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The artificial creation of a natural-looking meandering stream attracted the development of a new residential and institutional district in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before 1881, the land and the landscape here did not exist. Solving an environmental problem generated a distinctive new neighborhood between Boston and Brookline.

With the extension of the landfill for the Back Bay district to the area of Massachusetts Avenue, the city of Boston confronted a problem and opportunity. The natural peninsulas of Gravelly Point (where the Christian Science complex [BB86], now stands) and Sewell's Point (extending south from Brookline to what are now Kenmore Square [WB1] and Audubon Circle) bracketed the swampy, often flooding confluence of the freshwater Muddy and Stony Brook rivers with the saltwater Charles River estuary to the north. The Boston Park Commission hired Frederick Law Olmsted in 1878 to advise on the creation of a park system, and he recommended starting with the correction of this sanitary and drainage problem. The resulting fenway, a marshy river course, both solved the engineering problem and endowed the city with a landscape of exceptional quality.

Development followed rapidly, beginning in the 1890s. Both sides of the park attracted handsome new dwellings and institutional buildings, touted initially as the next phase of the elite Back Bay development. Although the uniformity of the earlier district was never achieved, the Fenway became a dynamic mix of culture, education, recreation, and residence. Fine town houses rose first along the southern shore of the Fenway, but apartment buildings soon invaded this area and the northern district even more so. When Isabella Stewart Gardner opened her palace/museum residence (FL14) in 1903, she ushered in the institutional phase of the neighborhood. The Museum of Fine Arts (FL12), Massachusetts Historical Society (FL3), Harvard Medical School (FL21), and many others followed in rapid order. In 1912, Fenway Park (WB4), the home of the Boston Red Sox, arose nearby, and commercial uses invaded the neighborhood, as well. What the district lacks in visual and functional coherence it overcomes in the variety of attractions that it offers.

Writing Credits

Keith N. Morgan

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