March is famous in Boston for St. Patrick’s Day and the celebration of all things Irish. The history of the Irish in Boston can be traced, in part, through public art on Boston Common, the Public Garden, and Commonwealth Avenue Mall.
Patrick Collins Memorial
Commonwealth Avenue Mall (Between Clarendon and Dartmouth Streets)
Patrick Collins was the second Irish-born mayor of Boston (1902-05). Born in County Cork, his family moved to South Boston when he was a child. He started in the trades as an upholsterer, became active in the trade union movement, entered politics and during his time in the state legislature he studied law at Harvard Law School. Mayor Collins took office after a distinguished public career of four years in the State Legislature, six years as Congressman, and four years as United States Consul General in London appointed by President Grover Cleveland.
In his first inaugural address, he said: “The chief trouble with commercial Boston is that it seeks to do all its best business in one square mile of land. The result is congestion, very high rents within that area, and somewhat ragged prospects beyond. More business centers of the first class…will make Boston a better and a greater city. For this purpose, I may be counted an expansionist of the most extreme type.”
He died suddenly while in office, and he was so popular that funds for his memorial were raised in just six days from thousands of small contributions given by the residents of Boston.
February is African American History Month paying tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American Society. Within the three parks cared for by the Friends, there are two important sculptures memorializing Boston African Americans.
Boston Common is home to the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial, a bas-relief masterpiece commemorating Colonel Robert Gould Shaw leading the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first all-volunteer black regiment in the Union Army.
Commonwealth Avenue Mall’s Boston Women’s Memorial honors Phillis Wheatley as one of three important women from Boston. Phillis Wheatley was the first African American, the first slave, and the third woman in the United States to publish a book of poems.
A history of demonstration in American’s first park
The Women’s March on January 21 on Boston Common was just the latest in a long history of peaceful demonstrations on the Common.
“The Common has been at the center of Boston’s civic life since its establishment in 1634. Despite physical changes, the Common has remained a focal point for the community – from grazing cows and military activities to celebration, punishments, protests and recreation. Physically, as well, it has remained fairly consistent in size and character, a green respite in the midst of the city.”— Boston Common Cultural Landscape Report, prepared by Landscape Historian Shary Berg for Friends of the Public Garden
After rowdy demonstrations against the English Stamp Act and the tax on tea, the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 was cause for a huge celebration on the Common. Following the Revolutionary War, the Common was host to protesters of every stripe, and Presidents from Washington to Jackson visited along with other notables.
Summer has begun which means the outdoor work of the Friends sculpture care program is in swing. Mr. Hale (pictured) in the Public Garden is one of eight pieces conservators are caring for this year as part of the Friends Sculpture Care Program. Another 10 pieces of public art are in the process of being cleaned and maintained. This work is not only necessary, it is also newsworthy. The Boston Globe recently ran a piece about the behind-the-scenes efforts involved in caring for these historic works of art in the article, “They get the gunk off Boston’s outdoor treasures.”
More than a dozen people have recently taken a very special interest in the Public Garden and have been studying this iconic greenspace for hours on end. What they are learning about America’s first public botanical garden is not for a class or research for a book. This studious bunch is the inaugural group of volunteer docents of the Friends of the Public Garden that will be serving as guides for a new tour program.
Walking a route that encompasses the northern half of the Garden, tour participants will gain a deeper understanding of the Garden’s special place in the history of Boston and the country. Hour-long tours will include interesting facts and anecdotes about history, horticulture, and sculpture. Casual visitors of the area are likely to find a new appreciation of its significance and neighbors who use it frequently are likely to discover at least a thing or two that might surprise them.
Docents have spent many volunteer hours learning about the Garden and working to craft their tours. In February, their training began with a Friends-sponsored lecture, Searching for the Histories of the Boston Public Garden by Boston University Professor Keith Morgan, held at Suffolk University. Friends President Emeritus Henry Lee gave a talk at the Friends office that traced the Garden’s history as well as the founding of the organization and highlights from its 45 year work in caring for the Garden in partnership with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. Additional information sessions included trees and plantings by Friends Project Manager Bob Mulcahy; the history of the Swan Boats by fourth generation owner Lyn Paget; and the Garden’s sculpture including the Friends sculpture care program by Friends Collections Care Manager Sarah Hutt.
The group also attended two special training sessions. The first (pictured above) took place at the City’s greenhouses, where the City’s Superintendent of Horticulture, Anthony Hennessy and his team hosted the group. On an unseasonably cold day in March, docents were delighted to shed their coats in the 80-degree warmth of the greenhouses to learn about the plantings that would be in the Garden, and throughout the city, in the weeks to follow.
Volunteers were visibly enthralled as Anthony announced, “Right now, there are 35,000 tulips waiting to burst into bloom once the snow melts; most beds have 500 tulips, but the “footbeds” surrounding George Washington have 3500-4000 tulips in them.”
The second session was a guided tour of the Public Garden by Bobby Moore, longtime member of the Friends board and chair of the Public Garden Committee, who also owned a tour company and is an experienced guide. She recalled the years when she would take her toddler-aged children for walks through the Garden, a short stroll from her Beacon Hill home. Moore’s deep love of the Garden was palpable as she shared stories of the poor condition of the Garden in the1970s. Moore told the docents about broken fences and large amounts of litter, and of the important work of the Friends through the years to improve the Garden to where it is today.
Sidney Kenyon of Beacon Hill and Sherley Smith of the Back Bay are champions of the new docent program. They are committed volunteers with a deep love of the Public Garden. In their leadership roles, they are coordinating this inaugural class of volunteer docents that will be guiding groups throughout the summer in teams of two. The guides are eager to share what they have learned with others interested in gaining a deeper knowledge and appreciation of Boston’s special and most iconic greenspace, the Public Garden.