Monday, December 13, 2010

Boston Un-Common

"View of the Water Celebration, on Boston Common, October 25th 1848." Lithograph by P. Hyman and David Bigelow. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
When was the last time a monumental display on the Boston Common was a crowd-alluring spectacle? This geyser-like fountain demo of the city's then-new water supply system assumed the awe-inspiring magnanimity of "Old Faithful" at Yellowstone Park as hundreds celebrated the accessibility of water to all, not just to the Beacon Street elite that had claimed the Common as their front lawn.

Since then we've taken water's everywhereness for granted, be it from fountain, faucet or fire hydrant. The same goes for the Common's other monumental presences, now that the crowd-catching ceremonies of their dedications have long passed. They've become commonplace to us as we scurry by them like the squirrels to get to and from work, home, shopping or nightlife. We don't stop to contemplate their aesthetic contribution to the Common or muse about the historical events or personages their designers wanted us to remember.

A recent walk through the Boston Common and Public Garden with some friends drew my photographic attention to these overlooked monuments, plaques, statues and outbuildings. So here are my memorial mementos:

Common's commencement

What better place to begin memorial-meandering than at the Blackstone Memorial Tablet, designed in 1913 by R. Clipston Sturgis. The inscription is from an 1864 deposition by four of the Town of Boston's last surviving residents, commonly cited as proof that the people of Boston are the Common's rightful owners. In brief, Boston's first settler, William Blaxton, a.k.a. Blackstone, was feeling crowded by Gov. John Winthrop's Massachusetts Bay Company settlement, so in 1634 he sold his 50-acre estate to the town and moved to Rhode Island. The town (not yet a city) deeded the land exclusively for the residents' common use, which included military training, cattle-grazing, promenading, horseback riding, dueling and public hanging. In 1660, the Puritans hanged Mary Dyer here for preaching Quakerism. In 1775, British troops encamped here before departing for the Battle of Lexington and Concord that ignited the Revolutionary War.

The dedication of Charles Bulfinch's new Massachusetts State House in 1795 initiated residential development all around the Common, including Beacon Street, Bulfinch's Park Row on Park Street, and his Colonnade Row along Tremont Street. By 1820, the Common resembled an English landed estate with its rolling hills, narrow paths and tree groves, and every Boston family could graze one cow there. Land value, cow manure and labor issues prompted a citizens' petition to remove the cows, which was done in 1830, inspiring Oliver Wendell Holmes to proclaim the Boston Common "a sacred enclosure."

This was confirmed by the 1836 erection of an ornamental iron fence around the Common. From then on, its sacred cows were its iron, bronze and stone monuments, statues and plaques sacred to the memory of people, places and events, sprouting sporadically in the space over the decades.

Field and fountain

Among the first was a more creative use of water. Boston dry-goods merchant Gardner Brewer donated this fountain in 1868. It was cast in Paris as a copy of a fountain sculpted by Liénard for Paris's Exposition Universelle de 1855, where it won a gold medal.

The 22-foot, 15,000-pound Brewer Fountain is a splendid blend of architecture and sculpture, where statues become supporting elements. A cluster of cherubs upholds the top basin, from which the water trickles down to the middle basin and spouts out through winged scallops into the pool. Anchoring the base under the middle basin's umbrella are mythological images of Neptune, Roman god of water and sea; Greek sea goddess Amphitrite; Acis, spirit of Acis River, as extolled by Roman Poet Ovid; and Roman sea nymph Galatea. Like a Roman fountain, the spirit of water as a mobile object of beauty as well as a practical sustenance substance is exhibited with Beaux-Arts grandeur. And, like the Water Celebration of 1848, the Brewer Fountain is the Common's greatest people magnet, being a haven for performances, demonstrations, Bible readings and other crowd-drawers. Perhaps the fountain's visual richness, plaza presence and fluid, sonorous element — water — make the difference, unlike the quiet, aloof, stock-still monuments that are easier to overlook and bypass.

Mind, body and spirit...but is it art?

Perhaps ease of notice and incentive to stop and gather were motives for installing these statues as perimeter markers for Parkman Plaza — to place them in our path so we couldn't miss them while walking down Lafayette Mall along Tremont Street. Indeed, civic improvement of the mall was the city's main motivation behind this public art installation, as the Religion statue's base indicates at right:
GEORGE F. PARKMAN, 1823-1908


To be sure, architects Shurcliffe & Merrill and sculptors Adio Dibiccari and Angelo Cascieri had the best of intentions for the plaza and its statues: to inspire the cultivation of the three chief areas of human development — Learning, Industry, Religion — in our children. But conversation pieces they're not, by virtue of their then-faddish, streamlined Art Moderne style. This makes them no aesthetic match for either the Brewer Fountain or Parkman's earlier classical legacy, the Bandstand, described below. Harsh, heavy geometry and clichéd symbolism (the book, the globe, the chisel, the dodecahedron, the prayerful heavenward gaze, the wavy filler beneath) makes these figures too banal to motivate us to stop and contemplate them — unlike the fountain, which keeps our eyes moving along the sensually curved, delicately detailed, biologically nuanced bodily forms of its sculptures.

