Monday, October 18, 2010

Garden of delights...and discoveries

Photograph by Rick Harris, courtesy of Wikipedia
Unlike the free-for-all flexibility of the Boston Common's layout and development over three centuries, its 1837 offspring has always been very strict with its public about how it is to be used, enjoyed and traversed — in proper, prim Victorian fashion. Hence its period appearance has remained constant, save for sporadic sproutings of statues and memorials from time to time, to be examined below. 

The Public Garden's "gated" entrance — and a fussy one at that — is up front about the behavioral limits set upon us the moment we enter. The garden's rigidly structured system of narrowly winding paths and an axially centered footbridge favors passive promenading over the raucous running, rollerblading, skateboarding and biking that the Common's wide, irregular, straight-as-an-arrow walkways encourage. Depending on whether we're just passing through over the bridge from Common to Commonwealth or leisurely strolling through its statuary, topiary and botany, the Garden gets us in tune to the straight-and-narrow and the winding-and-narrow. This forces us to slow down, which in turn encourages us to stop and smell the flowers and see the statues and memorials. Some of these are explored here so the just-passin'-thru crowd can take note of what they've been missing.

Hail Hale!

Our Common-to-Garden transition is gauntly greeted by this 1913 statue of Edward Everett Hale by Bela Pratt, sculptor of the robed female "Art" and "Science" sculptures flanking the axial approach to the Boston Public Library. This lanky likeness of the great American author, Unitarian clergyman and anti-slavery advocate (no, not rock musician) guards the Garden gate with gentility and gravity, keeping stalwart vigil over the park and its visitors to see that everything is kept as architect George F. Meacham, city engineer James Slade and forester John Galvin had intended for this 24-acre oasis. 

Moreover, Hale has some Garden-gazing counsel for us:

To look up and not down,
To look forward and not back,
To look out and not in, and
To lend a hand.
— "Ten Times One Is Ten" (1870)
We may thus be tempted to look forward toward the path across the Garden's central cynosure, the 1867 cable suspension bridge (the world's shortest at the time) crossing over the swan-boat lagoon and directing us out of the Public Garden and into the Commonwealth Avenue Mall — especially if we're in a rush, which most of us are most of the time. But in being so, we, of course, miss the details and the fullness of the Public Garden experience. 

So let us instead take the advice of Robert Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
— "The Road Not Taken" (1920)

With that, we'll take one of the roads less traveled.
Mallards on the march 

"Make Way for Ducklings" sculpture by Nancy Schön. Photo by Gareth Owen.
Which is making a difference already. Nancy Schön's 1987 bronze castings of Mrs. Mallard and her ornithic progeny Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack, the subjects of Robert McCloskey's beloved book Make Way for Ducklings, are leading us on in a different direction, more akin to the erratic way the Mallards flew all over Boston in search of a home before settling down on the island in the Public Garden lagoon. 

Of course, Mr. Hale, the Mallards had to look down to find their home, as we must do to notice their statues. Avoiding decoy artifice or duck- umbrella polish, Schön's sculpture has a rugged organicity that blends well with its natural environs and an actual-size likeness simpatico with the real ducks in the lagoon (right). 

The dutiful attentiveness of the mother, the premature restlessness of the ducklings, and their basic instinct to follow Mom's guiding wing are evident in the diversity of postures from figure to figure and the sinuous but steady curve of their caravan. Which also goes with the flow of the Garden's curving paths and organically shaped lagoon. The Mallards' 35-foot Belgian-stone platform recalls the cobblestone paving of Beacon Hill's Louisburg Square, where Mrs. Mallard considered homesteading until the traffic-free Public Garden made way for her, by virtue of the tranquility its "roads less traveled by" would bring her family. At left is their final landing, a haven of dense foliage, soft earth, wild grasses, birdsongs, light and shadow — all of the nurturing nature they couldn't find anywhere else in Boston's asphalt, cobblestone or concrete jungles. But the ducks' domain is strictly for the birds, because it's surrounded by...


