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One of The Coolest Places in Charlestown. Literally.

Harvard Mall has long, complicated history and is slated for a renovation.

 

Harvard Mall is one of the coolest places in Charlestown. Literally. On one of the recent hot summer days, while taking photos in the park, I felt a refreshing coolness, and an emptiness there, so different from the noisy, busy streets. There was just one other person there, sitting on a stone bench. 

The mall, a ‘tree shaded brick square,’ stands on a hill. This hill, originally Fort Hill, contained a fort built by the first European settlers in a spot ideal for protection and inspection over the land and nearby water. There was a wheat-grinding windmill next to the fort, and eventually a church nearby.

John Harvard built a home at the bottom of the hill, with an orchard spreading upwards. There were more than 150 other small houses on or near the hill, which became Town Hill.

Harvard preached at the church but died young, at thirty, less than two years after arriving in Massachusetts. His house, and all others, were lost in the Revolutionary fire of 1775. His actual burial spot is unknown.

Harvard bequeathed half of his estate and his entire library to what would become Harvard University. In 1828 the University dedicated a memorial obelisk to John Harvard and placed it in Phipps Burial Ground. Town Hill Street became Harvard Street. 

One hundred and fifteen years later came the Harvard Mall. A Harvard alumnus bought the land, and created the Harvard Mall as a gift to the City of Boston.

It is unlike any place in Charlestown. Paved in brick, the lower tier is lined with trees, lanterns and benches. The many trees seem to provide perpetual shade. In the upper tier is a playground, adjacent to a wide open area. A 17-ton granite obelisk is etched, somewhat illegibly, with the story of the life of John Harvard. Stone insets along the walls recount the history of Town Hill and the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Although people seem to use the Mall as a way to get from Harvard Street to Main, it’s so much more than a passageway. It’s a sanctuary.

  • Where is it? 18 Main Street
  • When was it built? 1943
  • Who built it? Harvard University, with funds from an anonymous donor, who also gave the land where the mall is built.
  • Why was it built? As a memorial to John Harvard and a public park for Boston.
  • How was it built?  Paved in red brick, and a perimeter lined with stone benches.  Stone steps lead to a walled promenade and to a second tier. 
  • What are the future plans for the structure? According to an article in PATCH (), City Councilor Sal LaMattina recently announced that the Harvard Mall would receive funds for a complete renovation of the tot lot playground and the surrounding area.      

Information for this article was compiled from various research materials, including http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2004/07.22/25-mall.html; http://web.mit.edu/manyan/www/trends.html; http://charlestown.patch.com/articles/10-notes-about-bostons-budget-two-in-charlestown; The College Pump, July-August 2002.  Notes from Carl Zellner.

karen scales August 16, 2012 at 12:41 PM
Helen,Great article once again reminding me of what I take for granted about our town.
Just a person! August 16, 2012 at 03:36 PM
A great article! This is another place that really needs some attention. There should be street vendors allowed to set up in there and sell there wears, how about we get another d group of volunteers to clean the City Property also! Have you ever gone to the North End on Hanover St and see their mall. Clean and usefull, people gather ,sit and talk and the have vendors there. Why can't Charlestown have the same? No, Charlestown can't even get water in the park at the navy yard! Another thing for ridiculous.com
Nancy Hannan August 18, 2012 at 05:49 PM
While I agree that the space is underutilized I like the idea that it's another (of a very few) where one can sit and enjoy the peace of a non-commercial location. Bring on the renovations! Thanks Helen for the opportunity to share ideas in At This Addresss.
Dan August 18, 2012 at 09:31 PM
The mall should be used more for social activities that bring people together. If the neighbors don't object, maybe a good place for classical or folk music, or even a movie night during the summer. Or how about a community flea market in the spring & fall. I think quieter activities like reading a book out loud to a group of kids, or getting them to play chess or Tai-chi classes for all makes sense as well.
don young August 19, 2012 at 11:09 PM
If the city were to provide a power source I'm sure Charlestown Against Drugs can work the Mall into next years Family Movie Night schedule.
Helen O'Neil August 20, 2012 at 08:49 PM
Thanks everybody for your comments so far about the Mall. This one came from a reader via e-mail: "My sister lived on Harvard Court (?), a little dead end off Harvard, so we both cut through Harvard Mall on occasion. I always thought it was so underutilized. The front part is a little isolated. Wouldn't it be great if there were little cafe tables and chairs set up there in the shade, with strings of lights in the trees? We used to talk about that. I remember many years ago watching a performance of Shakespeare (by young people) in the mall. Was a very neat experience.
Mary Brock August 21, 2012 at 01:42 PM
Thanks for bringing Harvard Mall to center stage. Great article!
Helen O'Neil August 24, 2012 at 10:53 PM
These are such great ideas. There was apparently a Friends of Harvard Mall at one time but the officers moved away. The Friends groups seem to make a real difference -- Doherty Park, City Square Park, the Navy Yard friends -- just to name a few, bring attention to their favorite spots. Maybe there are some new Harvard Mall Friends out there....

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