Sectional Story

Boston’s Back Bay Fens: a Sectional Story

Kathy Poole

Copyright 1997

To tell the story of the Fens is to tell three, parallel stories. It is a sectional story, that is, a vertical cut through the complex physical structure that composes the Fens. It is a three-layered story. From bottom to top, these layers are the Underground Skeleton of pipes and infrastructure; the Made Land that composes the topographic surface; and the Cultural Patina, the vegetation, activities, and thinking that occur on top of the Fens' body.

First a tour through the Fens as it is today.

The Fens is an urban park, situated in the Back Bay section of Boston, Massachusetts. Its views suggest that it is juxtaposed to the city; however, it is quite the opposite. It is a vital space, intimately engaged with its surrounding city and immediate neighborhoods.

It is edged by walk-up townhouses, apartment houses, and numerous cultural institutions: Museum of Fine Arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Simmons College, Emmanuel College, Northeastern University, Wheelock College, and the Massachusetts Historic Society. Fenway Park, the famous baseball field is only three blocks to the north.

The Fens is part of a larger park system, affectionately dubbed "The Emerald Necklace." Within the Fens, you can casually enjoy its pastoral beauty: lounging along languid water with long vistas or sunbathing in open lawn areas with fellow Bostonians.

You may enjoy the numerous memorials that take the forms of a Memorial Rose Garden or more conventional monuments. You may also play active sports like baseball, soccer, or basketball. It is a varied place.

You can be a part of the crowd or find the intimate corners.

The Fens' story is more complex than these perspectival views portray. It is a constructed story, built in layers of time and layers of space.









Throughout the 19th century, Bostonians had been radically changing their landscape.
They had been filling the harbor and brackish Back Bay since 1790. Back Bay began being developed to some degree within 13 years of Boston's settlement.

Significant development of the Bay's mudflats and wetlands began in 1804. Nineteenth century urbanites, looking for revenue and power opportunities realized that they could tap the tides' power to ground corn. They began building dams, raceways, and basins.

The largest of these structures, the Boston and Roxbury dam, opened in 1821. The 42 foot wide by 220 foot long roadway confined water for the purposes of generating power. The entrepeneur behind the project, Uriah Cotting, envisioned scores of mills. The reality was two flour mills that ground flour for a time but soon retooled into paint and dye productions. The area also supported an iron foundry and a few other industries on Gravelly Point, a spit of land that project from the south.

Ironically, these structures served to stabilize the three foot fluctuation in tide powered the mills. And while this stabilization might have been an effort in gaining control of the area, the consequences were quite the reverse. The impoundments only exacerbated the growing sanitary problem of Back Bay. Used as a dumping ground for human sewage, the ever-increasing population compounded the stench that peaked twice daily at low tide.

The stilling of the waters had eliminated the Back Bay's natural flushing action, preventing the sewage's passage to the Charles River and into the harbor. The uncertainties of this spongy land were especially intolerable for citizens who were increasingly fearful of cholera and dyptheria. By 1849 the Board of Health declared the region a "nuisance, offensive and injurious to the large and increasing population residing upon it."

The irony of such stabilization continued as the Bay filled over the next 49 years. With each railroad levee and each land filling, the tides' powers were diminished. In addition, once the water was limited from the area, the flats of the receiving basin dried up and clouds of fine dust blew in every direction, creating such a nuisance that the sluice-way had to be built to keep them covered with water at all times.

Railroads had a tremendous impact on the complexion of Back Bay. First, as the railroads became more commercially powerful, the mills' need diminished. Plus, the Merrimac River supplanted the Back Bay tides for powering the great textile mills that were run by Bostonians. Second, the railroads' commercial success enabled the building of more
crossings of the Bay. With each Railroad levee, the mills' tidal power was diminished.

Once the tides were of no use, the vicissitudes of the tides were not tolerated. The Bay had been casually filled for years with a combination of Boston's garbage and construction debris. The large-scale stabilizing, the complete filling, of what we now understand as Back Bay land began in 1858. This operation was enabled by two inventions of the day, the railroad and the steamshovel. Much of the fill came from Needham, 9 miles away.