Yes, Mallard Manor is none other than the island in the middle of the north end of the lagoon, where no man lands (save for a skate lace-up in the winter).

Reserved for the birds and their Swan Boat compatriots, the lagoon is off limits to the rowboats, sailboats, kayaks and Harvard crews that scared the Mallards away from the Esplanade.

So let's proceed along the Public domain...

Tetsu tourou

Which means "iron lantern" in Japanese. A gift to the City of Boston from Japanese-American merchant Bunkio Matsuki in 1905, this 16th-century tetsu tourou symbolizes Boston's long-term liaison with Japan in its oriental ceremonial presence, its tip of the hat to iron manufacturer Horace Gray's benefaction of the Garden, and in the way it makes a Japanese garden out of its immediate surroundings.

Unlike the geometrical perfection and symmetrical propriety of the pedestals, platforms and plinths of its American counterparts, the lantern is situated on a rugged rock reminiscent of the organic nature revered in its homeland's rock gardens. Which jibes gingerly with the organically curvy lagoon, as well as the Garden's Japanese scholar trees and weeping willows. And yes, the Mallards' Belgian-stone walk and the George Robert White Memorial's cobblestone plaza (discussed below) are organic in their own right, which further bridges East and West in the Public Garden.

Good Will Hunting

At right, a couple of friends of mine are showing good will toward each other on the bench where Robin Williams and Matt Damon (left) sat in that 1997 movie — or so my friends thought. At least one thing is definite from this still: George Washington horsebacked here. Speaking of which...

Separated at birth?

Yes, I mixed them up myself at first — on my first walk through the Public Garden on a fifth-grade field trip. When we passed the equestrian effigy of our founding father, a classmate blurted out, "George Washington!" to which I responded, "Paul Revere!" Then my classmate drew my attention to the former's last name carved into his stone pedestal. I stood corrected but confused: a head-on glance at him still convinced me it was the coppersmith himself — after all, Revere's iconic likeness had more picture-postcard familiarity to Boston newbies like me — though why Revere's pedestal would bear Washington's name was beyond me.

They do bear a striking resemblance, not just as revolutionary contemporaries, but in their horse-stances: right arm out, left front horse-leg up, horse-head bowed, comparable cockades and boots. To boot, both have oblong granite pedestals and tree-lined pedestrian mall environs. But I eventually got the distinction between them when I observed that Washington rides toward his mall (Commonwealth Avenue Mall, across Arlington Street), while Revere rides out of his (Paul Revere Mall, a.k.a. "The Prado," in the North End), embarking on his Midnight Ride to Lexington and Concord on April 18, 1775, to warn locals of impending Redcoat robbery of ammunition caches.

Furthermore, they're 71 years apart. Thomas Ball's Washington statue was dedicated in 1869, Cyrus Dallin's Revere in 1940. And, of course, Washington the general, unlike Revere the minuteman, carries a sword and wears a fancier coat.

Command center

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
He is also strategically sited on a central axis with the bridge behind him and Commonwealth Avenue Mall ahead of him, as a logical lead-in toward the latter from the former, an initiator of the Mall's succession of statues, and a connector of the Common, the Garden and the Mall as the crown jewel and scepter in Boston's Emerald Necklace.

This symbolizes our first Commander-in-Chief as a bridge-builder between the colonies (as represented by his capital city's location at the center of the Atlantic Seaboard), a unifier of the States, and an initiator of America's westward expansion. Likewise, the Public Garden initiated Boston's westward expansion into the Back Bay, which was followed by the annexation of neighboring towns (Allston, Brighton, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Roslindale, Roxbury) as "streetcar suburbs" for those too fiscally challenged for the Back Bay's nouveau riche. So Washington's central location couldn't be a better symbol for American and Bostonian heritage.

