam was constructed at Craigie's Bridge, closing the Charles River estuary to the ocean tides and forming a body of freshwater above the dam. Thus, the Fens became a freshwater lagoon regularly accepting storm water from the Charles River Basin.

Soon after, noted landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff, a protégé of Olmsted, added new features such as the Kelleher Rose Garden and employed the more formal landscape style popular in the 1920s and 1930s. An athletic field was also added.

In 1941, at the outbreak of United States involvement in World War II, citizens planted a victory garden within the Fens. While these were common in their era, the one in the Fens is now the last continually operating Victory Garden in existence and today is a much-valued community garden of flowers and vegetables.[2]

In 1961, a group of East Fenway friends and neighbors gathered to address issues in their neighborhood. They formed a neighborhood association called the Fenway Civic Association. Volunteers took on projects to clean their streets, beautify their surroundings, and protect their residents from crime. Soon the group also started advocating for improved maintenance of parkland and other elements to ensure a safe, enjoyable neighborhood.[3]

In 1983, the Back Bay Fens were designated as a Boston Landmarks.[4]

Structures and artwork[edit]

Fenway/Richard D. Parker Victory Gardens[edit]

The gardens are now named after Richard D. Parker, one of the original organizers of the garden, who continued to garden there until his death in 1975. Because of his efforts, the Victory Gardens in the Fenway are one of only two remaining victory gardens in the U.S. dating back to World War II. During World War II, President Roosevelt stated that Americans should grow their own vegetables. Much of the food grown was sent to the armed forces, and the remaining portions were rationed. The City of Boston set up 49 areas to grow gardens, including plots on Boston Common and Boston Public Garden. The Fenway Victory Gardens were established in 1942. These gardens are a central part of the Fenway community and are well known to gardeners across the country. The gardens provide the residents in the Boston neighborhoods with personal space to grow vegetables or flowers, and are private.

Agassiz Road Duck House[edit]

Agassiz Road Duck House

The Agassiz Road Duck House was designed by architect Alexander Longfellow, and built in 1897. It was used exclusively as a public restroom facility, and was closed after a damaging fire in 1986. The Duck House is sited within a prominent landscape in The Fens adjacent to the Agassiz Road bridge—the only building along that roadway. Agassiz Road is a significant pedestrian link between the East and West Fenway neighborhoods though it provides only one-way vehicular circulation. Much of the building that we see today is original; however, the roof design was simplified when it was reconstructed following the 1986 fire. While the Duck House itself is not a Boston Landmark, its rustic style and relationship to the park makes it an important contributing feature to the Back Bay Fens. Recently, the City of Boston has been reviewing possible ways to revive the Duck House with such ideas as a bicycle rental shop or café.[citation needed]

Fire Alarm Office[edit]

Dedicated on December 27, 1925, the Fire Alarm Office is located at 59 The Fenway, near the intersection of Westland Avenue and Hemenway Street. It is a neoclassical limestone building in the shape of a villa, with large ornate bronze entry doors to one side.


Inscription on front façade[5]

All fire alarm circuits along with radio and telephone communications for the Boston Fire Department are controlled from this site. The building has an independent generator to provide electrical power in the event of power disruptions.

Westland Gate (Johnson Gates)[edit]

A lion's head on the Westland Gate

In 1905, the formal entrance to Olmsted's park was switched to the end of Westland Avenue,[6] where the Westland Gate marks a somewhat grand portal to the park.

Katharine Lee Bates 'America the Beautiful' monument[edit]

The Katharine Lee Bates monument is a freestanding granite tablet inset with a bronze plaque on Agassiz Road overlooking the Muddy River and Stony Brook gatehouse. The plaque gives brief information on Bates and includes the lyrics of "America the Beautiful", which she wrote at the turn of the 20th century.

John Boyle O'Reilly Memorial[edit]

Close to the Westland Gate is the John Boyle O'Reilly Memorial. This memorial, sculpted in 1894 by Daniel Chester French memorializes the Irish poet and editor of the Catholic newspaper The Pilot. In the front of the memorial sits the bust of O'Reilly while the backside depicts a statue of Erin weaving a wreath of laurel and oak for her sons Poetry and Patriotism with Celtic calligraphy as a backdrop.

John Endecott Monument[edit]

Across from the Forsyth Dental Institute and Museum of Fine Arts on Forsyth Way, originally called the Huntington Avenue Entrance to The Fens, this is a large red granite monument and white granite statue of John Endecott. The statue is a standing portrayal of John Endecott dressed in early colonial attire, consisting of a jacket with a wide, square collar, knee breeches, buckle shoes, and a long cape. He holds his hat down at his side in his right hand. The sculpture rests on a square base that extends from a large granite wall with the inscription "JOHN ENDECOTT 1588–1665". A low granite bench surrounds the base of the wall.