First, the land was filled with gravel and then with soil "to provide perfect drainage." The land was "made" by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (which sold it to developers) and the Boston Water-Power Company (in exchange for their right to develop those

This filling did not solve the sewage problem. It only became worse. By 1866 the City and Commonwealth authorized the building of a sea wall and covering more flats in hopes of abating the worsening nuisances of sewage (from Stony Brook and Muddy River) that sat on the flats and fermented in the sun.

The filling also caused a new problem. What had been a natural floodplain for the waters of the bay's tributaries, the Muddy River and Stony Brook, was no longer available. It had been made dry land. Therefore, the Back Bay was in danger of flooding. By 1875, there was a proposal to make a park in Back Bay for the purposes of alleviating actual or potential flooding problems. In other words, they wanted to create a stormwater park. At the time, this was a radical idea.

An open competition produced a winning scheme that did not adequately address the problems. At this point, Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect then famous for his work on just-completed Central Park, was invited to advise the city on developing a park system with particular attention to the Fens. Olmsted argued against city engineer Joseph P. Davis's plan for a conventional masonry storage basin in the park and instead argued for the juxtaposition of salt marsh and city which "would be novel, certainly, in labored urban grounds, and there may be a momentary question of its dignity and appropriateness... But [it] is a direct development of the original conditions of the locality in adaptation to the needs of a dense community.î Therefore, Olmsted redesigned the storage basin, the property configuration, and the aesthetics of the proposed "park."

Olmsted proposed a landscape that had some of the same visual characteristics of the original landscape. However, this was no restoration project. The Fens was a fluctuating, living system-- a system that would take massive construction efforts to "stabilize," to change into Made Land. It would take significant reconfiguring to get it to look like an interesting marsh that citizens would accept as part of a park system. An immense area, some 130 acres, the reconstruction involved dredging from two to five feet in some others and filling in others. In the areas that were filled, it was not simply a matter of dumping dirt.

The resultant Made Land was a calculated, designed structure.

First the land was graded to precisely designed contours as specified by the Olmsted plan.
The average depth of mud dredged from the bottom of the basin was 3 feet, varying from 0 at the lower end to 5' at upper end, near the old mouth of Stony Brook.

Specially-constructed derricks were constructed and floated out onto the marsh to dig and deposit fill.First the land was graded to precisely designed contours as specified by the Olmsted plan. The average depth of mud dredged from the bottom of the basin was 3 feet, varying from 0 at the lower end to 5' at upper end, near the old mouth of Stony Brook.

Specially-constructed derricks were constructed and floated out onto the marsh to dig and deposit fill.

Next an average of 3.5 feet of gravel was laid and spread. The gravel was necessary to drain the land and to provide structural stability for the "overland" which would be the new surface of the marsh. The gravel operation was a massive undertaking. The material was brought by train from Needham, nine miles from Boston. As reported in Ballou's Pictorial 1859, "One hundred and forty-five dirt cars, with eighty men were employed night and day in loading and transporting the gravel over the road. The trains consist of thirty-five cars each, and make, in the day time, sixteen trips, and in the night nine or ten, or twenty-five in twenty-four hours. Three trains are continually on the road during the day, and one arrives at the Back Bay every forty-five minutes....Two shovels-full fill a car, the operation being very much like that of a dredging machine. As the shovel is elevated from the pit, it is turned towards the car, and when directly over it the bottom is opened, and thus the gravel is deposited. The time occupied in loading an entire train of thirty-five cars is about ten minutes. The excavators do the work of two hundred men....During the year the contractors have been at work, there have been taken out of the hills of Needham about three hundred thousand yards of gravel. Some of the sand-hills which have been leveled were fifty feet high, and the plain which has been made by the machines in excavating, is about twelve acres in extent."

The shore lines of the present basin were roughly shaped to a slope of 3 to 1. Finally, the overland was constructed from two sources. Much of the filling was obtained from the cutting of the old marsh levels from grade 10.5 to the final grade of 8.5. This was done to ensure adequate storage stormwater storage capacity in big rains. Some of the material was local garbage. By 1895 the "park" portion of the Back Bay Fens was completed.

The filling operation of the entire Back Bay took approximately 6years to complete-- and this was oly on the area that constituted the Fens proper. The new Made Land-- including both the commercial properties and streets as well as the new "park"-- provided a new surface for development, a new territory for the workings and the imagination of the city.

