Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Old Bear Dens--Where My Curiousity Began

My love for Franklin Park really began with my volunteer work at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline. It was there that I rediscovered my passion for history and discovered this great figure in American history. In my five years studying Olmsted and his work, I have found a deep level of respect for his ideas and ideals as a lifelong accomplishment. Olmsted was an American who truly believed in the good of mankind and believed that open space gave mankind, especially those confined to the urban setting, that goodness.


Franklin Park was to be the crown jewel of his career. His first plans were published in 1886 and over a 13 year period construction reigned in this former farmland nestled between Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Jamaica Plain. Olmsted knew it was a bit far from the center of Boston, but also realized that the growth of public transportation and the idea of an urban respite would be the cure for the industrialization of Boston and its surroundings. Franklin Park would include plans for carriages, pedestrians, baseball and tennis players, sheep, schoolboys, ladies who wished to bike, and those who wanted to partake in a civilized afternoon picnic. Nothing was missed by Olmsted in his plans.


Overtime, and especially following the death of Frederick Law Olmsted in 1903, the plans for the urban getaway changed. In some ways, these changes were minor, such as a different choice in planting. In others, these changes were major. The most potent example is the lack of construction of the "Greeting." If Franklin Park was the be the crown jewel of the Boston Park System, the Greeting was to be the crown jewel of Franklin Park. The Greeting was literally designed as the grand entrance to the park from Blue Hill Avenue. It was to have roadways for carriages, pleasure vehicles, and pedestrians. It was to have benches for resting under the shade of vaulted elms. It was to be the promenade. The place to stroll. The place to be seen. After Olmsted's death, there was no one to strongly advocate for this plan and from 1903-1912, it was to be a grassy meadow with few plantings.

Declining attendance in Franklin Park was seen as a major issue by Boston's park commissioners. It was decided that a zoo would be the answer to many of the problems. Arthur Shurtleff, a landscape architect and protege of Frederick Law Olmsted, was commissioned by the City of Boston to design what would become the Franklin Park Zoo. The zoo has seen a range of owners, attendance levels, and rates of care and consideration over the years, but today remains a thriving place for education, a home for hundreds of animals, and a distinctive part of the history of Franklin Park.

The Old Bear Dens have a particularly fascinating history. On a clean-up in the fall of 2005, I asked some fellow volunteers if they knew of the history of the area. I was especially taken in by the bas relief in one of the cages dated 1912. What is striking is the skyline of the city of Boston. It may be obvious to state, but there is no Prudential building or Hancock tower. There are actually no buildings of height except for the Custom House tower--a federal building exempt from Boston's strict height limits. I was intrigued to learn more about this part of the park. What was Olmsted's role? Who was Shurtleff? Why were the Bear Dens abandoned? Who visited this place? In my four months of intense research, I was able to answer these and many more questions and put together a project that is now published as a Historic American Buildings Survey in the Library of Congress and will be available for online viewing sometime this spring.


In the meantime, I have included a slideshow below of a combination of historic and current pictures. Observe the people, the structure, and the animals. This was zoo life through the 20th century. This part of the park was also one of the most memorable for anyone that was a parkgoer in the 1940's, 50's and 60's. The bears are always a part of the memory and therefore the Dens remain a part of the intrigue that is Franklin Park.

2 comments:

Christine Poff said...

I loved reading this, you are a beautiful writer. The pictures add much to your story.

I wonder about park attendance and wish we knew more about park user rates today. Why did attendance drop in the early part of the 1900's - such that the Zoo was proposed? What has the attendance been like overtime? I wish we knew what really happened in the park in the 1960s when people stopped using it (or so it is said) and maintenance dropped. And what are visitor numbers to the park today? We know how many people come to the Zoo each year, because they have a gate, a ticket seller, and can count. But it would help us fight for this park and document its importance if we really knew visitor numbers during each season of the year and how they compare to each earlier decade.

Shep said...

They say that you can never go back. I did,

Last August, accompanied by Julie Arrison of The Franklin Park Coalition and Barb Sloop, a close friend from Oregon, I walked Franklin Park for the first time in sixty years. Returning to a place, which was so important in my youth, was a thrill of a lifetime.

I loved that Park. I lived in that Park; I knew every inch of the place. I still do. Ask Julie, if you think that I’m bragging. I’ve often thought of having my ashes dropped over the Park, when I leave this world. That’s how important it was (is) to me, and, I’m certain, to others.

There have been many changes. Too many things have been lost.