According to inscriptions on one side of the monument, it was designed by Architect Ralph Weld Gray, and the statue was sculpted by Carl Paul Jennewein in 1936. The rear of the monument features a large inscription, "Bequest George Augustus Peabody Esquire of Danvers, Massachusetts". The main inscription features the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the quote "STRONG, VALIANT JOHN WILT THOU MARCH ON, AND TAKE UP STATION FIRST, CHRIST CAL'D HATH THEE, HIS SOLDIER BE, AND FAIL NOT OF THY TRUST -EDWARD JOHNSON 1654".

Athletic Field (Joseph Lee Playground, Kobe Field, Clemente Field, Jim Bradley Courts)[edit]

As part of Arthur Shurcliff's alterations to The Fens an athletic track and field was constructed in 1923. Two massive cast stone bleachers were completed in 1926 followed shortly in 1928 by a field house designed by William D. Austin. The original field house was demolished in the 1980s, due to neglect, and replaced with a simple Gothic styled storage structure. The 420m athletic track and field was later dedicated as the Joseph Lee Playground. At some point two baseball diamonds were added. One of them is dedicated to baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente. The other was dedicated to neighborhood residents Brian and David Cobe in 1984 with a bronze plaque inset into a Roxbury puddingstone boulder adjacent to the diamond. Sometime in the 1970s two basketball courts were also added alongside the playground and dedicated in honor of Jim Bradley. In 2010, as part of a public-private partnership between the City of Boston and Emmanuel College, the field was extensively renovated to collegiate standards, which necessitated the demolition of one of the stone bleachers.

Roberto Clemente Monument[edit]

This monument was dedicated in 1973 to baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente (1934–1972). It is a 5-foot-tall (1.5 m) stone marker inset with a large bronze relief of Clemente and a short inscription in Spanish and English, "Roberto Clemente: His three loves; Puerto Rico, baseball, and children." The adjacent baseball diamond, which is part of the athletic field, is also dedicated in his honor.

Japanese temple bell[edit]

The bronze bell was cast in 1675 by Tanaka Gonzaemon under the supervision of Suzuki Magoemon, and dedicated to Bishamon, a Buddhist god of children and good luck.[7] The bell was contributed to the Japanese war effort in 1940 but ended up on a scrap heap in Yokosuka. Sailors from the USS Boston (CA-69) salvaged the bell after World War II, and offered it to the city of Boston in 1945. In 1953, Japanese officials presented the bell to Boston as a symbol of peace.[8]

Kelleher Rose Garden[edit]

A passion for public rose gardens swept the country in the early 20th century. In 1930, landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff added a circular formal rose garden and fountain opposite the Museum of Fine Arts where the general public as well as rose enthusiasts could learn about rose culture and enjoy the flowers. The garden was expanded in 1933 when the rectangular section was built. At the south end of the rectangular portion of the garden is a statue that is a copy of the famous El Desconsol which was a gift to the City of Boston by Barcelona, Spain. In 1975, the garden was named the James P. Kelleher Rose Garden to honor the Boston Parks and Recreation Department's Superintendent of Horticulture. By the late 20th century, The Kelleher Rose Garden was in decline and needed a complete restoration. In 2001, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, in cooperation with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, convened landscape architects, horticultural specialists, and rosarians to develop a master plan for its renewal. Paths and planting beds were recut according to the original plans; the soil was rejuvenated and new turf laid. An irrigation system was installed and new signs were placed to help visitors learn from the garden. The restoration was completed in 2008. In 2014 the Emerald Necklace Conservancy completed restoration of the original ornamental fountain and had the descendant of the original sculpture manufacturer replicate missing ornamental cherub statues.

Kelleher Rose Garden, The Fens, September 2009

George Robert White Fund Memorial – Veterans Memorial Park[edit]

Created by the George Robert White Fund in 1948, this is a grouping of three war memorials arranged around a circle, adjacent to the Keller Rose Garden, the Agassiz Bridge, and a concert grove that overlooks two gatehouses across the Muddy River.

This World War II memorial features a granite monument designed by architect Tito Cascieri. It is composed of a plinth stage and lectern backed by a semi-circular wall, with names set in bronze tablets. A large bronze statue of an angel sculpted by John F. Paramino sits atop the memorial, along with an obelisk capped with bronze stars. It is the oldest and largest of the three memorials on the site, with the Korean and Vietnam war memorials flanking it. The lectern has a plaque, added during the 1990s, rededicating the entire memorial as Veterans Memorial Park and honoring Sergeant Charles Andrew MacGillivary, a World War II Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who enlisted in Boston.

