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Doherty Playground: History Within History

Doherty Playground, formerly called Charlestown Heights, comes from the same designer as Boston's Emerald Necklace.

Doherty Playground, originally known as Charlestown Heights, is a vibrant green space and one of Charlestown's most beloved parks. Designed in 1891 by Frederick Law Olmsted, whose best known works include Central Park in New York City and Boston’s own Emerald Necklace, the park serves a multitude of uses.

Charlestown Heights

Charlestown Heights was first the William Dehon Estate. The City of Boston acquired the estate and Olmsted set out his design: Charlestown Heights would have three distinct areas.

There would be a promenade, alongside the Bunker Hill Street edge of the park, with a fountain anchoring one end; a central lawn area would provide rest and recreation; and the hillside leading down to Medford Street, with an overlook of the Mystic River, would offer views across water.  The hillside would have curving pathways, and granite steps edged with Roxbury pudding stone, a signature Olmsted feature. 

Charlestown Heights opened in 1895. In an 1897 article in Harpers Weekly, Olmsted wrote, “The feature of Charlestown Heights is a grand sweeping view over the marshes of the Mystic, as yet almost untouched.”

To ponder this idyllic description of Mystic River marshes while looking across the river today, to the scrap metal pyramids in Everett, might seem pure nostalgia. But it’s still one of the best parks in the city.

Doherty Playground and new park additions

In 1942 Charlestown Heights was renamed Ensign John J. Doherty Jr. Playground. Doherty, born in Charlestown, was a bomber pilot aboard the USS Enterprise during World War II.  He and other crew members were some of the first casualties of the war. Ensign Doherty was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Navy Flying Cross for gallantry. 

In 1945 a wading pool was added to the park and three years later, the Clougherty Pool swimming complex was completed. (For its history, see ).

When we were kids the central area of the park, close to where the playground is now, had an overhang where, in the morning, we worked with small arts and crafts projects. Alongside the wading pool were  administrative offices and changing rooms. We spent a good part of each summer day in the park. For lunch we bought from the concession stand, managed by a blind man and his wife, above the Clougherty Pool. While eating up there we watched the swimmers and divers down below.

Between the 1960s and the 1990s the central area of the park became a play space with two basketball courts, swings, a concrete shade structure, and a small playground.  A new spray pool replaced the wading pool.

Friends of Doherty Park

The hundred years of constant use took its toll on the park. Several portions began to show distress, most especially the ‘Roundies,’ the lower bouldered grade which overlooks the Mystic River. The steps in the stairways became broken, cracked and dangerous. 

To the rescue came the Friends of Doherty Park, established in 1992. With their commitment, the city of Boston hired Walker-Kluesing Design Group to complete a Master Plan for the park and chart a course for the future. The Roxbury puddingstone was restored and the walls and granite steps of the staircases were either repaired or replaced.

In 1998, with the support of the Friends, Boston Landmarks Commission awarded to the park a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

  • Where is it? between Bunker Hill and Medford Street
  • When was it built? 1891-1895 
  • Who built it? Frederick Olmsted, Designer
  • Why was it built? To offer a place of respite for an overcrowded city. Olmsted believed parks should combine active recreational areas with passive park elements. A park should be a place of fun and serenity.
  • How was it built? Olmsted’s design laid out Charlestown Heights into three distinct areas: a promenade, a central area—where the basketball courts, playground and pool are; and curving pathways and  pudding stone steps.
  • What are the future plans for the structure? The Friends of Doherty Park continues its enthusiastic support of this exceptional park. They hope to secure a grant allowing them to restore the non-functioning granite fountain at the east end of the promenade. The fountain stonework is in poor condition and the fountain basin has long been filled in with concrete.

Information for this article was compiled from various research materials, including Charlestown Preservation Society web-site, Wikipedia and http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=89785512; flickr photos.  To contact Friends of Doherty Park send e-mails to maryfahey927@comcast.net.

Caitlin Walsh July 11, 2012 at 12:34 PM
Lived across that park for nine years. Had no idea that was supposed to be a fountain in what I called "the little park." I remember when they got rid of the wadding pool for the sprinklers, and how they originally designed them with a rough surface of stones sticking out all over. Great idea guys. I wonder how many other bloody knees besides my own made them resurface it.
SuzanneJ July 11, 2012 at 07:05 PM
The fact that we have an Olmstead park in Charlestown is amazing and something that we should take pride in. Unfortunately, the community does not treat it this way - I was there the Saturday after 4th of July intending to have a picnic but there was garbage everywhere. It was really sad. Even inside the Cloughrety pool there was garbage all around. I am hoping this was due to the holiday but doubtful. Regardless, this park is something that we should treasure, respect and aim to restore to Olmstead's original vision. I appreciate all the hard work the Friends of the Park are doing but think we all need to do more and ensure this historical landmark is all that it should be.
Lisa McGoff Collins July 13, 2012 at 10:58 AM
Suzanne, please come take a look at the Park know. The City has employed 17 young teenagers too keep the park, and the pool area clean they work all day from 9-5 sweeping, weeding, and cleaning (the best a teenager can do), I guarantee that the next 6 weeks the Park will look good. After that it is up to the Parks department to help keep it clean, and for the people that are using it to use the 6 trash cans placed around the park, instead of just throwing their trash all over the place. The Park is such a great place, it takes a village to keep it clean. Come enjoy it while we are here.
Mary Kay Donovan July 13, 2012 at 09:32 PM
Again, many thanks Helen for the history of this treasure in our town. I really enjoy all your columns and each time I read one of your stories about one of our public spaces, I think, "what can we do as a community to restore/preserve and make people aware of it's value and landscape significance?" I had been aware of the history many years ago when I came to Charlestown. About 20 years ago, a woman Maureen (does anyone remember her last name?) who lived on Sullivan St started a movement to get people interested in preserving the park. I will have to look through my notes. Again, thanks so much Helen.
Nancy Hannan July 15, 2012 at 12:37 PM
Oh to drink from that fountain again! We enjoyed this oasis as children and now are responsible to keep the great gifts the area offers in optiumum condition for future generations. Thanks for your great work Helen.
Mary Brock July 19, 2012 at 12:02 PM
So many memories of that beautiful park! Thanks for the great article.

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