The towering columns at the Blue Hill Ave. entrance have been removed, but I still have a picture of my young wife standing in front of one of the pillars. The rows of benches at the entrance have also disappeared. These were filled by crowds of old Jewish men and women, who arrived early to claim a seat and left late and exhausted after a day of Yiddish chatter

The Refectory, where you could buy refreshments and rent tobbogans; the Monkey House with a chimpanzee that enjoyed throwing things at those, who watched, the old Overlook building, which was mostly abandoned even in my day, the Tiki like refreshment stands and the beautiful Rose garden have all disappeared. Schoolmaster’s Hill remains, but the old toboggan slide, which provided so many thrills is long gone as were the few relics of Emerson’s home that existed, in my time.

The grand Mall, an integral part of Olmstead’s vision, has been replaced by a modern zoo designed to show the animals in natural habitats. On weekends and Jewish Holidays the mall paths were once mobbed with people, dressed in their best clothes. Families picnicked on the larger grassy area. Children played their games. Young lovers embraced under the warm sun. The bird, elephant and lion houses were crowded with visitors, especially the latter, where every Sunday the elephants were taken out for a bath as we watched, while munching popcorn and crackerjacks obtained from the nearby refreshment hut. The once bright bird house has been replaced by glassed in displays in dark rooms, all of which combine to make that once attractive building seem like an afterthought. And the bears? All that remains are rusted, broken cages and a deteriorating wall sculpture, which can’t seem to find a proper home.

I watched with curiosity as victory gardens, planted and maintained by Italian war prisoners were set up on the mall during the war. We wondered about Italy and these men who were so far from home.

I walked on the Mall with my brother on a cold cloudy December 7, 1941 afternoon, not learning about Pearl Harbor until I returned home.

The ball fields remain. The area was mobbed on weekends with boys of all ages playing football or baseball, their fields frequently crossing each other. I watched the YMHA play baseball in the spring and the young men from Timothy Smith, the old Dudley Street department store, in leagues football games in the fall.

I was disappointed, when White Stadium was built. There was a need, but I was saddened by the space it took away from baseball and football fields. The stadium stands exactly, where at the age of thirteen, I ran 70 yards for a touchdown one early fall Sunday morning.

During World War II, the ball fields were converted to dozens of Victory Gardens. Fortunately the area was restored at the war’s end.

The golf course remains active and essentially unchanged. I never played on it. Who could afford that luxury? I remember the day an airplane made a forced landing on the fairway of the first green. My brother and I watched the next morning as the pilot, dressed in airplane pilot clothes with a Lind burgh type leather helmet, raced down the green grass, rose gracefully into the air over our heads and headed for home at East Boston. Airplane pilots were heroes in those early days of commercial flying.

The glacial rocks have not moved. The Balancing Rock across from the first tee of the golf course remains exactly where it was deposited by the retreating glacier eons ago. A cliff still overlooks Seaver Street. I was overwhelmed emotionally as I stood at that spot behind the old bear cages and looked into the distance at the tall buildings in city’s center and down Harold Street at the neighborhood in which I spent the first twenty five years of my life. It was on this same spot that my brother and I watched Franklin Roosevelt as he drove along Seaver Street in an open Packard during his 1932 campaign for President. Later we watched history again as from that same location, we looked up into the sky to see the majestic hydrogen buoyed Hindenburg pass slowly overhead. It might have been its last flight, but I cannot claim that with certainty.

The street car tracks below the cliff are gone, but my favorite pathway to the park, a cleavage in the cliff wall extending from the street to the cliff top remains. I was tempted to try it, but I’m not quite as nimble now as I was when I was young.

We passed Scarborough Pond, where I caught my first fish, a 4 inch sunfish, using a safety pin for a hook and worms dug from the nearby mud. My mother made me throw it away, when I proudly displayed it at home. I have a cherished memory of the area, a picture of my wife sunbathing by the pond only two weeks after I met her at Revere Beach.

My biggest disappointment was the loss of the Mall. They never would have done it, if they had been among the walkers on sunny Sunday afternoons.

I left the Park to visit my birthplace on Waumbeck Street a number of blocks down the hill from Seaver St. Standing in front of the house in which I had lived eighty years earlier tugged at my heart and brought a tear to my eye. Despite the empty lots and a new fa├žade on my old home, I had not problem in recognizing it. Waumbeck Street in that part of the street remains essentially the same. I looking up at the first floor window, I could see my mother calling me for dinner.

It took me a long time to find my way back to the Park and to Waumbeck Street, but I finally made it. Thanks Julie for helping me fulfill a life’s dream and to Barb for coming along and helping me enjoy it.