Ether ethereal

The 40-foot-tall Ether Monument, a.k.a. The Good Samaritan, is the Public Garden's oldest memorial. It was erected in 1867 in honor of America's first use of ether as an anesthetic and a sparer of the pain of the surgeon's scalpel and the dentist's drill — which the monument's crowning "Good Samaritan" statue, calm water pool base and upward thrust into the ether aptly commemorate.

Dentist Thomas G. Morton performed the inaugural demonstration of ether on October 16, 1846, in the operating theater under the "Ether Dome" of Charles Bulfinch's original Massachusetts General Hospital building (below). Its gray granite façade is fittingly tributed here with the use of the same material — albeit accented with red granite colonettes, marble bas-reliefs casting surgical procedures in a Biblical context, and lion-head fountains in the then-trendy High Victorian Gothic style, as opposed to Bulfinch's plainer and simpler, but equally monumental, Federal style.
Designed by William Robert Ware and sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward, the Ether Monument is one of Boston's most immaculate blends of architecture and sculpture. The colonette-borne trefoil Gothic arches and the column-cluster statue pedestal give the monument's subject the religious spirit of a Gothic church, as its engraved Bible verse conveys:

"Neither shall there be any more pain."
— Revelation 21:4
"To commemorate that the inhaling of ether causes
insensibility to pain. First proved to the world at
the Mass. General Hospital in Boston,
"This also cometh forth from the Lord of Hosts
which is wonderful and excellent in working.”

— Isaiah 28:29
"In gratitude for the relief of human suffering by the
inhaling of ether a citizen of Boston has erected this
monument A.D. MDCCCLXVII."

Samaritan supreme

The monument gives no recognition to Dr. Morton, because of a then-heated debate over who really deserved credit for pioneering the use of ether.

To please all sides, the architect and sculptor designed the monument to pay homage to the unconfirmed pioneer in a universally iconic way. They cast ether's emissary in the form of a doctor dressed in a medieval Moorish-Spanish robe and turban.

In a grand yet graceful gesture of compassion he rests the body of a near-naked man on his knee and bears an ether-symbolic cloth in his left hand, ready to apply it to whatever ails the man.

In this way the good doctor projects the universal image of the biblical "Good Samaritan," familiar to all as the healer of the hurt we all hope for when we're in pain or about to undergo surgery, a root canal, a tooth extraction, or whatever calls for ether.

Light in the piazza

Yet another architecture-sculpture amalgam: the George Robert White Memorial. Defining the Garden's northwest corner, this raised plaza creates an open-space flow from garden paths to city streets as light and airy as angel wings and ether domes.

White, philanthropist and owner of Potter Drug & Chemical Corp. (makers of “Cuticura” bacterial soap), willed the city a $5 million trust to fund cultural and medical endeavors, as well as a memorial to him, upon his death in 1922. This 1924 memorial honors him as the "Angel of the Waters" casting "bread" upon the fountain-pool, according to the Book of Ecclesiastes:

George Robert White (1847-1922)
by John Singer Sargent, c.1917
This symbolizes how we can find the "bread" of the George Robert White Fund today as, to name a few, the George Robert White Memorial Building at Massachusetts General Hospital (right), the George Robert White Youth Development Center and the Blue Hill Boys and Girls Club in Dorchester, the George Robert White Schoolboy Stadium in Franklin Park, and the George Robert White Environmental Conservation Center at the Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Mattapan.

Photo courtesy of English Wikipedia
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
The bronze angel's sculptor was Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), renowned for his Abraham Lincoln sculpture (1920) in Washington's Lincoln Memorial and his Minute Man statue (1874) in Concord. 

The cobblestones make the space distinctly Bostonian but could also represent crumbs from the cast bread. The bookend cornucopias symbolize the bountiful harvest of beauty and health the water-sowed bread of the George Robert White Fund has reaped.