Furthermore, squaring off Parkman Plaza is a fourth base with no statue (as if Parkman's endowment had run out). This makes the entire composition lopsided and unbalanced, with no four-corner completion to formally define the plaza as a public gathering space. Hence the absence of crowds.

Tremont's tragedy

Nor do Tremont's unsightly buildings improve Lafayette Mall, as the Religion photo above shows. Colonnade Row provided a refined architectural framework for appreciating the Common's beauty, like an ornamental frame around a painting, when it lined the street from 1811 until progress nibbled away at it, leveling its last remnants in the '60s and '70s.

The row's replacements are, by and large, horrendous hulks of condo commercialism that grant their inhabitants pretty bird's-eye views of the Common but give us onlookers added incentives to walk on by.

Tremont's treasure

All that remains of Tremont Street's heyday is the classically columned St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, where I had the privilege of singing in a boys' choir in the 1970s. Built in 1820 from a Greek Revival design by Quincy Market's architect, Alexander Parris, St. Paul's is now upstaged and overshadowed by latter-day office and apartment blocks. Hence this buried treasure stands as a memorial to Tremont Street's fall from grace, straining, like the Common's memorials, to be noticed.

Lafayette's languor

Lafayette Mall's namesake was none other than the Marquis de Lafayette, a major general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and a patriot of the French Revolution of 1789 in his native nation. During his 1824 visit to Boston, he walked along what was then the Common's Tremont Street Mall, attracting fervent crowds.  The following year, he laid the cornerstone of Charlestown's Bunker Hill monument on June 17, the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. In honor of his visit, the mall was informally called "Fayette Place" for 12 years after. It was formally rechristened Lafayette Mall after the 1895 completion of the Park Street Subway (America's first) running under Tremont Street, to bring historical dignity to the subway's right-of-way after its cut-and-cover disruption of the Common. This 1924 plaque commemorates the centennial of the Marquis' mall march. Then, Tremont Street looked something like this:

What a difference 86 years make. The grass plots along the Common's curb back then provided a pastoral context for Lafayette Mall, and the buildings were statelier at the time, yet auguries of the chockablock high-rise commercial, residential and institutional development to come. Today the Marquis would be gratified by the preservation of Peter Banner's 1810 Park Street Church but aghast at the disappearance of the slender porch columns, sunny brick facades and black louver shutters of the residential row that had enriched the history he had made during his promenade along the Colonnade. (He looks pretty disgruntled on his plaque.)

Bland Barry

Here's a pathetic example of how memorials were beginning to resemble tombstones by mid-century, when expediency was replacing artistry in their creation, as in the Parkman Plaza statuary. Commodore John Barry is given a shallow, sketchy treatment unbecoming of his distinction as the U.S. Navy's first commander in 1798. In this bas-relief context his armless "bust" effect is uncalled for, with no pedestal or in-the-round stature to justify it. At least it's fairly complete with the details of his military career. And Mayor James Michael Curley's desire to leave an imprint on his city by honoring a fellow Irish immigrant is understandable, even commendable. But one of Boston's most illustrious Irish is best remembered with a statue, not a stoneface. For the shoddy upkeep of this slab's grounds attests to how ignored it is — in contrast to the statues of Curley that command a prominent place near Faneuil Hall.

Dubious Declaration

I don't mean the Declaration of Independence itself, but this inept tribute to it, not to mention its questionable use to Tremont trekkers. The 1776 quill-pen calligraphy is hard enough to decipher, but this bronze casting of it makes the task more arduous. No wonder no one stops and stares here; clear parchment repros can be had by the bundle in souvenir shops. Nor do the overhead clichés help any. The bas-relief is a retread of John Trumbull's all-too-familiar 1819 painting of, not the actual signing as commonly believed, but the drafting committee (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin) presenting their draft of the Declaration to Continental Congress President John Hancock (being a Bostonian, maybe he's the reason for this plaque) on June 28, 1776. The wingspread eagle crest is triteness trumpeted as heraldry — we get that image daily on the dollar bill!

