20th century brings success preserving public open spaces

By Jean M. Husher

The 20-year span from about 1960 to 1980 was a period of such widespread activism in so many social and civic areas that deep historical roots of such movements are often forgotten.

One such movement with deep roots is the move to preserve open space for public enjoyment, whether on the local, state or national level.

Among the earliest to realize the importance of parks and playgrounds within densely populated areas was Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903). Even as a young man, he realized that America’s frontier was disappearing, yet city people had a need to experience wilderness – even if it had to be created.

Together with Calvert Vaux, he designed New York’s Central Park in 1857, the first such park of its kind, landscaped to appear as natural meadows, woodlands, ponds and rocky outcrops. Late, he was asked to design similar parks in other cities – Brooklyn, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston. Under his guidance, imagination and persuasiveness, Boston’s “emerald necklace” of parks and parkways along the Charles, through the Fenway to Jamaica Pond, Franklin Park and the Arnold Arboretum, became a reality.

In the last decades of the 19th century, a movement developed in New England dedicated to preserving forests, meadows, mountains and fens.

One has only to think of the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Trustees of Reservations, all of which were organized in those years. The commonwealth itself created the Metropolitan Park Commission in 1892 to establish parks, especially along the rivers in and around Boston. The first land acquired by that commission was Hemlock Gorge in Newton Upper Falls. In the same year, 1893, the city of Newton purchased 30 acres of the Ware Farm in Auburndale on Ware’s Cove along the Charles River, and even earlier some 50 acres in Nonantum along the Charles for Allison Playground. Auburndale Park was soon developed for mixed recreation with ball fields, picnic tables and fireplaces, swings and sandboxes, a bath/skate house and walking trails. In 1894, the city gained 14 acres of land in Newtonville, the gift of several citizens, which became Cabot Park, and also two small parcels of Crystal Lake shorefront, the southern one developed in the 1920s for swimming and ice skating.

These were the same decades that saw the start of Newton’s village improvement associations, which sought to control development and to persuade the city to establish village parks and playgrounds and other amenities. Often, members of the group raised the money necessary to buy the land. The Newton Centre Improvement Association (est. 1878) was the first. From efforts of its members, the Newton Centre Playground came into being in the 1890s. Other villages soon followed suit with improvement organizations of their own: Auburndale (1883), Newton Highlands (1886), Waban (1888) and West Newton in the next decade. As a result of their efforts and the gifts of land from private citizens, Newton could boast of quite a number of playgrounds and small parks by the opening of the 20th century.

Noting the effectiveness of the improvement associations, most other Newton villages soon established their own during the years prior to 1910.

For many years, it was the responsibility of the Street Department to supervise and manage Newton’s parks and playgrounds as a kind of sideline along with tree planting; but by 1900 the collection required more effort than the Street Department could manage. Perhaps to help ease this problem, the city agreed in 1903 to transfer the care (but not ownership) of Auburndale Park and Allison Park, both land by the Charles River, to the Metropolitan Park Commission with the understanding that if the arrangement proved unsatisfactory, they would be transferred back to the city.

In 1907, Claflin Field, nearly 6 1/2 acres near Newton High School in Newtonville, was donated to the city for a playground which became primarily the high school fields. In the same year, Newton received a number of small lots here and there which were mostly planted with trees and shrubs.

The interest of Newton’s citizens to preserve open space, even in small parcels, continued to grow. By 1908, the care of parks and playgrounds proved to be burdensome to the Street Department which had so many other concerns more closely related to its purpose. Thus the Forestry Department was created that year with the charge of the maintenance, care and management of parks and playgrounds as well as the planting and care of the city’s trees. In 1909, three new parcels were given to the city for parks: Nye Park (1.09 acres) near the Auburndale Railroad Station (both disappeared with the construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike in the 1960s); and the Beacon Triangle (.25 acre) and Paul Park (.35 acre absorbed in the 1930s into the Weeks Jr. High Playground), both in Newton Centre. In 1910, the Forestry Department developed the West Newton Common at Elm and Webster streets into a playground, and in addition purchased nearly seven acres of level land along the Charles River from the Marcy Estate in Upper Falls, also for a playground.

