|Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About
Commonwealth Avenue Mall But Were Afraid to Ask
by Margaret Pokorny
Do you know who is responsible for the design of the Mall? Do you know that many of the historic elms are still standing? Did you know there was a beautiful iron fence all the way around every block until 1880 when it was taken down for no discernible reason? (Was there a scrap drive for a war they didn't tell us about?) Did you know that 80% of the people who use the Mall live within 1/2 mile of it and that 60% of them come every day to enjoy it? Did you know that Haddon Hall (1896), on the Berkeley corner, was built so tall because a loophole in the original 1857 deed restrictions didn't anticipate the invention of the elevator and required that buildings had to be three stories tall but did not set a maximum height because they hadn't imagined anyone could build taller buildings? Did you know that in the '60s and '7Os some of our most distinguished citizens were out pumping fungicide into the infected elms with bicycle pumps at all hours of the day and night?
The Mall, while appearing to be a rather simple arrangement of trees and turf, has a rich and fascinating history. The Emerald Necklace and the Public Garden and Com mon, linked by the critical nine blocks of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, have been thoroughly documented and written ahout. Until now, the Mall has not. Most people think that the Mall was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, but they are wrong. Except for the block between Massachusetts Avenue and Charlesgate East, Olmsted had nothing to do with the Mall, other than comment about it and give advice that was ignored. We have Arthur Delevan Gilman to thank for the design of the Back Bay and in particular the scale, layout, and vision that became the Mall. We also have Gilman to thank for the Arlington Street Church, the old Boston City Hall, and for several residences on Commonwealth Avenue.
The history of the design resonates back to the design of the ancient cities in Greece, and to the grid used by the conquering Romans to build their new cities. The origin of the term Mall comes from the tree-lined playing field for the game of Pall Mall, a game not unlike croquet, which originated in Italy. Paille Maille became popular in France and was later played by the English kings with their mistresses on warm summer afternoons under the shade of rows of elms. Mall derives from maul or mallet, used to strike the ball.
The form of the boulevard can also be traced through many cultures until it finds its finest realization in the boulevards of Paris. It is often said that Commonwealth Avenue was designed after Eugene Haussmann's Parisian boulevards, but in fact Commonwealth Avenue and the Champs Elyseès were being built at almost exactly the same time.
The boulevard, which in America came to be known as any tree-lined avenue, became the backbone of the planning of new towns all across America. The Back Bay became the most successful embodiment of this idea.
The struggle to preserve this neighborhood is a long and painful one. Some battles were lost, but miraculously, Commonwealth Avenue survived the threats. It came dangerously close to the brink - in 1965 the Mayor of Boston, ignoring all recommendations, approved zoning that would allow buildings over 200 feet high on all the cross street corners! Imagine what that would look like today if the defenders of the neighborhood, with NABB at the forefront, had not gone to the State Legislature to achieve designated historic district status.
The trees, however, are what make the Mall. These four simple rows (Did
you know that for seven years there were six rows of trees?) have been
fraught with controversy almost from the day they were planted. They have
been the subject of civic pride, the cause of citizen uproar, the reminders
of embarrassing official neglect, the victims of devastating disease,
the objects of worldwide praise, and the providers of beauty and comfort
to millions of people.
While the Mall is the front yard to those
living on Commonwealth Avenue and the back yard for everyone else, it
is also an important historic place, a center for urban celebrations and
activities, an amenity for shoppers and visitors to local businesses and
hotels, and an area of respite for people working in the Back Bay. Meeting
these needs is a tall order for nine blocks of green space
those who use the Mall to treat it gently and respectfully.