This new territory would have been impossible without the Underground Skeleton that supported it.


The Made Land would have been impossible without the infrastructures of stormwater and sewer that supported it. This underground skeleton, in essence, constituted the fundamental framework of the Fens (as it continues to do). Without its structure, Back Bay would still be a mushy marsh, its structure determined by the fluctuations of tides and rivers.

The primary infrastructure considerations for the Fens were the two water bodies that drained into the Fens, the Muddy River and Stony Brook. The stormwater that they carried was considerable, especially given their development upstream. The sewage deposited by these waters was not only human sanitary waste but industrial/manufacturing waste (particularly from the Stony Brook).

Olmsted considered constructed, park-like landscape of the Fens itself as a piece of infrastructure-- a basic component of the urban fabric, a component that made the city work. His regard for the land as infrastructure was a radical departure from the idea of infrastructures within a park. Even though used as a ìpark,î it would be more than a recreation ground; it would do essential work for the city.

The Fens was designed to act as a flood control structure, preventing the Muddy River and Stony Brook from flooding Back Bay properties. In essence, the above-ground Fens design acted as storm sewer. That is, most of the time, it was a salt marsh. But in storms, it handled the overflow for the pipes beneath it. The Fens' "pool" was a earth-formed storage basin that would slowly release water into the Charles River. It gave water from the surrounding development somewhere to drain and be held so that property did not flood.

When the water level in Stony Brook rose above the level of the water in the Fens, which would generally happen only in the spring with abnormally high tides. When they coincided with heavy rain, a pair of gates would automatically open into the Fens. The Fens' 30 acres would increase to 50 without raising the water level more than a few feet. This was accomplished by making the existing tidal marsh deeper than it was before the Fens' construction and forming pools. The basin was designed to be 8' in accordance with opinion current among engineers that a depth of water of about 8' necessary to prevent aquatic plants from taking root.

It would also "treat" the sewage overflow from the Stony Brook that would happen in large storms. While it is not clear what Olmsted understood about 'bioremediation' or the cleansing properties of stormwater wetlands (concepts unknown at the time), the Fens did to some degree act as a cleansing filter for the sewage of Stony Brook, into which raw sewage was being deposited along its entire length.

It is critical to historically contextualize the infrastructure actions of the Fens. The current frenzied discussion over ecological infrastructure has attributed perhaps undue credit to Olmsted for his "natural" stormwater design. Yet, it is more accurate to report that Olmsted was continuing a movement that had already gained some ground in Boston.

For 115 years the sewers of Boston were built, repaired, and owned by private individuals under a 1709 act. They had never worked properly. The were sloped improperly, built improperly, filled with sludge, and too small. The sewer "system" of the City only worked because "the town consisted of hills with good slopes on all sides to the water." In 1875 the Mayor appointed a commission to present a plan for outlets and main lines of sewers for the city's future.Apil 11, 1876 an act was passed that empowere the city of Boston to lay and maintain a main sewer discharging at Moon Island in Boston Harbor. This not only
gave the city a properly constructed system, but it discharged the sewage well beyond the harbor, the current dumping ground, which was in the immediate vicinity of the population.

By the time Olmsted hit the scene, the Roxbury portion of Stony Brook had been encased in a covered conduit for 27 years. In 1866, the covered portion was increased from Tremont Street to the tide water. And in 1873, an open walled channel (10-20 feet wide, 5-10 feet high) for Stony Brook was constructed, extending its channelization from the Roxbury city line to Forest Hills.

In 1881, as part of the Fens plan, the Stony Brook intercepting sewer was begun. A seven foot wooden conduit from the Fens' Stony Brook gate house to the Charles River was completed. Interestingly, this new 7' conduit had much less capacity than the Old Stony Brook conduit which was above it. Consequently overflow channels were provided at the gate house, through which, in times of heavy rain, the surplus of storm water mingled with sewage overflows and street wash. This flow, coming down the old conduit, was discharged directly into the Fens basin. The Stony Brook intercepting sewer joins the main sewer at the intersection fo Camden and Tremont Streets. This sewer intercepted the sewage which formerly emptied at seven outlets into Stony Brook and found its way into Back Bay. (circular, 4 feet 6 inches wide by 4 feet 8 inches high, chiefly founded on clay so that the side walls were only needed for about 300 feet. 14'-19' below street surface,
excavation done by tunneling from pits 10 feet apart). The outlets into the Charles were placed below the level of high tide, in order to prevent back-water reachign the intercepting sewer. It was necessary to build gate-chambers just beyond the points of interception, each chamber containing a double set of tide-gates.

