Charlesgate Park, the Bowker Overpass, and Our Changing Urban Landscape

By Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook

As a transplant to Boston, one of my goals of the past few years has been to develop a better grasp of the topographical history of this tangled, layered city. As the daughter of a cartographer, I was raised to pay attention to the built and wild landscape around me, and also to appreciate how landscapes are ever-evolving. One of the things that fascinates me about Boston as a city is the way in which its landscape is constantly in flux, and yet how every inch of the land and the structures on it contain traces of previous contours, uses, and lives.

Charlesgate“Intersection of Boylston Street and Charlesgate from the West. Photograph by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, January 2014.”

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has recently completed a study of the ramps on and off I-90 turnpike in central Boston. One focus of the study is the renovation or removal of the Bowker Overpass, constructed in 1967 over the much-beloved section of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace park system known as Charlesgate Park. Charlesgate Park, completed in the 1880s, connected the Fens and the Commonwealth to the Charles River Esplanade. Boston University student Allan Lasser offers an excellent overview of the history of Charlesgate and the overpass in a 2013 article, “Charlesgate: A Palimpsest of Urban Planning” (New Errands, vol. 1 no. 1).

What, you might ask, does all of this have to do with the Massachusetts Historical Society? Well, we are part of this narrative of landscape too. The current home of the MHS, constructed in the 1890s, stands at the top of Charlesgate East. Our reading room overlooks what once would have been the southern entrance to the Charlesgate Park. In this aerial photograph digitized by MIT libraries, one can see the top of Charlesgate Park and the Fens stretching southwest towards Jamaica Pond; the MHS is just visible in the lower left-hand corner.

In the mid 1890s, Boston artist Sarah Gooll Putnam pasted this photograph of Charlesgate Park into her diary:

Putnam diary“Charlesgate Park. Photograph by unknown photographer, circa 1893-1896. Sarah Gooll Putnam Diaries, vol 20, MHS.”

Last week, on my walk to work, I paused with a camera at the top of Charlesgate East and captured some images This is what the southeast corner of Charlesgate Park looks like today. The building that features so prominently in Putnam’s photograph can be seen in the distance beyond the passing school bus.

Charlesgate 2“Charlesgate Park from the corner of Boylston Street and Charlesgate East. Photograph by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, January 2014.”

While some urban planners would argue the Bowker Overpass is an essential pressure valve, easing traffic congestion in and out of central Boston, it is easy to see why city residents and nature-lovers abhor the auto-friendly changes to the neighborhood. In The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston (Beacon Press, 2008), natural historian John Hanson Mitchell scathingly refers to the Charlesgate as a “perfect example” of “all that went wrong in Boston in the 1950s, and in some ways all that has gone wrong in the environment since the invention of the internal combustion engine” (120). Agreeing with him, citizen groups Friends of the Charlesgate and The Esplanade Association are lobbying for MassDOT to remove the Overpass and restore the Charlesgate Park as a pedestrian-friendly link from the Fens down to the Esplanade. Whatever happens, the MHS will stand at the corner of Boylston and The Fenway, bearing witness to the changing landscape around us.