No. 2975 entrance to Dorchester Park, photograph September 11, 2003.
At its June 19, 1891 meeting the Boston Park Commission received strong support for the establishment of Dorchester Park. One letter signed by 270 area residents commented,
“This rapidly growing manufacturing district, remote from parks, urgently needs a playground for youth, a permanent open-air space and park for sanitary reasons, all of which we believe may be secured now to the best advantage.”
The Lower Mills Improvement Association voted unanimously in favor of the park. Petitions were also received from Alderman H.S. Carruth and Dr. James S. Green. Carruth wrote,
“ This particular locality is . . . a most beautiful natural park with a magnificent growth of trees . . . of first growth, filled with beautiful ledges of rocks. . . I do not think there will be any expensive demands for improvements of the property, nothing more than a mere cleaning up of some underbrush and admission to the grounds, and possibly a policemen or two on Sundays. Otherwise the place itself is a beautiful park. The feeling of the bulk of the population, as expressed to me, is that they desire to have it saved, as the chances are all in favor of its being cut up into house lots within a very short time.”
The community support was obviously convincing, because a week later the Board of Park Commissioners acquired approximately 26 acres consisting of two parcels of land belonging to heirs of the Whitney and Badlam families. Once the property had been acquired, city engineer William Jackson commissioned a detailed topographic survey that included trees, rock outcrops and other natural features of the landscape. It indicates that the site was largely wooded with mature forest trees and had numerous rock outcrops. Oaks were the predominant tree species, but there were also spruces, cedars, pines, cherries and walnuts. Stone walls delineated the parcel boundaries. There were no buildings on the site, although there appears to have been a foundation near the Dorchester Street edge, and no formal circulation system. With few improvements, the park opened for use in 1892 and was immediately popular as a picnic ground. During the early years, there was a small budget for “pay of park keepers” and some clearing of the grounds was undertaken.
The firm of Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot was hired in 1893 to prepare a plan for the park. Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. was working on only a few projects by this time so it is likely that one of the other partners was in charge of Dorchester Park, probably John Charles Olmsted who oversaw much of the Boston park system work. (The firm’s plans are always signed with the firm name rather than that of the individual designer.)
The 1895 Preliminary Plan (see attached map) proposed a larger park than the land that the city had acquired, including an open area north of the present park where the subway yard is currently. The proposal for this unbuilt northern section shows a more formal landscape than the rest of the park with an open lawn surrounded on the north and west by a walkway and four rows of trees, a distinct contrast to the wooded informal landscape of the rest of the park. The two areas were to be joined by a staircase leading from the open lower space into the more naturalistic park that exists today. This plan, which is the only one to show the Olmsted firm’s design proposals for Dorchester Park, is a preliminary plan that is conceptual in nature. It does not show details of planting, construction or layout. Other plans in the Olmsted firm’s files show only surveys or existing condition plans for Dorchester Park. The Olmsted firm also recommended acquisition of a small triangle of land that was owned by the convalescent hospital to make the park function better. The park commissioners were enthusiastic about the design but unable at that time to acquire the additional land.
Despite this limitation, the park was an immediate success. Annual reports record that a shelter was built at Dorchester Park in 1897 and that trees continued to be thinned and pruned. In 1898 the superintendent reported:
“No work or improvement was done on this park last season other than that of thinning out
overcrowding and dead trees. Being a beautiful piece of natural, rocky undulating woodland intersected by winding trails, it is a favorite resort for family picnic parties. A water-pipe was laid to the picnic shelter last spring, and a section of the boundary wall has been ordered by your Board to be built next spring.”
The following year stone walls of seam-faced granite were built along the Dorchester Avenue and Adams Street edges of the park and the Dorchester Avenue edge was prepared for planting. Groundskeepers continued to cut out dead branches and remove stumps. Buildings that existed at this time were the picnic shelter and two “sanitaries.” In 1903 an additional 522 sq. ft. was acquired for an entrance to Richmond Street. In 1905 expenditures were made for gymnasium apparatus (playground equipment) and fences. By 1910 the park had a one-acre playground, a baseball field, and provisions for skating. An athletic field was added near Adams Street in 1911 and was improved in 1913. There was also an expenditure for water supply and fountains. The park department’s annual report described the park around this time:
“This beautiful piece of natural woodland is frequented by those seeking rest, quiet, and cooling shade and by many picnic parties, for whose purpose it is particularly adapted.”
In 1925 about 4.4 acres of land at the southern tip of the hospital grounds (which the Olmsted firm had originally proposed for acquisition) was transferred to the park department. Seven years later the park commissioners were notified that the convalescent hospital had been closed and that the property would become surplus. At that time the hospital was still a small residential scale building with a barn and shed set well back from the street. The park commissioners requested that the entire hospital property be transferred to Park Department as part of Dorchester Park but that never occurred. In 1953 Carney Hospital moved to the site and over time built a much larger hospital. In 1967 the City Council approved the sale of 4.2 acres of parkland from Dorchester Park to Carney Hospital (more or less the same land that the park department had acquired from the convalescent hospital in 1925).
After the addition of recreational facilities in the early 1910s, there were relatively few improvements until the 1930s. In 1932 a wall and fence were built at the end of Richview Street. Two years later, as part of a WPA project, another wall was built near the baseball field; grading and drainage improvements were made; walks were improved; and tennis courts were built.
After this there are relatively few records regarding the park until the 1980s when the Dorchester Park Committee was formed (later the Friends of Dorchester Park) to advocate for park improvements and increased safety. Major renovations to the park around 1990 included new entrances at Dorchester Avenue with additional paths at west end of the park; a
new playground at the southwest corner; renovations to ball fields, and improvements to basketball and tennis courts. Pruning of mature trees and removal of invasive vegetation, especially bittersweet, has presented somewhat of a problem in recent years but appears to be largely under control at the present time. Mature oaks are highly valued and receive some preventive pruning. The park is heavily used by a wide range of visitors.
Dorchester Park is an important feature of the neighborhood and an excellent surviving example of one of Olmsted’s neighborhood parks that retains a high level of integrity. In a community that has seen many changes, the park represents a remarkable continuity of use. Dorchester Park is a well-preserved civic institution that retains a powerful association with the history of the community and continues to reflect a strong sense of civic pride.