History of the Esplanade
The Esplanade as we know it today is a relatively recent creation. Filling of Boston’s Back Bay occurred during the second half of the nineteenth century, with Back Street and the adjacent seawall forming most of the northern edge by the 1870s. At that time the river was still tidal and was considered a distinct liability because it was so foul smelling. Damming of the Charles River basin in 1910 changed the odiferous mud flats into a wide basin with a constant water level. Initially, there was only a narrow strip of parkland.
The area was transformed again in the 1930s by landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff with the parkland nearly doubled. This was the foundation of the park as we know it today. Trees were planted, the water’s edge redesigned, canoe ways added, and docks, pathways, and monuments included. Construction of Storrow Drive in the early 1950s brought further changes and the creation of additional features including the islands and lagoons to make up for parkland lost to the new road.
While no major projects have been undertaken since the addition of Storrow Drive the park continues to evolve as a public recreation space. Since 2001 the Esplanade Association has worked in partnership with the DCR to invest over $28M in park improvements including restoring historic landmarks, adding park programs and amenities, and revitalizing key gathering areas.
Today the Esplanade is considered the focal point of the Charles River Reservation and remains a vital green space for the city of Boston. With the support of the community, the Esplanade will continue to transform and evolve to serve future generations.
Additional reading about the Esplanade:
Charles River Study Report
Esplanade Cultural Landscape Report by Sherry Page Berg
The Charles River Esplanade Our Boston Treasure by Linda M. Cox provides a historical overview of the Esplanade’s changing landscape as well as existing conditions and analysis.