The following year, a similar but larger conduit for the Muddy River was begun. Thirty-three hundred feet long, it was elliptical-- eleven feet high and nine feet wide. It was built of wood with a concrete key at the crown of the arch. All of these efforts were part of the city's developing efforts to systematize the city sewer, an effort that was completed in 1884 when the Boston Main Drainage System was put into operation. Conceptually, it was similar to the Fens. Sewage was handled by 1) removing it from the area of its generation; and 2) culverting it underground, away from citizens. With the Main Drainage, sewage was removed in a big way-- pumped out to Moon Island, not on Boston Land at all.

Unfortunately, the sewage problem persisted, due apparently to greater than expected amounts of floodwater and some faulty gates. As early as 1887 residents of Ward and Vancouver streets complained of flooded cellars. The problem was that during heavy storms, the gates at the Charles River could not open because they were operated by the tide-- and at high tide, they were forced closed. In 1888 what was dubbed the Commissioners Channel was constructed, much deeper than the previous channel, from the Fens basin, up Huntington Avenue through Parker Street alongside the Providence Railroad. The overflow chamber above Tremont Street served as the dry weather flow that went into the old conduit. Only the excess went into the Commissioners channel. In 1897 the old conduit was disconnected from the system, since which time the Commissioners Channel has carried all foul and storm flow.

This 100 year old network forms the "bones" of the contemporary system. The only real change to the system has been the addition of water quantity...


This non-integrated condition of the surface skin and the underground skeleton necessitates that we address difficult questions:

If the role of the Fens as infrastructure were more visually apparent (and not buried), would we only now be discovering the possibilities of "ecological infrastructure?

If the Fens aesthetic were more related to a conventional, engineering aesthetic (rather than an "ornamentalized" marsh) would it be more valued as a "working" landscape?

These are the questions that are, to some degree, answered in the continual, incremental progression of the Fens aesthetic. This is the story of the Cultural Patina.



The original aesthetic of the Fens was wild. It was a tidal marsh that did not respond so much to earthly forces but ebbed and flowed with the moon. It continuously changed, revealing a new face with each half-day and season; each water level and subsequent revealed land mass slightly different than before. It was also complex: pools, mudflats, submergent and emergent marshes, spongy banks, and uplands.

Vegetation ranging from brackish grasses to trees typically considered ornamental. It was only somewhat predictable, forging its own course of evolution.

The taming of this wildness began with its domestication via agriculture. The diversity of plants was limited by its farming as monoculture salt hay crops. Yet, it maintained its marginal quality as "an unfrequented stretch and had the credit of being the resort of couples on the eve of an engagement, though as yet unannounced. The mill-dam walk meant there was nothing more to fear from observation." This landscape straddled the edge between wild and "civilized."

Situated between fashionable Brookline and Beacon Hill area, Western Avenue became an increasingly popular promenade and route for drives and sleigh rides, particularly in late
afternoon with the setting sun. With pleasant prospects across open water, the Mill Dam
provided fashionable young people a preferred place (over the south Boston bridge) for their strolls.

E. Y. Robbins, a lecturer on sanitary science from Cincinnati expressed well what part of
wildness citizens appreciated when he argued in 1859? against filling part of the Fens and
building on the edge of the Common: It is a great ventiduct, conveying pure air into the city
as your aqueduct brings water. In short, it is a great windpipe, through which the city
breathes; and the opening out into Back Bay, as it were, the mouth of the city; and to obstruct it by buildings at the outlet would be a kind of public strangulation, and should never be permitted. No part of the outlet of the common should ever have been permitted to be built on.... This is not a mere question of pleasure, or even of profit. It is a question of justice....Rich can escape, others can't...It is only [in] communion with nature that the heart of man can be properly educated. By looking upon the great works of God in nature, the soul is incited to lofty aspirations,-- is raised to greatness.

