Heritage, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 1990 Page: 24
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Saving Olmsted in Massachusetts
Revitalizing Historic Parks
Anne Hoover Henderson
F or the past decade the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
has undertaken a remarkable effort to preserve historic
open space. In 1983 the state legislature authorized a major
bond issue directing state agencies to spend funds on a host of
creative open space preservation projects. Supported initiatives
included the acquisition of threatened open space for park land,
protection of the state's scenic rivers and streams, an inventory of
scenic landscapes, and reconstruction of the state's colonial city
and town commons. The major objectives of such funding, both in
outright acquisition by the state, and in the form of local aid to
cities and towns, was to preserve historic properties, to establish
networks of open space in the public domain, and to implement a
variety of open space programs in municipalities around the state.
The Dukakis administration and members of the state legislature
hoped that citizens across Massachusetts would be proud of these
reclaimed historic resources and that the state's investments would
stimulate long-term commercial development, expanded tourism,
and community revitalization.
The Massachusetts Olmsted Program was one of the bold
projects established by the legislature in 1983, and it reflected both
state and national interest in the work of the grandfather of
landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. The Program
focused on Olmsted's public parks in Massachusetts, some 280 of
the 850 nationwide designed by Olmsted, Sr., his sons and their
successors between 1857 and 1950. Among the Massachusetts
legacy of the firm are Olmsted's famous work in Boston, the four
Emerald Necklace parks (1878-1895) and Franklin Park (1885).
These works comprise a linear park system of more than a thousand
acres, over half of Boston's present park land. Olmsted designed the
parks to provide a continuous greenbelt as a refuge from the city,
recreating along the way the rich scenic beauty of the New England
landscape. Over the past 100 years the parks have become precious
open space, as the public increasingly demands access to parks for
both recreation and relaxation.
Boston's Necklace parks and Franklin Park formed the
backbone of the Massachusetts Olmsted Program. Led by Olmsted
enthusiasts, environmental advocates, preservationists, and
political leaders, the movement to preserve historic open space
produced the nation's first statewide program to rehabilitate parks
associated with the Olmsted firm, as well as numerous other parks
dating to the late nineteenth century. As part of the 1983 Open
Space Bond authorization, the legislature directed the State's
Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and its Department of
Environmental Management (DEM), the state agency charged
with managing the commonwealth's forests and parks, to develop
comprehensive plans for the rehabilitation and restoration of a
dozen historic parks in eight municipalities.' These parks, some of
which were designed by the Olmsted firm between the 1870s and
the 1920s, have been the center of attention for the past five years
as the state, municipalities, and the Program's consultants sought
public agreement on the long-range future of these valuable old
The DEM hired interdisciplinary teams of landscape architects,
historians, archeologists, surveyors, and other specialists to
prepare master plans, as well as construction documents, to
implement the first phase of long-range rehabilitation plans.
Between 1985 and 1989, state and city staffs, master planning
teams, and citizens exchanged views on the contemporary needs of
these historic parks, spaces which had long been neglected and
were badly in need of maintenance. Through vigorous debate over
the issue of finding a balance between present-day needs for
athletic facilities and playgrounds while honoring as much as
possible the original design intentions of Olmsted and other
visionaries for public parks, communities developed plans as well
as priority projects for the initial phase of rehabilitation. These
served as "blueprints" for bringing the old parks back to life.
Unfortunately, both the political upheavals of the Dukakis
administration and the economic downturn of the New England
region that began in 1987 have halted the expenditure of state
funds on the park projects as well as other open space preservation
programs begun in the 1980s. Fortunately, before funding dried up,
the Olmsted Program communities received master plans that
raised public awareness of their historic parks as valuable municipal
resources that can be returned to the public for use and enjoyment.
From its inception in the early 1980s, the Olmsted Program had
two interlocking goals: to make the parks vital places once again,
and to accommodate present-day needs while maintaining historic
park features and elements. For over a century the Program's parks
suffered from lack of funding for even basic upkeep, and they had
become derelict landscapes-overgrown and littered urban
wastelands-attracting vandals, joy riders, arsonists, and other
criminal activity. Municipal park departments were unable to
provide appropriate levels of maintenance because of the passage
of a 1981 proposition that made it mandatory that local taxes not
be increased by more than 2.5% annually. Even. prior to the
proposition, the state's municipalities had cut park budgets to
support schools, police and fire services. Yet while the state's parks
deteriorated, there was a concurrent growing awareness of the
need, particularly in large urban areas, for local open space for both
active and passive recreation.
The Olmsted Program included a dozen parks, half of which
were found to be significant Olmsted designs. The remaining
historic parks date to the late 1800s, and they were designed and
built by city fathers, early influential park commissioners, or
directors of park departments. The parks included two historic
areas in the city of Lynn on Boston's North4Shore: a tiny five-acre
parcel commanding a splendid view of the Boston skyline high
above the town's center, and the enormous Lynn Woods, a 2000acre
urban reserve that Olmsted recommended in the 1890s be
maintained as one of the nation's great urban open spaces. On the
state's South Shore, the Program included the Olmsted and
Calvert Vaux designed Kennedy Park (1871) in Fall River,
Brockton's D.W. Field Park, built by a local shoe manufacturer
between 1925 and 1944, and New Bedford's Buttonwood Park.
The New Bedford park exhibits a partially implemented plan of
1895 by Charles Eliot and acts as a major green link in a system of
parks envisioned by Eliot for the city. The Program also included
two major regional parks in Western Massachusetts: Elm Park in
Worcester and Forest Park in Springfield. Elm Park was designed
and constructed as a 90-acre passive park by Edward Winslow
24 HERITAGE * SUMMER 1990
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 1990, periodical, Summer 1990; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45427/m1/24/: accessed October 20, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.