The Korean War Memorial is a small installation, compared to the World War II memorial nearby. This memorial has a stone plaza area, with a map of the country of Korea embedded in it. Flanking the map are two stone slabs for use as benches. The memorial is a squarish monument that has three columns with names engraved in them. On top is the word, "Korea" and the years, "1950–1953."

The Vietnam War Memorial is a small installation, compared to the World War II memorial nearby. This memorial has a stone plaza area, with a map of the country of Vietnam embedded in it. Flanking the map are two stone slabs for use as benches. The memorial is a squarish monument that has three columns with names engraved in them. On top is the word, "Vietnam" and the years, "1962–1975."

Robert Burns statue (relocated)[edit]

Several streets surrounding the Fens (Peterborough, Kilmarnock, Queensbury) were given names of Scottish cities and towns mentioned in Robert Burns's literary works. In 1910 The Burns Memorial Association of Boston held a competition to make a statue of Burns, to correspond with that nomenclature as an honor. The winner was artist Henry Hudson Kitson. Kitson completed the statue in 1919, and Governor Calvin Coolidge dedicated it the next year. The piece was moved from the Fenway to Winthrop Square at Otis and Devonshire Streets, in the Financial District, in the summer of 1975. According to the Boston Art Commission, there are no current plans for returning it to the Fenway, but its granite plinth is still visible on the bridle path behind the Boston Fire Alarm Office and adjacent to Agassiz Road.[9]

Radio Operators memorial (relocated)[edit]

This memorial, commemorating the radio operators who lost their lives on merchant ships during the Second World War, depicts a sinking ship with "End of service" in Morse Code around the base. It was moved in the 1990s to Peddocks Island at the request of veteran operators, as Peddocks was where they trained. Its plinth remains located on Agassiz Road adjacent to the Agassiz Bridge, overlooking the war memorials across from the Kelleher Rose Garden.

Stony Brook Gatehouse and pump station[edit]

The Stony Brook Gatehouse was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. The building features a slate roof with distinctive wooden beams and walls of smooth stones of varying cuts. The red mortar used between the stones is similar to that of many of Richardson's other works. A similar companion building, designed by Richardson protege Edmund Wheelright, sits directly next to this structure. It was added at a later date to contain pump equipment for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. The Stony Brook Gatehouse has since been decommissioned and in 2010 was converted into the headquarters for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, and a visitors' center by Ann Beha Architects.

Boylston Street 'Richardson', Agassiz Road, Higginson Circle 'Fens' and Brookline Avenue bridges[edit]

The Fenway portion of the Emerald Necklace surrounds the Muddy River including four major bridges and four minor bridges.

Olmstead asked architect Henry Hobson Richardson, with whom he had worked frequently in the past, to design these bridges in conjunction with John. C. Olmsted, as well as a gatehouse for the Stony Brook conduit. Although simpler than most Richardson designs, they still highlight Richardson's love of uncut stone and arching masonry. The bridges were constructed either of local puddingstone from the Parker Hill quarry in Roxbury, or of Richardson's signature rose colored granite from Worcester. The exception was the Stony Brook Bridge by the architecture firm Walker & Kimball, which was constructed of brick.

The major bridges

Bowker Overpass: At the northern head of the lagoon is Commonwealth Avenue at the north, and to the immediate west is Bowker Overpass (a connector bridge from Storrow Drive to Boylston Street).

Boylston Street 'Richardson Bridge': (So named in early Park Department Reports in reference to architect H.H. Richardson.) Built 1883. This is the largest bridge in The Fens. It consists of a single large brick archway clad in Worcester Pink Granite.

Stony Brook Bridge (located on the Fenway at the intersection with Forsyth Way): Built in 1891, this was a 5 arch span Italianate brick bridge with pink granite abutments. The Fenway passed over it while stairs provided access to the banks of the Stony Brook below. It was demolished in 1904 for an extension of the Stony Brook Culvert to Gatehouse #2, which buried the Stony Brook from its previous outlet at Museum Square (the intersection of Huntington Avenue/Parker Street @ Forsyth Way).

Agassiz Road Bridge: Built in 1887, it consists of a series of brick archways clad in Roxbury Puddingstone.

Higginson Circle 'Fens Bridge' (intersection of Avenue Louis Pasteur and The Fenway): Originally called The Fens Bridge in early Park Department Reports. Constructed Feb 20 – November 17, 1891. It is made of masonry and Roxbury puddingstone and has a 15-foot (4.6 m) span and a 96-foot (29 m) width. According to City Document 11 1892, the original cost in unadjusted dollars was $27,699.34.