In memoriam, in absentia

This Sept. 11, 2001 memorial reprises the plaza theme, but its special strength is the absence of sculpture, which evokes the void left by the loss of locals in those terrorist attacks. Only the names of the missing are present, and we are given space to resurrect our own memories, visions or impressions of them, backdropped by the Garden's life-reaffirming trees, grass, birds, squirrels and living pedestrians. This is how the memorial gives stage to the Garden's perpetual renewal of life and memorializes the deceased as a group rather than allowing one man to take stage as a statuary celebrity  — unlike Wendell Phillips' privilege of stone-wall display showcase discussed below.

In this way Victor Walker's 2004 memorial emphasizes the ordinariness of the fallen, as citizens too common to merit the immortality of statue, bust or bas-relief. Thus we are left to weigh their importance to us, depending on how well we knew them, whether we knew them at all, and how much we reflect upon our own vulnerability and mortality through our grief for them.

By underscoring the underdog (as Phillips did in his own right as abolitionist, suffragist, labor supporter and egalitarian), the Sept. 11, 2001 memorial shatters the Brahmin erudition of the Public Garden with some of the plebeian spirit of the Boston Common — albeit benignly, as shown by Faneuil Hall Poet Laureate Lawrence Homer's selection from Boston & Sea Poems etched in the stonework, in which he makes poetic reference to the Garden's "trees and grass, and flowers," "shallow pool," "willow," "golden leaf elm" and "swanboats" visible beyond the memorial.

Remembrance row

A rare moment when a monument captivates a crowd — the dedication of the memorial to Wendell Phillips (1811-1884) on the Garden's south walk. The stone-wall backdrop makes Daniel Chester French's bronze statue stand out, forcing us to remember Phillips' legacy as advocate of the underdog.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
The backdrop frames the sculpture in a context of artistic and historical contemplation by diverting the eye from scenic background distractions. The abolitionist's erect, forward podium stance evokes his force as an orator and his firmness about the rights of blacks, Native Americans and women.

The south walk's freestanding statues, denied Phillips' stone-wall framework, blend more into their arboreal background and are more easily overlooked, especially in leaf-shadow:

Clockwise from above:  Col. Thomas Cass (1821-1862), commander of the 9th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, victorious at the Battle of Mechanicsville, wounded at the Battle of Malvern Hill, died in Boston July 12, 1862. Sculptor: Richard E. Brooks. Dedicated: September 22, 1899.  U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner (1811-1874), lawyer, orator, and congressman from Boston during the Civil War, leader of Massachusetts antislavery forces and congressional Radical Republicans, introduced first Civil Rights Act in 1872, died March 11, 1874. Sculptor: Thomas Ball. Dedicated: 1878.  Brig. Gen. Tadeusz Kociuszko (1746-1817), Polish-Lithuanian citizen who fought in the Revolutionary War as Colonel of Engineers in the Continental Army, later became Naczelnik (commander-in-chief) of all Polish-Lithuanian forces fighting against Russian occupation of Poland, Belarus and Lithuania in the Kociuszko Uprising of 1794. Sculptor: Theo Ruggles Kitson. Dedicated: 1927.

Channing's channel

Of all the Public Garden's bronze Brahmins, William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) is the most privileged, boasting a stepped elevation like George Robert White, a stone display surround like Wendell Phillips, and a channel to the city like George Washington. This Unitarian preacher extraordinaire is given full sacrosanctity with a classical baldacchino representing his ministry at Arlington Street Church (1861, Gridley J.F. Bryant & Arthur Gilman) across the street. This was emphasized by siting his arch-niched figure on axis with the church's arched center entrance, as if he is about to proceed up the center aisle to the chancel in a formal service. 

The axial arrangement also creates a direct visual link from the Garden to the Back Bay proper (which the church initiates, as the Back Bay's first public building), like the continuity Washington established from nature to neighborhood. This signifies the end of our public art and nature walk and our reentry into civilization — albeit benignly.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

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