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Welcoming the Public: The Arboretum’s Entrances

Last updated on October 4, 2022

Today the Arnold Arboretum welcomes visitors through a number of gates and less formal entrances located around the three mile perimeter of the landscape. They provide open access to the beauty of the grounds throughout the year, from dawn to dusk.

Scrolling wrought iron work tops the posts of the Arboretum gates. Lisa Pearson, 2022.

The Archives of the Arnold Arboretum holds a collection of images of Frederick Law Olmsted’s earliest designs for the Arboretum’s road system and entrances. These early designs show how Olmsted’s thinking evolved into the landscape we enjoy today.

Designing the Road System

Olmsted’s first sketches of the Arboretum grounds show a very different looking road system. If you look closely at the upper left section of the map below, you will note there is property missing along Centre, Walter, and Bussey Streets, and of course all of Peters Hill and the Bussey Brook Meadow—areas later added to the Arboretum indenture. The road system also looks very different. This arose from an early notion that to allow visitors to best understand the botanical arrangement of the plants, a circular drive around the grounds was required to return them to their starting point. It is an idea that might have worked for a different shaped property, but was not ideal for the Arboretum and its long, narrow, and hilly topography.

Hand drawn plan for the Arnold Arboretum road system by Frederick Law Olmsted, August 1879. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

In early 1880, Olmsted devised a through-road system; an early published version is displayed below. Bussey, Walter, and Centre Street lands previously missing from the plan have been added and the road has been freed from the constricting circular form to meander and follow the natural dips and rises of hills and valleys.

“Proposition as to a Public Ground to Include the Harvard Arboretum.” This map was published in November 1880 to introduce the design for the Arnold Arboretum. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

There are now three entrances: the one at the northern end of the property (to the right on this map), which is the Arborway Gate today; the one at South Street; and one at the newly acquired land at Walter Street. When the agreement between Harvard and Boston was complete in 1883, construction began on the stretch of road from South Street, to what is today the Centre Street Gate, thus creating a fourth entrance. Several years later, Forest Hills Gate was added along what would become the Arborway to provide access to Forest Hills Station.

Designing the Entrances

The first formally finished entry into the Arboretum was at South Street in 1886, and there is good reason to believe that Olmsted’s friend and sometime business associate H. H. Richardson might have influenced the design. Here we see its original appearance.

Alfred Rehder photographed South Street Gate after a snowstorm in the winter of 1898. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

Boundary walls of roughly dressed puddingstone gracefully curve inwards to the pedestrian entrances. They end in square piers of puddingstone and contrasting fine-grained bluestone. Taller square piers flank the carriage drive. The other four gates of the original Arboretum property received the same design treatment in the fall of 1898.

The H. H. Richardson connection becomes even stronger when we realize that Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, who had worked for Richardson before Richardson’s death in 1886, submitted the plans for the other entrances. Installation of four additional entrances on Peters Hill, also Longfellow designs, occurred the next year.

Designing the Iron Gates

There are no iron gates in the image above. As early as 1894, Arboretum founding director Charles Sprague Sargent realized they would be needed. He approached the Park Commission but they took no action at that time. In the meantime, someone at the Olmsted firm produced several florid Beaux Arts inspired designs and even drew the view of the South Street entrance adorned with these ornate gates. Longfellow’s more traditional design that we have today prevailed, however, and the contract for fabrication was submitted in the early fall of 1898.

A drawing by a member of the Olmsted firm of the South Street entrance showing the appearance with Beaux Arts style gates installed, ca. 1894. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

Sargent and Boston Parks Superintendent John Pettigrew were concerned about vehicle access during the 1890s. Their concern was not, as one might assume, over carriage traffic but rather that from the new horseless carriages. In 1897, Pettigrew recommended installing gates at the entrances for access control. The first auto permit rules followed in 1899.

The contractor John Williams and H. B. Stillman of New York City quickly fabricated the gates, and we see them in place in the June 1899 photo below at right. The Arborway entrance sports its new gate complete with a small flourish of decorative ironwork. A better view of it is seen in the lantern slide at the left, dating from about 1915. Decorative scrollwork relieves the massiveness of the heavy metal and a cheerful finial, reminiscent of the welcoming pineapples of early 19th century New England, adorns the top.

The iron gate and stone pier of the Arborway Gate of the Arnold Arboretum, ca. 1916. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum.

The gates were a popular subject for early 20th century picture postcards, perhaps because the entrances were natural meeting points—places to pause before or after a longer expedition around the grounds—just as they are today.

Redesigning Our Entrances for the Next Century

With the signing of the 1882 indenture between Harvard University and the City of Boston, the Arnold Arboretum became one of the first free cultural institutions in Boston and remains so today. To champion our founding values, we are redoubling our efforts to engage visitors and make the Arboretum a more equitable and welcoming destination for all. Planning is underway to renovate our entrances to better reflect Olmsted’s vision and to respond to the needs of the twenty-first century. Importantly, this effort is aimed to deepen our connections with neighbors and the millions of visitors who enter and enjoy our landscape each year.

This article was published originally on the Arnold Arboretum website and has been republished here with permission from the Arboretum.

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