Frederick Law Olmsted, Hermann Grundel, and the Remaining Back Bay Fens

(I originally posted this article at Union Park Press.)

By now, anyone who actually cares about Boston’s 19th-century park design has already read Justin Martin’s article “A Body of Water so Foul” about Frederick Law Olmsted and the Back Bay Fens. For those of you who don’t care, or can no longer read articles longer than 140 characters due to a nervous Twitter habit, here’s the 139-character summary: thanks to poor drainage due to filling in salt marshes, the Back Bay smelled very bad by 1878. Frederick Law Olmsted cleaned it up. Yippee!

Back Bay Fens ca. 1887—Harvard GSD/LOC

Back Bay Fens in need of tidying up, 1887—Harvard GSD/LOC

Martin provides a reasonable summary of the state of the Back Bay in Olmsted’s time, and Olmsted’s radical idea to create a new, better salt marsh on the site; the city of Boston had proposed a “large rectangular storage basin” for the Back Bay. Unfortunately, Martin elides a few key details about the Back Bay Fens more recent history and especially about poor maligned Hermann Grundel, the man who won the competition to design the Fens, only to see his hopes dashed, his hard work ignored! Ignored! only to see Mozart—I mean, Frederick Law Olmsted—take on the project and go on to achieve landscape design glory.

Martin writes:

“To fix up this malodorous mess, the Boston park commission held a contest in 1878, soliciting proposals from the public. There were 23 entries. The less-than-impressive winning submission came from a florist, who suggested simply superimposing an ornamental garden onto the swampland. American Architect and Building News described the design as “childish.”

That “florist” was Hermann Grundel, according to Cynthia Zaitzevsky’s book. If he was a florist, he must have been arranging flowers for giants; in 1878, he designed landscape at Somerville’s 16-acre Saxton A. Foss Park. That park, “situated much below the drainage level of the locality and rapidly becoming prejudicial to the public health, ‘was made to rejoice and blossom as the rose,'” according to the Historical address delivered by Ex-Mayor W.H. Furber, in the High school building, Somerville, July 4, 1876. Since Furber was speaking in the pre-Twitter era, he went on for quite some time; you can read pages more here.

In short, Hermann Grundel, who had already designed a successful 16-acre park on a local site with drainage problems, won a Boston Back Bay park competition that was judged by a panel which consulted… Frederick Law Olmsted. It was Olmsted who convinced the judges to abandon the design due to lack of planning for flooding and to hire him to design the Fens instead. It’s fortunate that it happened, but frankly, the process seems, shall we say, questionable.

When Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux won the competition to design New York City’s Central Park, he had never designed or planted a park. By comparison, Grundel was a seasoned professional who had also been an active member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society since at least 1854. That fact doesn’t necessarily improve Grundel’s design. (I cannot locate Grundel’s plan on the web this fine morning).  Still, we shouldn’t dismiss this “florist” simply because he lost out to a genius. Most of us would.

Martin is also a bit coy about the changes the Back Bay Fens have undergone since 1900. He writes, “The Fens has changed greatly since Olmsted’s day…In some places, those sinuous curves are no longer even visible.” They’re not visible because the city of Boston dumped thousands of tons of dirt on them. Below is a brief pictorial history of the Back Bay Fens.

I can’t post it here, but if you want to get an idea of just how little land Boston had to work with in the Fens, take a look at this 1852 map at the Norman B. Leventhal center at the Boston Public Library. No, the map hasn’t been erased; half of Boston is missing, especially the chunk northwest of Tremont Street.

Now take a look at the Back Bay Fens ca. 1885…

and  today, care of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy.

According to Nancy Seasholes‘s Walking Tours of Boston’s Made Land, the city of Boston began filling in the Fens starting in 1904, beginning at the Fens Bridge end of the park (to the south/left in these maps). Some of that fill came from coal ashes, some of it from excavating what is now the MBTA’s Green Line under Boylston Street. As Seasholes writes, “The landmaking moved the waterway from the west to the east side of the park and created the land that is now Roberto Clemente Field.” (emphasis mine) A northern portion of what is now the Victory Gardens was filled in 1910-11 with dirt from the excavation of the Red Line under Park Street.

I don’t regret these changes, any more than I rue the fact that Hermann Grundel’s brilliant floral design was shoved aside for Olmsted’s vision. The Victory Garden is a vital community, and I can’t begrudge the local kids a place to play. I just want to make sure we remember who (and what) got lost at the Fens, and why. The straightest channel isn’t always the best path for water, and the shortest story isn’t always completely true. And anyone can grow up to design a park…even a florist.