The Endurance of City Square Park
The park has been built over and burned—twice—but has risen from the ashes.
We owe a debt to the city planning gods, and to some very committed, visionary Charlestown residents for City Square Park.
City Square Park was the first major park built as part of the Central Artery/Big Dig Tunnel project, giving us a work of art, a historic marker, an amazing green space and a gateway to Boston.
You could say that the park is almost 400 years old. Initially laid out as a central square during the founding of Charlestown, the square was the site of the Great House, where Governor John Winthrop of the new Massachusetts Bay Colony began the business of governing. The Great House later became Three Cranes Tavern and remained as a ‘public house’ for the next 150 years.
By 1775, Charlestown had more than 400 buildings and had become a shipbuilding center as well as a major port of commerce between the colony and Europe. In that year, the town was all but burned to the ground, following the decisive battle with the British on June 17.
Out of the ashes, Charlestown Square became the new name of the town’s center. Land owners constructed buildings in and around the square. In 1835 a fire again destroyed much of the town, but in 1868, a new city hall and a huge hotel again revived the square. After Charlestown was annexed to the City of Boston in 1874, more hotels were built and the square itself was transformed into a circular park centered around a graceful fountain.
While the decision to join Boston brought with it flourishing trade and growing commercialism, there was a downside to the union. To allow for easier access to downtown, the city built the elevated rail in 1901. For the next three quarters of a century, trains screeched overhead, upheld by ugly massive girders, and squelched Charlestown’s blooming growth as the City Square train station cut City Square in half.
To deal with an increase in North Shore traffic, state planners created the Tobin Bridge. Opened in 1950, its exit traffic emptied into City Square. And in 1960 two elevated highways went up.
It’s kind of amazing, with all this use and overuse, that anything could survive in that area. This is where the city gods enter.
Changes in City Square
First, the elevated came down in 1975. Then, the Charlestown off-ramp from the Tobin Bridge was redirected, and the elevated highways were replaced by a tunnel. The sky above City Square was clear.
In 1986, with the intervention of a community task force co-chaired by Ken Stone, the one acre park land was designated as public open space. In 1992 City Square Park was designated a Boston Landmark site.
The work that went into developing this current jewel of a park was lengthy, costly and demanding. Meetings followed meetings as lengthy consultations with designers were followed by consultations with concerned Charlestown residents. The result—a serene oasis of stone, trees, flowers and sculpture and a lawn inset with the foundation of the Three Cranes Tavern, unearthed during the Big Dig—sits in juxtaposition to the ever new, soaring Zakim Bridge—a testament to the Charlestown of today, right alongside how it came to be.
- Where is it? At the junction of Main Street, Chelsea Street and Rutherford Avenue
- When was it built? Official dedication of the City Square Park was in 1996.
- Who built it? It was designed by the Halvorson Company of Boston. Art work is by David Phillips.
- How was it built? Design materials include hammered copper and cast bronze; there is a custom built ornamental fence. The walkways are granite. There are 70 species of trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses. At four of the five gates, plaques commemorate some of Charlestown’s most famous notables, including Elizabeth Foster (Mother) Goose, Samuel Morse and John Harvard.
- What are the future plans for City Square Park? The park is for public use and enjoyment. This includes sitting around on the benches, laying on the grass when the weather is good and studying the interpretive panels. There’s yoga in the park, weddings are performed and there’s an occasional summer concert.
Information for this article was compiled from various research materials, including Highway to the Past: The Archaeology of Boston’s Big Dig and Celebrate the Rebirth of City Square Park; web-sites including http://www.charlestownonline.net/citysquare.htm and http://www.citysquarepark.org/. Thanks to Ken Stone for all his help in understanding the park.