(Photo credit: Boston Women’s Memorial, courtesy Lorianne DiSabato, Flickr Creative Commons)
There are not too many public streets in the US where you can take a stroll and walk past nine major monuments, all in a pleasantly landscaped mall in the heart of the city. One of these special places is Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. This is the setting for the “Commonwealth walk,” a wide parkway connecting the Public Gardens with the Fens. Running roughly East-West for about a mile, it’s a major point of interest in the Back Bay area, a few blocks south of the Charles River.
Commonwealth Ave. is best described as a parkway or a boulevard. It’s a long, straight, tree-lined road containing a wide, landscaped mall that divides the eastbound and westbound lanes. Going from the Boston Common/Public Gardens end, you’ll encounter nine monuments. I could go through all the memorials one by one, but that seems boring; instead, I’ll focus on four of the monuments that left the greatest impression on me (but I’ll also list the others below, just to be completist). Not everyone who walks the mall is going to stop to consider all or even any of them; but if folks take the time to halt at even one of them, just for a couple of minutes once in a while, that would be a good thing.
The monument that initially stopped me in my tracks and left the greatest impression on me the first time I walked along this route was the fourth in line: the Vendome Fire Memorial, commemorating nine Boston firefighters who died in a nearby blaze at the Vendome Hotel in 1972. I’m not sure why this memorial held me. It might have something to do with the vague resemblance between it and the Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC. It might be a lingering sense of post-9/11 sadness and respect for firefighters. It might be because I get emotional whenever I see war memorials or any other memorial commemorating brave souls taken before their time. It is interesting that, of all the monuments along the walk, this is the only one that has no depictions of human beings.
Next to the Vendome memorial stands a monument to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. This is a fairly conventional 19th century work—the most “ordinary” of the four I’ve picked out—but I liked it because of the unusual subject matter. Garrison is an interesting figure to portray in a memorial because he wasn’t a founding father or a war leader. He was in fact a journalist as well as a leader in the abolitionist cause. He combined these two occupations as editor of The Liberator, a leading abolitionist newspaper in antebellum America. For 35 years Garrison published weekly editions of The Liberator from Boston. Although the newspaper was read by only a few thousand subscribers, it gained widespread prominence and became notorious and hated in the South for its uncompromising rejection of slavery. Garrison’s life work is one of the many reasons why Boston can look proudly back to its 19th century heritage as a center for abolitionism in the United States.
Garrison and his newspaper were also strong proponents of women’s right, which brings me to another Commonwealth Ave. monument that stands out for me: the Boston Women’s Memorial. This bronze and granite structure is much more recent (from 2003). Set at eye level, so you’re not forced to gaze up at towering figures atop a plinth, this an interesting juxtaposition of three women: Abigail Adams, Lucy Stone, and Phillis Wheatley. Adams was the wife of John Adams, “atlas of independence” and the second U.S. president; but most historians conclude that Abigail was her husband’s intellectual equal, and the amazing trove of letters they sent to each other over the years show pretty definitively that she was more savvy and “street smart” than her husband. In one of these letters Abigail famously reminded her husband to “remember the ladies” when considering America’s struggle for freedom from the “slavery” of British oppression. Adams is very stern-looking, standing with her arms folded and head turned to her right, eyes glaring. Phillis Wheatley, in contrast, sits in quiet contemplation. Although she was an African-born Boston slave, she became a poet and was the first African-American woman to have her writing published. Lucy Stone was a Massachusetts-born abolitionist and suffragist, and one of the best-known proponents of the cause of women’s rights, along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Taken together, these three women meld the causes of abolitionism and women’s rights. Their life-size bronze statues are not placed together as a group, but instead are separated from each other, though still occupying a common space. As the City of Boston web site notes, “unlike conventional statues that are larger than life or set high upon pedestals, the subjects of the Boston Women’s Memorial are sculpted in a manner that invites the observer to interact with them. Each woman is shown in a pose that reflects the use of language in her life and instead of standing on her pedestal, she is using it.” That’s pretty cool.
I liked the memorial to historian, Harvard professor and WWII admiral Samuel Eliot Morrison. I don’t know anything about this guy but the memorial looks interesting. Again, this is a more recent work that departs from traditional ideas of representation in memorials. Rather than having him stand on a pedestal in some heroic pose this monument has him dressed casually in a windbreaker and cap and sitting at ease on a large rock (presumably at the shore, as the rock is strewn with sea-shells at its base). The idea, according to the Boston Arts Commission web site, is to downplay his other roles in life and emphasize his simple passion for the sea.
The remaining five monuments are interesting, though they don’t stand out for me as much as the ones listed above. Even though the subjects are engaging in their own ways, as memorials they don’t “grab” me to the same extent. Two of the memorials—the first two, in fact, as you head west—hark back to the Revolutionary War: Alexander Hamilton followed by Continental Army Gen. John Glover. The others are for 19th century Irish immigrant and Boston mayor Patrick Andrew Collins; Argentinian civil right promoter Domingo Faustino Sarmiento; and, finally, Scandinavian explorer Leif Eriksson.
Boston Arts Commission. Samuel Eliot Morison. Available at http://www.publicartboston.com/content/samuel-eliot-morison
The Boston Women’s Memorial. CityofBoston.gov. Available at http://www.cityofboston.gov/women/memorial.asp