This weekend pulls back the curtain on a New England summer, the brief time that occurs after first winter, more winter, false spring, second winter, mud season, and late spring. For a few glorious weeks we get to go outside without coat, boots, hat, scarf and mittens. Petals from flowering trees are the only white stuff falling from the sky. We can smell growing things again.
New Englanders relish the smells, the sights, and the sounds of summer, partly because they are crammed into such a short time. Some of those sights and sounds come from the fountains that sparkle around Boston. Flowing, tinkling, spraying, dripping and gushing, they add coolness, life, and liquid music to the city.
From Nonfunctional to Retrofitted
When I attended Northeastern University long ago, Boston’s fountains had turned into sad remnants of what they had been designed to do. Time and weather had rendered most of the city’s 24 public fountains nonfunctional. Their dry basins collected leaves, grit, and trash. With a few notable exceptions, Boston had relegated its fountains to the “good old days” when the city prospered and things actually worked. Even after the New Boston project began building up the city, no one seemed interested in maintaining them.
That all changed with the administration of Mayor Thomas Menino, a self-described “fountain nut,” who wanted the fountains running again. Part of that challenge involved retrofitting nine of them to recirculate their water instead of running in into the sewer—a massive waste of water and money. Mayor Menino led the effort. People and organizations raised money. Retrofitting got underway. Mechanisms were re-plumbed. And, one by one, the fountains began to flow again.
I have written about some of Boston’s fountains before as part of my series of posts on Boston’s Hidden Gems, Boston’s Angels, and Animal Statues.
- The Lotta Fountain – The Esplanade
- The Angel of the Waters – Boston Public Garden
- The Ether Monument – Boston Public Garden
- The Copley Square Fountain – Back Bay
- The Frog Pond’s Whimsical Frogs – Boston Common
- The Codfish Fountain – Charlestown
- The Boston Public Library Courtyard — Back Bay
But there are so many more: antique and modern, calming and energizing, placid and noisy, for watching and for splashing. Some work their magic dependably while others have ceased to function altogether and at least one has disappeared.
The Disappearing Waterfall
The ill-fated terraced waterfall at the northwest corner of City Hall Plaza, for example, worked in design but not in practice. It suffered from a variety of problems starting at its 1969 dedication,. First, the filtration system failed and it sprayed a distinctly unpleasant green and brown foam. Then the water leaked into the MBTA’s Blue Line subway tunnel until the city shut the waterfall down eight years later. In 2006 they covered the whole thing with a concrete slab.
Writing About Boston’s Fountains
I’m going to write about more of Boston’s fountains this summer. And I’m starting with one that fits into the Animal Statues category. It’s the Bagheera Fountain along the east wall of the Boston Public Garden by Charles Street. Created by the sculptor Lilian Swann Saarinen, it depicts the black panther from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book lunging at an owl in flight.
Lillian Swann was born in New York City, where she studied at the Art Students League with Alexander Archipenko, as well as at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and in Europe. She taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Pratt Institute in New York.
She spent much of her adult life in Massachusetts, where she specialized in animal statues and portrait busts. Lilian Swann married the architect Eero Saarinen in 1939 and worked with him on several projects including the archway entitled, “The Gateway to the West,” in St. Louis, Missouri. They were divorced in 1951. Mrs. Saarinen died in Cohasset, MA, in 1955.
The Bagheera Fountain
Lilian Swann Saarinen created “Bagheera” in the mid-1980s and it was first exhibited as “Night” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The statue, which is small by comparison with other figures in the Public Garden, mostly large bronze men. It symbolizes escape from captivity. “Bagheera” was placed in the Public Garden in 1986 and is a stop on the Boston’ Women’s Heritage Trail.
She also sculpted a mural of Boston Harbor in glazed terra cotta relief for the former Harbor National Bank at 253 Franklin Street, now a branch of the Bank of America. I have not gotten into the city during banking hours to see if it’s still there. If a reader can check this out and perhaps send me a picture of the mural, I would appreciate it.
Finding the Bagheera Fountain
The Bagheera Fountain is easy to find in the Public Garden. If you’re coming by car, just park in the Common Garage on Charles Street and take the elevator up onto Boston Common. Cross Charles Street and enter the gate onto the Haffenreffer Walk. Make your third left onto a path, keeping the lagoon on your right. You will reach the fountain at the next intersection.
Or take the T’s Green Line, get off at the Arlington Street station and walk into the Public Garden at the corner of Arlington and Boylston streets. Wend your way toward Charles Street, keeping the lagoon on your left. Turn right on the first path before you reach Haffenreffer Walk and then your next left. You will reach the fountain where the paths intersect.
The Boston Public Garden is always open and there is no admission fee.