It was this "poetic sentiment" (as he calls it) to which Olmsted responded when asked to design a "park" for Back Bay. Rather than the typical picturesque park of the day, he proposed the reconstruction of a salt marsh. It was to be, "in the artistic sense of the word, natural, and possibly to suggest a modest poetic sentiment more grateful to townweary minds than an elaborate and elegant gardenlike work would have yielded." Olmsted understood that this was primarily a sanitary improvement, a marked departure for a park of his time, and should, therefore, embrace a different aesthetic. He was very clear in his writings about keeping people away from the water, of keeping them on the walks at the tops of the banks. The plantings for the banks were intentionally designed to act as "fences' between the water and people. The water was meant as a visual aesthetic, not a tactile one. It was not "civilized" in Olmsted's use of the word (in Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns). It was not a place to gather. In fact, Olmsted provides no places of gathering. There are only paths-- paths that he says should run along the borders but not into the interior of the park. It was a wild place to forayed into-- but not a place that one should stay.

Olmsted's wildness was, nonetheless, a tamed wildness, no doubt a response to its developing context of Back Bay development. From its inception, Back Bay was to be a regal place for Boston's wealthier residents. The plan, modeled after the Parisian boulevards that were all the rage, included a tree-lined boulevard down its center for leisurely promenading. It also included alleyways behind the townhouses for the discrete delivery of goods, a service only the wealthy could afford.

Wildness was a condition meant for the "other" creatures of Back Bay-- not humans. As
one tourist brochure reports, "Back Bay Park will be home to various wild fowl that will
thrive as well as among their native reeds."

And the "first-class residential section" was not to be "ruined" by Stony Brook's wild nature-- its "sudden and violent floods" or the attendant sewage deposits. Rather, it was appreciated because it appeared natural, "so natural is its aspect, so resemblant to scenes that once existed in the near neighborhood, that it gives the impression that, by some fortunate accident, a typical landscape of this character had been preserved for its exceptional charm in the midst of the city growing up around it." Wildness is fine as long as it is tame.

Given its upper crust inhabitants-- and Olmsted's knowledge of this fact-- this was not designed as an actual tide marsh. As Olmsted noted, "the water in the basin will then have the general aspect [emphasis added] of a salt creek, passing with a meandering course, for the most part, through or along the border of a sea-side meadow but will not be subject to fall with the tide, so far as to exhibit the disagreeable aspect which in natural tide-basins. [emphasis added] And the planting palette and plan supplied a marsh much more picturesque than one left to its own development. As if particularly cognizant of its need to be an intentional landscape, Olmsted's planting signifies that the Fens is an ordered landscape amid the vast, undifferentiated, desert-like landscape of recently Made Land.

His strategy was successful. As the Fens was constructed, the most prestigious institutions
relocated to the Fens. Others made it their inaugural address. Simmons College, Massachusetts Institution of Technology, Episcopal Church, Harvard Medical College, and the Boston Museum of Natural History dotted Back Bay. Fashionable residents like Isabella Stewart Gardener built townhouses and (in her case) villas along the Fens.

Olmsted was only continuing a legacy of "sanitizing." Aside from the aesthetic tidying, the Fens also held an aspect of social sanitizing, as well. As Olmsted, Jr. reports, before the construction of the Fens, forty dwellings "of the cheapest kind" were removed. It remains unclear what "unpainted and more or less dilapidated" means. He continued that "the citizens who occupied them were commonly referred to at town meetings and elsewhere as 'from the marsh.'" What is clear is that these people are seen as of lesser caliber than the desired occupation of the Back Bay. "Unless some extensive and expensive improvement of the whole valley were to be soon made, it was seemingly inevitable that this squalid and unsanitary occupation of it would cover all parts of this valley and discourage good occupation of the neighborhood."

The sanitizing of the Fens that was set in motion in 1853 and contributed to by Olmsted
continued after the Fens completion. As non-park land became scarce, the "unfilled" land of the Fens became attractive for development. In 1895 a large tract in the center of the Fens land was appropriated for the Museum of Fine Arts. With its building, the perception of the Fens was transformed. Once a landscape in its own right, the Fens became a backdrop for architecture. Its aesthetic was shifted to primarily a visual one.

