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The Olmsted Bridges of the Back Bay Fens: Exceeding the Original Design Intention (2)

Graeme Mills

Lush plantings on Agassiz Road Bridge

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Bridges in the Fens, both major and minor, were required elements in several locations where city streets had to traverse the parkland. They were not intended to be ornaments of the landscape or entry points for the Muddy River. They were also not designed as pedestrian


The Fabricated Fens
Built into the project was a sense of “progressive nostalgia,” an attempt to bring back the
pre-Industrial tidal basin that had been destroyed by urban growth, writes Banks .5 The
challenging construction (made difficult by the constricted size of the work site) would be
achieved by adapting existing engineering techniques in the service of principles of pastoral
reverence and “redemptive greenness” that Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark
Twain, and other leading critics of 19th century industrialism would have surely appreciated .6
Like other the leading intellectuals of the era, Olmsted sought renewal in “the nature of cities and
the nature in cities,” writes essayist Frank Meola .7 As Thoreau, for example, could find
redemptive solitude within the domesticated green oasis of the city, Olmsted would champion
American cities as ideal environments for composing wilderness within the urban core—and for
improving the health, both physical and emotional, of city dwellers. In Boston, redemptive green space would not be discovered and restored per se. Instead, the fabricated Fens would be
pragmatically constructed as a portion of a larger, garden city vision. As Cynthia Zitzevsky
writes, “The brilliance of his solution lay in his synthesis of the practical and the aesthetic, rather
than in any engineering innovation as such” .8

The adaptive nature of the “natural” design and its absence of what Olmsted described as
“elaborate and elegant garden-like work” helped make the firm’s designs acceptable to city
leaders .9 Articulating their vision and reporting on its progress, the Boston Board of
Commissioners and Department of Parks filed a landmark Annual Report in 1887 and the
Olmsted firm followed suit with formal reports of progress to the Joint Metropolitan Park
Commission and State Board of Health. The documents emphasize the “considerable
improvement” to be gained by constructing a linked park system around a stable flood basin,
building dependable, “modern” retaining walls, ridding Charles River water of its “brackish”
quality, and overall, creating a “greater attractiveness so obvious that it is necessary only to refer
to it”. In fact, the city report enthuses, the aesthetic improvements would be so profound, so
reflective of the spirit of civic imagination, that verbal descriptions of the parkway system would
be rendered inadequate. As plans for each of the subsequent segments—including Marine and
Franklin parks, the Arboretum, Charlesgate, and the like—were specified, Boston Park
Commissioners extolled the virtues of “the complete system [as having] much greater value than the sum of…its different parts” .10 Yet, within the comprehensive and integrated parkway Necklace, the purposes of the Back Bay Fens project favored the pragmatic.

In both documents, and throughout Olmsted’s correspondence and directives on the Back
Bay Fens project, the primary design objectives were embodied in its name:

“…it will now be better taste to call the bottom of the basin by a name
significant to its landscape character, than either by one bringing to mind
its primary utility, or by one provoking comparisons with grounds prepared
with exclusive regard to their use as pleasure-resorts. It is therefore suggested
that instead of being called the Back Bay Basin, or the Back Bay Park, the place
should be called the Back Bay Fens, or The Fens…and that so much of the
Parkway as is carried on the bank should be called The Fenway” .11

Olmsted’s insistent designation of a “Fens,” a word evoking British marshlands reclaimed for
agricultural purposes, would have immense impact on the design of the parkland as well as its
bridges and other “furniture” and establish its essential character .12

Architects who disagreed or strove for ornamental landscape features and details did not enjoy lasting partnerships with Olmsted.

Bridges in the Fens, both major and minor, were required elements in several locations
where city streets had to traverse the parkland. They were not intended to be ornaments of the
landscape or entry points for the Muddy River. They were also not designed as pedestrian
bridges. In fact, writes Kathy Poole, Olmsted clearly intended to keep people away from the
water by keeping them moving along the footpaths that lined the Fens’ two parallel
thoroughfares, The Fenway and Park Drive. Poole explains, “The plantings for the banks were
intentionally designed to act as fences…. The water was meant as a visual aesthetic, not a tactile one” .13 The various bridges were appointments along narrow, linear pathways through “wild” places that invited walking or riding recreational visits but not extended stays. Olmsted envisioned the area as composed of scenery “of a winding, brackish creek, within wooded banks; gaining interest from the meandering course of the water…the picturesque elements emphasized by a few necessary structures, strong but unobtrusive” .14 These handsome, unassuming, and necessary structures included the Stony Brook and Fens Gatehouses and several bridges of
differing levels of stature and scale.