Brookline Avenue Bridge: Constructed in 1899, demolished 1954–56, to constructed in 2016&2017 as part of a river restoration project. The Brookline Avenue Bridge was completely demolished when the Muddy River was placed in a culvert at the intersection of Park Drive, Boylston Street, and Brookline Avenue in the 1950s and a recreation was completed as part of the first phase of the Muddy River Restoration Project when the 1950s culverts were removed and the river basin restored to Olmsted's design.

The bridges not named for roads they carried were named for prominent local figures' families at the time of construction of The Fens: Henry Lee Higginson, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Ida Agassiz his wife.

The minor bridges

Bridle-Path Bridge: Begun August 1893, completed August 13, 1894. It was demolished in 1954–56 for a large roadway reconfiguration. This stone arch bridge ran on a curve from Park Drive (formerly Audubon Road) to a bridle path running parallel to The Riverway. While not a true replacement, a new bridge connecting the Riverway to Park Drive was constructed in 2016 & 2017 which approximates the connection this bridge once provided to the roadways as part of a river restoration project.

Huntington Avenue Entrance Bridge: This pedestrian bridge runs from Forsyth Way into The Fens by the Japanese Bell. It was originally a wooden structure built in 1923 as part of Arthur Shurcliff's reconfiguration of The Fens. It was rebuilt as a reinforced concrete bridge with granite cladding, in the 1980s.

Museum Road Bridge: This pedestrian bridge runs from Museum into The Fens, to a path adjacent to the lagoon across from the Museum of Fine Arts. It was originally a wooden structure built in 1923 as part of Arthur Shurcliff's reconfiguration of The Fens. It was rebuilt as a reinforced concrete bridge with granite cladding, in the 1980s.

Tremont Street Entrance Bridge (also known at the "long bridge" in some Parks Department reports): The Tremont Street Entrance to The Fens was renamed Evans Way Park after Robert D. Evans, whose wife donated an entire wing to the neighboring Museum of Fine Arts.[10] The bridge at this location was a wooden structure designed in 1923 as part of Arthur Shurcliff's reconfiguration of The Fens, but not completed until 1939 by the Works Progress Administration. It was destroyed by arson in 1964 during a student riot. The abutments remain and there have been many unsuccessful attempts at reconstructing the bridge since. It is expected that at some point following the second phase of the Muddy River Restoration Project's dredging, this bridge will be reconstructed.

Contemporary use[edit]

As the Fens park is within an area of Boston that includes such sites as Emmanuel College, Northeastern University, Wentworth Institute of Technology, Boston Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, the Boston Latin School, the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics & Science, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Simmons College, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Harvard Medical School, and the numerous other institutions that make up the Longwood Medical Area, it is a valued and much-frequented green area within the city.

The Fenway Civic Association works with public agencies to enhance and improve this parkland, reduce vehicular traffic, and protect precious urban resources.

The Emerald Necklace Conservancy is headquartered in the park and operates a year-round visitor center. Their mission is to restore and maintain the Emerald Necklace Park System through public and private partnerships.



  1. ^ "Back Bay Fens". City of Boston. Retrieved September 6, 2016.
  2. ^ a b "Back Bay Fens". Tour. Emerald Necklace Conservancy. Archived from the original on May 11, 2008. Retrieved March 21, 2015.
  3. ^ "Fenway Civic Association". Fenway Civic Association.
  4. ^ City of Boston. "Back Bay Fens Study Report, Boston Landmarks Commission" (PDF).
  5. ^ "Fire Alarm Office @ 59 Fenway, Back Bay". Boston Fire Historical Society. Retrieved March 30, 2017.
  6. ^ Marcus, Jon. The Complete Illustrated Guidebook to Boston's Public Parks and Gardens, (Silver Lining Books, NY, 2002),pg 54.
  7. ^ "Boston Immigrant Trail". Boston Family History. Archived from the original on February 14, 2010.
  8. ^ "Emerald Necklace Parks" (PDF). Emerald Necklace Conservancy. November 2012. Retrieved March 21, 2015.
  9. ^ "Who's standing in Winthrop Square? – The Boston Globe". January 18, 2010. Retrieved October 23, 2013.
  10. ^ Edgers, Geoff (April 27, 2008). "MFA unveiling a grander gateway to its treasures". Archived from the original on January 2, 2016. Retrieved January 2, 2016. [The] Evans Wing... increased the museum's size by 40 percent and drew enough attention that, on a cold Wednesday night in February 1915, horse-drawn carriages and cars clogged Huntington Avenue as some 6,000 people made their way to celebrate the occasion. The Evans doors were not opened that night, as visitors were taken through the Huntington entry, so they could form a receiving line for Maria Antoinette Evans, the philanthropist whose gift made the expansion possible.


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 42°20′32″N 71°05′35″W / 42.3423°N 71.0930°W / 42.3423; -71.0930