At least Hancock's John Hancock comes out clearly enough, as he intended it to when he signed big and bold, allegedly so King George III could read it without his glasses and see the seriousness of his colonies' intent. But haven't we had more than our share of this icon, too? (After all, it's the namesake of New England's tallest tower, which we cannot escape the sight of no matter where we are in Boston.)

Massacre magnified

Now here's something three-dimensional, original, unique to Boston, and commemorative of its Commoners. Honoring the five who fell to British bullets by the Old State House on March 5, 1770 — Crispus Attucks, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, Samuel Gray and Patrick Carr — the Boston Massacre Memorial, designed by Robert Kraus, was erected in 1888. The chain- and flag- bearing female figure borne on eagle-wings symbolizes Revolution breaking the chain of British tyranny ("breaking" is right, considering what vandals have done to it over time). In doing so, this memorial breaks the mold cast by those we saw just prior by making finesse out of victims rather than flatness out of victors. The cylindrical form of the obelisk bucks its own trend, that of the squared- off Egyptian model used for the Bunker Hill Monument (1843), the Washington Monument (1885) and the towers of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge (2003).

Parkman's pantheon

George F. Parkman was the son of landowner/ physician George Parkman, who donated the land for the original Harvard Medical College and endowed Harvard's Parkman Professorship of Anatomy and Physiology (held 1847-1882 by Oliver Wendell Holmes).

Upon George Sr.'s grisly murder and dismemberment by Harvard Medical College Professor John Webster at the school in 1849, George Jr. inherited the family fortunes, out of which he willed a $5 million endowment for the upkeep of Boston's parks upon his own death in 1908. Here his legacy is given a more worthy treatment, aesthetically and functionally, than his namesake plaza. Designed by Derby, Robinson & Shephard, the Parkman Bandstand was built in 1912 on the site of the Common's old Cow Pond, which had been filled in following the cows' eviction in 1838. One-fifth of Parkman's cash cow went into this, and the results are worth it.

Greco-Roman classical details — Ionic columns with volute capitals, fan-leaf anthemions above each column, a dome recalling a Roman rotunda or Parthenon, a stepped plinth platform banded by a Greek key relief stringcourse — immediately catch the eye and beckon the onlooker with a traditional image of sculptural beauty that invites us to climb up its steps, stand in its space, and feel a few degrees richer and grander for the moment.

The bandstand's in-the-round stature has multiple advantages, as a space-definer, a place-enforcer, and an upholder of the democratic ideals that created the Common in the first place. The cylindrical space its columns create guide our eyes in a 360-degree rotation, giving us a panoramic view of the Common that make us more aware of our surroundings. We experience the same effect as we walk around the bandstand and observe the space through and alongside its column-formed space. Furthermore, its drum form assures sound travel in all directions and crowd attraction from all directions during a concert or rally.

Who goes there?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Everybody goes to the Old Granary, King's Chapel and Copp's Hill burying grounds, because they're right smack on the tourist-familiar Freedom Trail. But the Central Burying Ground is less noticed, because its location isn't as central as its name suggests. It's shoved off in a far corner of the Common with less tourist traffic, by virtue of its busy intersection near the far more crowd-drawing theaters and bars, as well as its situation on the cusp of what had been Boston's Combat Zone adult entertainment and prostitution district for 30-odd years.

Photo by David Berkowitz
But this combat zone is worth a rediscovery, as "British soldiers who died of disease during the occupation of the city [1775-1776], and those who died of wounds received at Bunker Hill" are buried here, according to King's Hand-Book of Boston (1889).

Famous names interred here include William Billings, composer of the colonial hymn "Chester," and Gilbert Stuart, painter of the unfinished George Washington portrait that was the model for the dollar bill.

Like its Freedom Trail compatriots, the Central Burying Ground bespeaks an era when tombstone carving was an art form, not an automated fabrication like Commodore Barry's headstone above, or, sadly, like Gilbert Stuart's remembrance above right. 


No, but you're warm, for it stands as a memorial to the lavatories it once housed. Its octagonal Jeffersonian style reflects the civic pride with which Boston used to infuse even its baser outbuildings. Plans to rehab this 1920s gem into a cafe are dead in the water as of now.

Garage grace

But not its influence, for this 1990s octagonal entry to the Boston Common Garage has clearly taken civic cues from the languishing latrine and brought dignity to our descent into the down-under parking. There may be new life in the old lav yet.

Subway sublime

Come to think of it, the Park Street Subway started the Common's tradition of making the middling monumental, as shown by the Grecian grace and grillwork architect Edmund March Wheelwright gave his Boylston and Park Street station entries in 1895.

