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.