It is important to note that before Olmsted, bridge design had largely been the
responsibility of civil engineers, with architects brought in to review and approve plans. Olmsted
insisted on a more comprehensive, architecturally focused composition in which bridges, though
subordinate to the overall park design, were integral to the vision. To drive the argument for
architecture over engineering further, he convinced city officials that the buildings and bridges of
the Fens would benefit from the collaboration of the leading architects of the day, most notably
Henry Hobson Richardson, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, Rotch and Tilden, and the like.
However impressive their credentials, however, these prominent architects and their firms
understood that Olmsted firm’s vision was primary. As Cynthia Zaitzevsky points out, Olmsted
insisted that “in site, shape, size, and architectural design, buildings within a park should
harmonize with, and be completely subordinate to the scenery” .15 Architects who disagreed or
strove for ornamental landscape features and details did not enjoy lasting partnerships with
Olmsted. Most shared—or acquiesced to—his view that park architecture should reveal little
about its building, that a gatehouse should deliberately and appropriately disappear under a mantle of vines, and that boulders were an ideal material for bridge construction. Often, the
collaborating architect was expected to lend approval to bridges designed in full by John

The Boylston Street/Higginson Bridge
H. H. Richardson did impact the design and structure of the Boylston Street Bridge, by
any standard the largest and most historically significant of the Fens bridges. Beginning with the
submissions of loose sketches depicting a single arched structure, the Olmsteds went to battle
against City Engineer Joseph Davis and his “habitual drift” toward uninspiring engineering
solutions” that contradicted the wilderness scheme .16 With Richardson in full consent, Olmsted
described his architectural requirements for this “most conspicuous object,” the Boylston Street
Bridge; it must “have a rustic quality and be picturesque in material as well as in outlines and
shadows…. The more the real structure is evident, the better” .17 Olmsted made the case for a
central arch made of (or faced with) boulders “or of rough field stones with voussoirs of cut
stone or brick…” but not iron .18 In fact, he wrote to Davis, “Let us have iron anywhere else if
economy requires than on Boylston Street” .19 Eventually, the city Parks Commissioner and 19
incoming city engineer prevailed, insisting on a compromise material; instead of boulders, they
chose seam-face Worcester pink granite, a Richardson signature. Olmsted approved of its texture
and color but added that it would have “suited the circumstances better if it had not been so

The Olmsteds wholeheartedly endorsed the eventual configuration of the Boylston
Bridge, with John C. Olmsted acknowledging Richardson’s major contribution of the twin
tourelles, or projected lookout bays, that add an undulating shape to the Bridge as it rises and
dips above the Muddy River flowing directly below. In fact, the Boylston Street Bridge has
exceeded its original “not so nice” intention primarily as it pertains to the dappled granite
surfaces and its contrasting, rounded header. This is a non-machine-made, tactile structure that
invites physical and visual engagement. The sidewalk widens to allow simultaneous pedestrian
passage and appreciation of the meandering waterway that is framed in the vista below the
presiding central arch.

It should be noted that current environmental revitalization projects in and around the
Muddy River have been fostered in part by this vista, its beauty, as well as its evident ecosystem
challenges. Adjacent to the bridge is a long stairway that invites visitors into the central wooded
parklands below, in direct opposition to the more prescribed and passive walkways of the
original design. That the staircase leads directly to the Mothers’ Rest Playground would likewise
have been met with Olmsted’s disapproval, as the Fens meadows were intended as uninterrupted
landscape. In addition, as the Boylston Street Bridge spans one of the city’s most significant
thoroughfares, it provides a social, economic, and geographic link from the city center through
Back Bay westward to suburban Brookline. It mediates the urban-rural, machine-nature
juxtapositions of its era, while extending the impact that Olmsted’s designs achieved throughout
the connected parklands.


5Banks, 2019

6Meola, Frank. “City Gardens: Thoreau in New York.” Michigan Quarterly Review. Volume
XLIX, Issue 3, Summer 2010.

7Meola 2010.

8Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System. The Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. 1982. Page 161

9Olmsted, Olmsted, and Eliot, Landscape Architects. Report of the Joint Board Consisting of the
Metropolitan Park Commission and the State Board of Health: Upon the Improvement of
Charles River from the Waltham Line to the Charles River Bridge. Wright & Potter Printing
Company. 1894. Page 12

10Thirteenth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners for the Year 1887. Boston Board of Commissioners of
the Department of Parks, Parks and Recreation Department. Volume 1886-88. Rockwell and Churchill Press. Boston Public Library Archive.

11Thirteenth Annual Report of the Board of Commissioners for the Year 1887, 1886-88

12Zaitzevsky, 1982. Page 163

13Poole, 1997.

14Walmsley and Pressley, 2001. Page 123

15Zaitzevsky, 1982. Page 163

16Zaitzevsky, 1982. Page 165

17Zaitzevsky, 1982. Page 165

18Zaitzevsky, 1982. Page 165

19Zaitzevsky, 1982. Page 165

20Zaitzevsky, 1982. Page 166

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