The subway's vent shaft was given the visual distinction of a cupola or guardhouse to offset the vent's functional necessity and gritty unsightliness. The rock-faced granite stresses the structure's closure to the public while blending it with its natural environment. Completing the nature communion are the hipped roof's overhanging eaves, exposed rafters and bulbous copper finial, which mimic the shelter of the surrounding trees. In this way the roof reflects the coming influence of the Craftsman style and its back-to-basics, back-to-nature approach to architecture.

Slippery elm

A memorial to a person is "Common" practice, but a memorial to a tree is as uncommon as this particular species. The Great Elm, or Old Elm, stood here from Boston's Native American days (as the Shawmut Peninsula, prior to William Blaxton's settlement) until it was felled in the gale of 1876 — the centennial of our country, to its great misfortune. Since then, no one has dared plant a replacement, knowing full well it would never match the majesty of the original and would certainly not attain its height and limb-spread in our generations. So the New England Methodist Historical Society placed a plaque in its place, focusing our attention on Methodist pioneer Jesse Lee's homiletics under the tree in 1790, as well as the Sons of Liberty's assemblage under it as their second "Liberty Tree."

Unlike a statue's tendency to "take stage" away from its surroundings by commanding our attention (if we're open to it), this plaque effectively "gives stage" to the Great Elm's site, provoking us to imagine how awesome it must have been to previous generations. And, as these historical illustrations show, it was a prime example of the tree as monument: aware of its historical significance to Boston, it was fenced, flowered and pathwayed in to encourage people to appreciate it from a distance, like the statues and paintings we're ordered not to get too close to in a museum.
Also, in light of the Dutch elm disease that has caused more of its kind to slip away, the plaque also serves as a memorial to the Great Elm's fellow fallen. In this way, both the plaque and the vacant site serve as a reminder of how important trees in general are to our well-being, as shade-providers, crowd-gatherers, picnic-shelterers, cityscape beautifiers, and greenhouse-gas reducers. Like the vacant lot of a demolished historic building (particularly the plaqued site of the old John Hancock House beside the State House), we're forced to remember the significance of what we've lost.

Soldiers' sentinel

Of all the Common's structures, the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument atop Flagstaff Hill is the most sublime. But it is just as subliminal, being both hard and easy to overlook. Designed by Martin Milmore and dedicated on September 17, 1877, before a 25,000-strong throng that included Union Generals George B. McClellan and Joseph Hooker, this memorial to Massachusetts soldiers and sailors killed in the Civil War stands 126 feet from base to flagstaff, as the Boston Common's tallest structure. Its hilltop site elevates it further, so that the bronze allegorical female statue "America" atop its Doric victory column hardly goes unnoticed. But, even with her 13-star crown and her U.S. flag, laurel wreath and sword in hand, Miss America's peak presence fails to pique the public interest in the monument that was everpresent at its dedication. So here is my formal introduction to what is worth climbing the hill to see.

Carved in Hallowell white granite, the monument
boasts a battery of four
8-foot-high granite statues
anchoring the base of the laurel-banded column.
These robed figures represent the reunited nation's
northern, southern, eastern and western sections,
and face accordingly in those directions. Facing in
their directions gives you a greater appreciation of
the Common's landscape from its highest point.
The inscription on the base below the four figures, with sculptor credit below.
The second of the four bronze bas-relief panels, "The Sanitary Commission,"
depicts the medical care given to the soldiers on the battlefield.
In the fourth panel, "The Return from the War," a veterans' regiment march by the
Massachusetts State House to present their battle flags to Gov. John Albion Andrew.
On the laurel-wreathed corner bases stood bronze statues symbolizing Peace, History, The Army and The Navy, but deterioration and vandalism forced them to retreat into storage. Which only goes to show how important regular spectatorship of a park's monuments are to their public protection as well as one's personal enlightenment.

Time bomb

This industrial iron counterpoint to the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument's sculpted bronze/granite artistry really brings out the monumental in the mundane.

The sheer presence of this actual mine used in the U.S. Navy's strategic placement of a barrier of 56,571 mines in the North Sea during World War I evokes the tension, terror and turmoil of this unparalleled aquatic feat, the lives lost in its detonation, and the shell-shock of its survivors. This serves as a warning against future use of this weapon of mass destruction.

Dark as death, callous as a cannonball and threatening as a time bomb, this memorial was presented to the city by the North Sea Mine Force Association on October 26, 1921. Left in the rugged, rusty condition of its expended state with none of a typical monument's pomp and polish, it gives us an in-your-face demo of mine morbidity. (Maybe that's one reason few people ever come up here.)

