When our founding director Charles Sprague Sargent assumed leadership of the organization in 1873, the Arnold Arboretum as we know it today [pdf] was unformed. Benjamin Bussey’s mansion and outbuildings still stood on the grounds but there were no formal roads to draw the public into the landscape.
Sargent set about immediately planning the new arboretum and soon engaged Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture and designer of Central Park, to assist. Originally, the road system was conceived as a circular drive but after some abortive attempts to shoehorn a circular design into the long, relatively narrow landscape, Olmsted opted for a sinuous through road that hugged the north sides of Bussey and Hemlock Hills before exiting the grounds at the corner of Walter and Bussey Streets.
This map from 1879 shows the Arboretum with the surrounding city streets and Jamaica Pond. The Arborway is seen in the middle of the map and is simply called, “Proposed Parkway.” The Arboretum roads are not quite in their final locations: Meadow Road dips much further to the east into what is today the Bradley Rosaceous Collection, Forest Hills Road and Gate are missing, and there is no gate on Centre Street nor spur from Bussey Hill Road to exit the grounds there.
As Sargent planned the Arboretum, he realized he would need to relieve his budget of the considerable infrastructure costs for road, sewerage, and wall building. He conceived a plan whereby Harvard would give the land to the City of Boston to become part of the nascent city park system and then lease it back for a small fee each year. He also proposed that the City contribute land on the northern and southern edges to increase the overall size of the property.
In this map from 1880, those parcels are shown in dark grey and the adjoining Harvard land in light grey. The road system design is nearly complete with Meadow Road in its final location but the plan is still lacking gates at Centre Street and Forest Hills.
In 1883, Harvard and the City of Boston signed the land transfer agreement and work began in earnest on the Arboretum landscape. The spring of 1886 saw the extensive planting out of the trees and shrubs, which had been crowding Propagator Jackson Dawson’s nurseries. Peters Hill was added to the Arboretum property in 1895.
This map shows the Arboretum and Forest Hills Station area two years later in 1897. Bussey Street, highlighted in yellow, cuts across the map from top to bottom. To its left is a proposed road, labeled “Traffic Road,” which was never built. On Peters Hill itself there is a large carriage turnaround at the top which was also never built.
The Arnold Arboretum Library and Archives stewards a large collection of maps and plans which document the history of our landscape and structures on our grounds. The earliest design plans executed by Olmsted and his firm are housed at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service.
The Arboretum Archives was fortunate to digitize a portion of our historical map collection in conjunction with Digital Commonwealth, a Massachusetts non-profit collaborative of cultural heritage organizations which assists its members in daylighting materials through digitization and providing a platform for their dissemination. You can explore all our contributions here: https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/institutions/commonwealth:1r66j309v
—Lisa E. Pearson, Head of Library and Archives