One of the most significant moments is in 1925, after the damming of the Charles River. At this time, the Parks Department-- and Arthur Shurtleff (later Shurcliff) proposed radical changes for the Fens. When redesigned after the dam's completion, the Fens was no longer a brackish marsh. And Shurtleff took advantage of the need for plant palette change in his redesign. Together with the Olmsted brothers (who had inherited their father's firm), Shurtleff proposed filling and reconfiguringthe watercourses significantly, removal of waterside plants, and clearing areas for open play. Most significantly, in front of the Museum of Fine Arts, he proposed a complete sanitation of the Fens marshy wildness.

The Beaux Arts plan objectifies the water, delineating it with an ornate fence with ornamental planting. Any "untidy" marsh remnants have been tidied up. The species richness of marsh cast aside in favor of a unified visual aesthetic.

In favor of natural community associations, the primary planting design criteria became sight lines for humans. By 1938, the marsh-side vegetation had been completely "cleaned" from in front of the Museum.

This same kind of objectification continued throughout the century with the insertion of a Memorial Rose Garden and a host of war memorials in the form of monuments.

This objectification was paralleled by the country's zeal for active playfields. It was a perfect place to "improve for the new rage of civic consciousness-- the fitting of gymnasia and fitness of the body-- that was integral to the fitness of a healthy mind and a "sound citizen". In the teens the City Beautiful movement advocated horticultural exhibitions that reflected a refined taste and a clean aesthetic that depended on new ideas of sanitary and the hopes of progress through medicine and advanced hygienic science. The Fens' great windswept plains, integral to the aesthetic of "marsh" were filled with a stadium in 1925 and, later, with basketball courts.

Increasingly, the Fens became viewed as void, "open" space that was free to be filled-- filled with discrete activities rather than multivariate sensorial experience. In 1911 the Victory Gardens, made in conjunction with the conservation efforts of World War I, filled an eleven acre portion of the Fens.

But inherent in this Wet Land is an interesting phenomenon. It refuses to be completely solidified, concretized into terra firma. It maintains its elasticity, its spongy existence. Just as the water is impossible to ever truly be rid of, the wildness will not be completely tamed.

The lack of city funds has allowed the vegetation to reinstate some of its natural succession. It is a little more "scruffy" all the time. The Victory Gardens, now mature, provide secret places in their mazelike world.

And the seemingly uncontrollable Phragmites continues to blaze through the waterways.

Socially, the homeless with their "more or less dilapidated" dwellings have returned.

Gay men have staked a tristing territory in one of the more remote areas of the Fens. The
"marginal" behavior is accommodated without conflict within this marginal land.

Even the tenuous connections between the Underground Skeleton and the Made Land-- the manholes-- are windows from which the wildness explodes from the earth. In storms Stony Brook "escapes" from its underground Styx-like existence by popping the tops off of the manholes.

Perhaps part of the reason is that Back Bay is built partially on garbage. Consequently, the land itself is built on a slightly "wild" and uncontrolled piece of societal behavior. In the 19th century scavenging in dumps was common-- part of the privileges of common land. An engraving of 1859 shows the "operations of the chiffoniers, these 'pickers up of unconsidered trifles'" in the Fens where gravel was supplemented with trash.

E. Y. Robbins' s words of 1859 still hold merit, that the Back Bay Fens is still a great "ventiduct, conveying pure air into the city." And while Robbins was speaking of a physical condition, perhaps his metaphor is more applicable in a social application. This spongy land that refuses to be made discrete still provides a "mouth of the city," if not in programmatic activity than as a living metaphor of what urban life might be-- a place that remains in flux, vacillating with the changing social context of which it is a part. Even though Robbins's plea was ignored, that "to obstruct [Back Bay] with buildings, at the outlet would be a kind of public strangulation," the Fens remains an important institution within the city to keep its windpipe open. Physically, it has always been Made Land, enabled by the ingenuity of centuries of Bostonians.


Imaginatively, its patina has changed with the chemistry of its time. Ultimately, it is a topological construction that, properly recognized, will continue to be remade by the citizens who inhabit it.




Copyright © 2002 by Kathy Poole and the University of Virginia