By 1912, it was recognized that the charge of the Forestry Department to manage both the care of parks and playgrounds and also the planting and care of the city’s trees and forests (taken very seriously then) required somewhat different pursuits, so a Playground Department was created.

One of Newton’s earliest large parks was the gift of the Edmands family. The 33-acre Edmands Park – sometimes known as Cabot Woods – was reluctantly accepted by the city in 1913. The Edmands family had shared its oak forest with Newton citizens for many years, and hoped their gift would allow this to continue. It was only when the Board of Aldermen heard that a real estate developer had offered $10,000 for the land that it agreed to accept the gift, with the provision that the city would not be obligated to improve the land. For a brief time, a skating pond was created by damming up a brook on the property. Over time, the dam deteriorated and the land returned to its natural state: an oak forest interspersed with beeches, locusts, maples, birches and pines. It was Newton’s only park for passive recreation until the 1960s and as such has been much enjoyed by Newton’s hikers, cross-country skiers and amateur naturalists.

Although the acquisition of land for playgrounds continued throughout the next decades, there was no further interest in setting aside large parcels for parks until the years following World War II.

At the time, there were many hundreds of undeveloped acres in Newton, lending the impression there was a lot of open space remaining. For the most part, it was easy to know when one passed from one village to another, for there often was undeveloped land between them. For instance, even as late as the 1930s, the land on both sides of Beacon Street between Waban and Newton Centre in the general area of the present Xervas School was swampy, wooded on one side and meadowed on the other. In the fall, pheasants and quail were hunted and in winter children ice skated between the hummocks. The area which now comprises the northern half of Cold Spring Park was, at that time, a dump. The Metropolitan District Commission (formerly the Park Commission) continued to acquire large parcels in Newton in addition to Hemlock Gorge: many acres of forest land in the area of Hammond Pond, the wooded land along the Charles River from Route 9 in Upper Falls to Lower Falls, and the land for Riverside Park in Auburndale. Also in Auburndale was the privately owned Norumbega Park with its boat houses, amusement rides, picnic areas, ballroom, zoo and walkways. Moreover, the city boasted of four large golf courses: Brae Burn, Charles River, Woodland and Chestnut Hill – which, though privately owned, lent a sense of open space. In the many years before people sued for any possible reason, all the golf clubs were generous in allowing children to cut across their courses on their walks home from school and to slide and ski on their hills in wintertime.

An enormous need for housing had been building up during the years of the Great Depression in the 1930s. This was further heightened during World War II when house construction came to a standstill. After the war ended, the young men discharged from military services, often married and with small children, found it difficult to buy or rent suitable housing anywhere. The demand was enormous here in Newton as elsewhere, and house construction companies were delighted to begin to fill the demand. In the late 1940s and throughout 1950s, requests for building permits kept the city Building Department busy. House after house in every size and style were built. Two high-growth areas were Waban and Oak Hill. Young families with small children moved into the new houses as soon as they were available, creating a shortage of school classroom space. Many new schools were built in the 1950s, absorbing more open land. During the second half of the 1950s, permits and six zoning changes were sought to build garden and high-rise apartment buildings, some to the height of 21 stories. Newton Centre’s old Mason School sited on the triangle which is now a parking lot in the square, was replaced elsewhere and soon a proposal was received by the city to construct a 10-story department store on the lot.

The building of Route 128 in the early 1950s tore through Newton Lower Falls. Near the end of the decade, more work on the highway was done, taking more space from the village.

By 1960, a number of critical land-use issues came before the city. The old Norumbega Park consisting of some 27 acres, was sold, and proposals were received to develop it with a collection of high-rise apartment buildings, mid-rise office buildings and a mall. The commonwealth presented proposals to extend the Massachusetts Turnpike through Newton, and Boston College, a cluster of a half-dozen buildings in 1950, was expanding rapidly. Further, the Metropolitan District Commission sold off quite a lot of its land in Newton – for a mall by Hammond Pond, for another larger one on Route 9 across Hammond Pond Parkway, and for the construction of a temple. Also, the large Shaw Estate on Nahanton Street near the river was sold to Sylvania for the development of a science park.