Frog and Toad are friends...

...but no friends of mine. These cartoonish caricatures of the Frog Pond's namesake make a mockery of one of the Common's cherished community traditions, which has made summer splashing and winter skating available to generations of families from all five corners of the Common. They're cute for kids to climb on, but not for adults to appreciate as art. No better is Tadpole Playground, an overdone overkill of froggy folly and kiddie kitsch more suitable for a Chuck E. Cheese's pizza palace than a haven of history like the Boston Common. What was Mayor Menino thinking when he let this one hop in?

Lift up your heads, O ye gates

A tad above Tadpole's, these gates are a sanctified come-in to the Common from the busy Beacon-Charles crossing. The high, arch-paneled granite posts are crowned with the top-hat cordiality of welcoming doormen. The capped pylons serve as the "pages" that usher us in.

The cast-iron fences and posts unify the composition with a Victorian graciousness that makes Boston's commoners feel uncommon as they enter their park. (A twin of this arrangement once anchored the Common's opposite corner at Park and Tremont streets, but progress bulldozed it away. A shame; that even busier intersection could use the quieting grace of such an entrance.)

Winthrop's landing

Another stately passage between the Common and Beacon Hill, this memorial to John Winthrop's 1630 founding of Mass. Bay Colony is so centrally sited we are forced to notice it before exiting to Beacon Street through its post-flanked passages.

The granite/bronze memorial's axial symmetry with Phillips Street reinforces its monumentality and historical significance to the neighborhood while easing our transition to it, which is helped by the near-level alignment of Beacon Street with the Common's parallel path.

Thus the plaza is step-raised only slightly, providing a level landing to encourage us to stop and ponder the bronze bas-relief, which depicts Winthrop's company greeting the natives upon landing at the Shawmut Peninsula. Winthrop's friendly interaction with the natives parallels the Common's communion with Beacon Hill at this level.

Troublesome transition

But here's what happens when parallel lanes upgrade at varying degrees: a taxing transition between them. Thus the Guild Steps initiate Beacon's steepest over-the-hill undertaking — Joy Street's straight- up shoot to Mt. Vernon St. and straight-down drop to Cambridge St.

Built in 1917 in memory of Curtis Guild Jr., a three-time Massachusetts governor and an ambassador to Russia, the Guild Steps certainly provide an elegant entry or exit to Joy Street or the Common with their Grecian urn-topped posts, scrolled rails and lamp casings, all in proper Boston granite, cast-iron and gaslamp tradition. However, the challenge of the climb causes the memory of the namesake to get lost in the shuffle up the stairs. Besides, Curtis Guild Jr. was no John Winthrop in terms of gubernatorial eminence. So the memorial significance of the steps is easily overlooked when their practical use as steppingstones from point A to point B takes over our concern. Still, they do their best for us with the tough turf the topography gives them.

Shaw's shrine

However, the final stop on our monumental march through the Common is well worth its steep stair-climb: the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. Unlike the bland backsides of most memorials, this one certainly piques public interest in what's on the other side with its patriotic parade of Roman grillwork rails, Grecian urns, wave moldings, laurel-wreath reliefs, carved eagles, roster of members of Col. Shaw's 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, and lionhead fountains that haven't worked in years. So, up we go!

This 1897 masterpiece by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White brings the bas-relief out to statuary status with its full figures of Shaw and his regiment, the first company of free black to serve the Union in the Civil War. Saint-Gaudens nuanced all soldiers as individuals while emphasizing their collective mission under Shaw's center command.

In short, a union fighting for the Union. This unity is expressed by the soldiers' near-parallel muskets, their uniformly erect heads and forward-facing eyes — including the horse's — and their forward-march in one direction toward the common goal of defeating the Confederacy and freeing the slaves.

More than an artwork, the Shaw Memorial tops the Common's other monuments in civic responsibility. Architect Stanford White set the tableau back several feet from the street, creating a benched alcove for a roomier place to rest or wait for a carriage or bus than the narrow sidewalk could provide — a much-needed amenity at the busy Beacon and Park Street intersection. The English elms take up the slack from the Great Elm's loss, as shade-providers and unifiers of the monument with the Common. Furthermore, the memorial unifies the Common with the city as a smooth, graceful transition to it.

Those qualities, along with the monument's location on the Freedom Trail facing the State House and the familiarity of its image in the 1989 movie Glory, make the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial a more powerful crowd-magnet year-round than any other Boston Common memorial.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

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