“For The Common Good” : What Noble and Greenough School and the Charles River Basin Project have in Common

The Charles River Bank, where the Esplanade would be built

The Charles River Bank, where the Esplanade would be built
Photo Credit: bostongeology.com 

There are many aspects of my job that delight me, but none as much as coming across an unexpected connection to our graduates and the history of the school.

Perusing through some old Nobleman, I came across an article written by Allen W. Clark (Class of 1913) in the winter of December 1911.

“At Christmas time we are naturally looking ahead and wondering what changes will take place in the coming year, as we do this we cannot help thinking of the suggested improvements of the Basin.” He described the Basin before work started, with water beating against the wall at high tide and how, at low tide, “...the water went out and left dirty, disgusting mud-flats.” But now work had started on the river banks and Clark referred to  “… the possibility of constructing an island in the Basin,” with a wishful tone.

The article got me wondering how familiar the sight described had been for a student of Noble’s Classical School, probably while he walked from 417 Beacon St, where he lived, to 40 Winter Street where the school was located, at that time.

James Storrow is possibly the third student from the left in the back row

James Storrow is possibly the third student from the left in the back row

Out of New England, James Jackson Storrow, a graduate of the Class of 1881, is probably best known for being a successful banker who was instrumental in forming General Motors and became its third president. Later on, he was associated with Chrysler and Nash Motors.  In our region, his name is associated mainly with the development  of the Charles River Basin.

In “The Charles River Esplanade – Our Boston Treasure”, Linda M. Cox (founder of the Esplanade Association) dedicated a section to him “James J. Storrow: For The Common Good.” I could not help smiling, thinking that “the common good” has been a recurring theme in the life of the Noble and Greenough School, clearly exemplified by so many graduates.

picture from "Son of New England" by Henry Greenleaf Person, 1932

picture from “Son of New England” by Henry Greenleaf Person, 1932

After leaving Noble’s, young James entered Harvard, where he graduated in 1885. Right after, he enrolled in Harvard Law School. He shared accommodations at 10 Appian Way, in Cambridge, with five other Law students, including a Noble’s classmate: Grafton D. Cushing, who would later become Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts under Governor Walsh.

The Charles River Basin was the vision of Charles Eliot, a pioneer in the field of landscape architecture. He was the son of Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard whose name appears, in 1866, among the sponsors of the newly founded Noble’s Classical School. Charles Eliot accomplished a great deal in developing the plan to preserve a green space along the water, a park in the heart of the city. The creation of a dam across the river to keep out the tides was pivotal to the realization of his concept. When he died of meningitis, in 1897,  his vision for the Charles River Basin was still unfulfilled.

In the following years, the task to bring the vision  to reality was picked up by James J. Storrow.

Storrow lived on Beacon Street, where the most vehement opponents of the plan lived also: the property owners on the water side had been successful in blocking the project for years. Storrow’s efforts made him unpopular among his neighbors, but, as his biographer Henry Pearson pointed out, he wanted “to create a broad basin for the joy and refreshment of the city’s millions.” He started a letter writing campaign that got the support of many leading Bostonians.  Later on, he introduced bills to the legislation, carefully crafted and rewritten to circumvent the obstacles that arose from opponents. All through this, Storrow held steadfast in his support. In 1903, the Legislature approved the project. It would take seven years for the dam to be completed. In 1910, the Charles became an almost tideless, freshwater basin.

James Storrow’s contributions to public projects for the City of Boston were numerous, indeed too many to list in this venue. When he died, in 1926, his dream of park along the water for the people of Boston was still only partially realized. His wife Helen, who shared his ideas and as public-minded, offered to donate a $1,000,000 in his name to enlarge and beautify the Boston shores of the Charles River with parks, playgrounds and boating facilities. By 1929, with additional funds from the State of Massachusetts and the City of Boston, the project was approved. Arthur Shurcliff, who had been mentored by Charles Eliot, was chosen as the architect. His son Sidney had graduated from Noble and Greenough School, in 1923.

The connection between the school and the project continued. In 1950, construction began for a major crosstown parkway running south and west along the Charles River. The plan was controversial. Helen Storrow led a victorious opposition to a similar plan, in 1929. But, in 1949, the Legislature approved the highway. To placate the strong and vocal opposition, additional funds were approved to replace what was lost to the highway.

Slide1Arthur Shurcliff was again chosen as the landscape architect for the project. Nearly 80 years old, he worked with his son Sidney, who had joined the firm in 1930. To replace the lost park land, the Shurcliffs created a new island connected to the original shoreline by footbridges, making a series of lagoons that now extend to the Hatch Shell.

By 1951, the wishful hopes of a young student at Noble and Greenough School had became a reality.

Charles River Basin by the Esplanade -2014

Charles River Basin by the Esplanade -2014
Photo Credit: picphotos.net



This entry was posted in Allen Williams Clark, Arthur Shurcliff, Charles Eliot, Charles River Basin, Charles W. Eliot, James Jackson Storrow, Sidney Nichols Shurcliff, Storrow Memorial Drive. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “For The Common Good” : What Noble and Greenough School and the Charles River Basin Project have in Common

  1. Peter Raymond says:

    The Basin, Esplanade, lagoons, and islands give Boston a spaciousness and escape from the automobile that, with the Harbor, are central to the Boston experience. Shouldn’t a Nobles flag fly over it all?

  2. Jenny Carlson-Pietraszek says:

    Isa, you’ve done a masterful job of weaving together this wonderful story, highlighting just one of what is likely many shared threads in the tapestries that are the history of Boston and the history of Nobles. Thank you!

  3. spessibiquisque says:

    I agree completely. Should we petition the City of Boston??

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