Understandably, many Newton citizens, especially those who had lived in the city for many years, were dismayed to see the woods, meadows, farmland and swamps that had been so a part of Newton’s ambience disappearing. In 1961, residents banded together. Calling themselves “The Newton Conservators,” the group’s goal was to preserve open space and persuade the city to limit unbridled development. The members set out to establish their credibility by taking on some mall projects before grappling with the major issue of how the 27-acre Norumbega Park would be used.

It took at least five years of lobbying, public debate, petitions, public hearings and conferences as well as close work with neighborhood organizations and the Auburndale Improvement Society before the matter was resolved. In 1967, the land was divided into two parcels. One piece was bought by the Marriott Corporation for a hotel and conference center, its size and land use carefully restricted by the city. The remaining 13 acres were bought by the city. Named Norumbega Park Conservation Area, it was left in its natural state.

In 1966, the Conservators, together with other civic organizations, persuaded the Board of Aldermen to establish the Newton Conservation Commission which could specifically research and address land preservation issues for the city.

The Chestnut Hill Mall, as well as the Towers and Temple Mishkan Tefila, were built on the MDC woodlands, but the negative and embarrassing publicity from both the Newton Conservators and the city itself forced the MDC to repurchase the remaining land. The city bought large portions of the adjoining Webster and Houghton estate lands in several parcels on both sides of Hammond Pond Parkway between 1968 and 1979, totaling 113.7 acres of forest, wetlands, fields, a woodland garden and frontage on Hammond Pond. Named Webster Conservation Area and Houghton Garden, it has many trails for hiking, bird watching and other forms of outdoor enjoyment.

Recognizing the importance of being a proactive organization rather than a reactive one dashing in on last-minute rescue missions, the Newton Conservators established a committee in the early 1970s to undertake a massive study of all undeveloped parcels of land five acres or larger remaining in the city. In 1974, as a result of the study, the Conservators published “Recommendations for Open Space in Newton” in which each parcel, large or small, was studied and rated according for its potential value as park or conservation land as well as its danger for being lost to development. The Conservation Commission made a similar study. A priority for land acquisition was then set up for a long-range campaign. The two organizations, working together and with other associations such as the Newton League of Women Voters, village improvement societies and neighborhood groups, set out to persuade the city to purchase the most desirable open lands still available as well as to encourage private owners to donate some of their choice acres. Between 1968 and 1985, the following were acquired in addition to Norumbega Park and Webster conservation areas:

Dolan Pond Conservation Area – 8 acres

Nahanton Park – 32 acres purchased adjacent to city

Infirmary – 50 acres converted to parkland, to total 82 acres

Flowed Meadows Conservation Area – 6.85 acres

Kennard Park – willed to City by Dr. Harrison Kennard 16 acres

Kennard Conservation Area – 32.3 acres

Newton Commonwealth Golf Course – 71 acres

Sawmill Brook Conservation Area – 20 acres

In addition to these, the Conservation Commission, Parks and Recreation Commission and the Newton Conservators working together were able to win large state and federal grants to cover most of the cost to turn the long-closed dump on Beacon Street into playing fields and walking trails, doubling the size of Cold Spring Park to 67 acres.

Although there are no other large tracts of open land in Newton beyond the three private golf courses, the two organizations – one a private resident action group and the other a city commission – continue to work together to monitor and guard land use in Newton. Some recent issues have been proposals to build on wetlands, redevelopment of Commonwealth Avenue for high-speed traffic, advertisements on park playing fields’ fences, threat to the viewing area from top of Institution Hill from which one can see the Blue Hills, and threat to the peace of Edmands Park woodlands by further development of Boston College’s Centre Street campus.

Land has become so valuable in Newton that developers have found it worthwhile to purchase small houses, tear them down and build much larger ones, using as much of the lot as allowed by zoning laws. This is of great concern to the city as well as to many Newton residents and civic organizations for a number of reasons: elimination of smaller and more affordable homes allowing for a varied population; loss of the sense of space within neighborhoods when street after street of large houses are built only 14 feet apart with as little back yard as possible; disappearance of Newton’s claim to be a “garden city,” a much-treasured attribution by its residents.

There is no possible way to stop the further development of Newton’s land in this new century. However, continued and constant resident interest can encourage careful monitoring and insistence on its best use.

Jean Husher is the chairwoman of the Newton2000 History Committee.

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