Boston's crown jewel still dazzles

The Emerald Necklace is a swath of parks, ponds, and greenways that offer some of Boston's best scenery.

Often called the "father of landscape architecture," Frederick Law Olmsted had a hand in green spaces all over North America, and he's probably best remembered as the creator of New York's Central Park.

But Boston bears his strongest mark. His complex and sweeping design for the Boston park system was so all-engrossing that he moved from New York to the leafy Boston suburb of Brookline, where he established the world's first professional landscape architecture firm and spent the last two decades of his career.

More than a century after its completion, the Emerald Necklace - the five-mile swath of parks, ponds, and parkways linking downtown Boston to its southwestern rim - is still one of the most pleasurable routes through the city.

The best place to start is with some of the pre-Olmsted green spaces that he incorporated into his master plan.

The formal English design of the 24-acre Public Garden, in the heart of downtown Boston, dates from 1859; the three-acre lagoon with its luxuriant weeping willows was added two years later. In spring, those waxy willows turn suddenly verdant, thousands of tulips unfold with brassy brilliance, and the pedal-powered swan boats begin to cruise the lagoon. The fanciful vessels have been a Boston fixture since Roger Paget launched the first flotilla in 1877, basing them on set decorations he had seen in a production of Richard Wagner's opera "Lohengrin."

The Public Garden makes a formal entry into Back Bay, the elegant 450-acre neighborhood created in the mid-19th century by filling a marshy cove.

Most people stroll through Back Bay on fashionable Newbury Street for the boutiques, art galleries, cafes, and people-watching. But broad Commonwealth Avenue, modeled on the Champs-Elyssées, is more sedate and ultimately more refined.

Commonwealth presents a successive catalog of Victorian architectural fashions. On a street known for monumentality and decorative restraint, the Burrage House, at the corner of Hereford Street, represents the height of neo-Gothic romanticism. It is virtually encrusted with French Gothic and early Renaissance gargoyles, chimeras, dragon heads, and cherubs.

Popular with dog walkers, the broad central mall of Commonwealth Avenue is punctuated with statues of assorted luminaries from abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to historian Samuel Eliot Morison.

No doubt Morison would have been appalled to be in the ahistorical company of Leif Ericson, whose statue was placed by a wealthy eccentric to honor the Norse explorer's apocryphal visit to Boston Harbor.

Ericson's statue stands at the far end of the mall at Charlesgate East, originally the entrance to the Back Bay Fens, the first section of the Emerald Necklace that Olmsted sculpted.

Following the Fens makes a short scenic stroll to Boston's two major art museums, but entering at Charlesgate calls for navigating multiple lanes of traffic and coping with on and off ramps. Better to return to Massachusetts Avenue and walk to the end of Boylston Street. Cross diagonally toward the bust of poet and orator John Boyle O'Reilly, continue over the rustic red-stone bridge, and head down the broad path.

Beauty and practicality

In designing the Fens, Olmsted met the practical challenge of coping with waste water flowing into the Charles River. But, believing that a landscape could enrich the human spirit, he also set about creating a bucolic transition between the city and its nearest suburbs.

Although the civil-engineering aspect was rendered moot by a later damming of the Charles and the installation of a modern storm-drain system, the leafy corridor did help open the Fenway neighborhood to residential development.

The paths meander along the lower stretches of the Muddy River, here reduced to a mere stream. Towering reeds fill a former salt marsh, and memorials and gardens - from the quirky individual plots of the Victory Gardens to the formal Kelleher Rose Garden - dot the landscape.

The back of the Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Avenue; 617-267-9300) looms across the road (called the Fenway) that follows the contours of the park. Among the museum's many world-class collections, the most local are the John Singleton Copley portraits of Boston's leaders of the American Revolution and the silver pieces made by one of those revolutionaries, Paul Revere.

The most popular galleries contain the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings that evoke the dappled play of light on the landscape.

The MFA's companion along the Fenway is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (280 The Fenway, 617-566-1401), one flamboyant collector's rich trove of more than 2,500 objects spanning 30 centuries.

The central courtyard of the Gardner, which is styled after a Venetian palazzo, offers a dramatic display of green and flowering plants throughout the year. For the next month, jasmine, cineraria, freesias, orchids, camellias and orange trees will be the highlights. Over the summer, hydrangeas, geraniums, oleanders, and begonias will dominate the displays.

Past the museums, the Fens become more woodsy as they follow the upper reaches of Muddy River toward Olmsted's major parks.

To reach the parks more quickly, walk back toward the city on Huntington Avenue and turn right onto Gainsborough Street to reach the Ruggles MBTA station at the end. The Orange Line heads outbound to its Forest Hills terminus. From the front exit, a sidewalk heads uphill beside the highway overpass to the Forest Hills entrance to the Arnold Arboretum.

This "library of trees" was America's first public arboretum. Olmsted designed the landscape while Charles Singer Sargent handled the botanical end for Harvard University, which still operates the facility.

About 15,000 specimens represent most of the woodsy plants that will grow in temperate zones around the globe. They tend to be massed by type in the 265-acre park, which results in spectacular bloom periods.

In early May, crab apple, pear, and cherry trees fill the landscape with scented pink and white blooms. The 600-plus specimens of lilacs, one of the most comprehensive collections in the world, bloom from early May through mid-June.

During summer there are rhododendron and azalea displays in June, the startling golden-rain trees in July, and hibiscus shrubs and pagoda trees in August. In fact, some type of shrub or tree is in bloom from March into November.

The arboretum was created as a research institution, but nearby Jamaica Pond has always been a recreational park. Leave the arboretum through the front gate by the visitors' center and turn left on the Arborway. At the traffic circle, follow the Jamaicaway.

Jamaica Pond is on the left after a second traffic circle. The 120-acre glacial kettle pond used to be a principal water supply for Boston, and its banks had served as a de facto park since the 17th century.

Olmsted knew a good thing when he saw it, and merely regraded some of the slopes, tucked in a few stands of trees, and designed a 1.5-mile circuit around the park with separate walking and bridle lanes.

Jamaica Pond is one of Olmsted's most popular neighborhood parks, used extensively by joggers, walkers, fishermen, and people who rent rowboats (and in July and August, sailboats).

Olmsted considered massive Franklin Park, on the opposite side of the Forest Hills T station, his masterpiece, but fans of his work often prefer the scale of Fairsted, the site of his home and offices (99 Warren Street, Brookline, Mass.; 617-566-1689; open Friday to Sunday 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.)

To visit Fairsted, step off the Jamaica Pond path at Perkins Street, turn left on Cottage Street, and continue a few blocks on Warren Street to the junction with Dudley Street.

Olmsted's own landscape

Olmsted settled here in 1883 as a vote of confidence that the future of urban life lay in the suburbs, where one could appreciate nature and still get into town to work. He transformed a farmhouse into a home and offices and worked here until he retired in 1895. His sons and their successors continued to work from the property until 1980, when the National Park Service took over and created the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

The Park Service also became custodian of thousands of plans and photographs in the Olmsted archives - what rangers half-jokingly call "the owner's manual" for his parks.

Guided tours point out how Olmsted applied his design principles on a more intimate scale. For example, he effectively opened his small lot onto carefully framed views or "borrowed vistas" that suggest endless countryside. He excavated a sunken garden on one side of the house, diverted a small spring, and constructed a tiny rock grotto. It is as if he were painting his personal landscape in stone and soil and plants. For a calming touch, he placed an elm tree in the middle of the backyard.

Having designed Central Park and then remade the city of Boston, Olmsted retired. With his elm, he must have figured he had it made in the shade.

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