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Commonwealth Avenue—Brahmins and Beyond

Hailing Distance: One of a series of great half-hour hikes from campus

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Commonwealth Avenue isn’t all rumbling Green Line trolleys and whizzing cars. Its easternmost stretch offers a leafy look into Boston history, urban parkland, and Victorian architecture that blends elegance with surprise.

The walk begins at Commonwealth’s intersection with Silber Way and runs almost immediately into the hurly-burly of Kenmore Square. As you pass under the famous Citgo sign (erected in 1965), take a peek at the steel-and-glass wave soaring above the Kenmore Square T station. On your left is the Barnes & Noble at BU and then Cornwall’s pub, where, at the right time of day, you might catch some BU Today staffers sharing a few pints or trying to shoot pool. But don’t dally. The real heart of this walk waits beyond elevated Charlesgate Road.

The Muddy River, which sneaks through Boston’s Emerald Necklace, pokes its head up after the overpass, offering a glimpse of river life beneath a concrete balustrade, before dipping back under the asphalt. Across the street is the Comm Ave Mall, not very wide but long enough to encompass eight grassy acres studded with statues and benches, stretching from here to your destination: Boston’s Public Garden.

This is still an urban space, with multiple lanes of high-speed traffic on either side. The edifices of Back Bay loom in the distance, including the Hancock Tower, whose front courtyard is rumored to be one of the coldest places to stand in Boston during the winter. Another contender, City Hall Plaza, also was designed by architect I. M. Pei. But once you enter the mall, there’s a reduction in scale and noise, a welcome coolness beneath the tree canopy. Ample opportunities appear to cross to either sidewalk and amble past stately brownstones, many ivy-covered or detailed in wrought-iron. Do so before reaching a crosswalk-less break at Massachusetts Avenue, which slices through this bucolic parkway on its way north to Cambridge and Arlington, south into the Back Bay, the South End, and Dorchester.

Ever since it was proposed by Boston architect Arthur Gilman in the mid-1800s, this stretch of Comm Ave has been identified with the city’s upper crust. The Harvard Club of Boston fits right in, as do the faux gas lamps that line the sidewalk, and festive strings of small-bulb white (and only white) lights that decorate the mall’s trees during Christmas. On a sunny day, the mall is equally populated with tourists, joggers, and well-heeled residents sitting on park benches, chatting on cell phones, toting yoga mats, pushing baby strollers, and walking dogs (which trend toward the small and purebred).

But there’s a quirky side to this stroll, too. You’ll find it, of all places, in the statues. The first you’ll encounter is Leif Eriksson. That’s right, a Viking in the Back Bay, complete with chain-mail tunic and a bone-handled knife. Eriksson’s voyage to North America occurred about 500 years prior to the landing of Christopher Columbus and more than 600 years before the Pilgrims became New England’s “first families.”

Who’s next but Domingo F. Sarmiento. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him; neither have most of the people who stop and snap pictures. Sarmiento was president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874. He founded Argentina’s public school system, modeling it on what he learned from the Massachusetts school reformer Horace Mann. The statue was a 1913 gift to Boston, but didn’t arrive in the city until 1973.

At the Boston Women’s Memorial, near Fairfield Street, bronze likenesses of Abigail Adams, abolitionist Lucy Stone, and African American poet Phillis Wheatley (a slave in colonial Boston) relax on gray granite blocks. Posed on a barnacle-encrusted rocky outcrop, the sailor and Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Samuel Eliot Morison gazes east toward the harbor, binoculars in hand. Via inscription, he wishes his readers, “a flowne sheat, a fair winde, a boune voyage.” A bit further on is an elliptical black granite arc, draped by a bronzed firefighter’s helmet and coat, marked with the names of nine Boston firefighters killed battling a fire that destroyed the Hotel Vendome, at 160 Commonwealth Ave., on June 17, 1972.

The first statue placed on the mall (in 1865), a neoclassic chiseling of Alexander Hamilton, is also the final one before you cross Arlington Street into the Public Garden’s manicured flower beds, winding paths, and Swan Boats. Your 30 minutes are up, and you can hop on a BU-bound Green Line trolley at the nearby Arlington T station. Then again, now that you’re steps from Beacon Hill, the Theater District, and Chinatown, you may want to extend your trip.

Take more walks from campus here.

This article was originally published on October 7, 2009.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Commonwealth Avenue—Brahmins and Beyond

  • J on 10.08.2009 at 8:47 am

    high-speed traffic

    Don’t let the “high-speed” traffic keep you away. The speed limit is posted as 30 MPH and stop lights every eighth of a mile keep the traffic barely moving.

  • Gretchen Grozier on 09.21.2012 at 10:18 am

    Anyone who wants to get a bit more history and architecture info should try the Boston By Foot Victorian Back Bay tour – given several times every weekend between May and October. You can hear about the development of the Back Bay and the amazing architects who created staggering buildings. Including some contemporary folks like Henry Cobb, who designed the Hancock Tower (for Pei’s firm).
    The Boston Public Library offers a free Boston By Foot pass for cardholders – which you can reserve online!

  • Rubes on 09.21.2012 at 10:52 am

    Beautiful pictures and a beautiful walk, but this video has the worst “music” I’ve ever heard, totally unfitting for the subject matter, and distracting from what should be a pleasant experience. What were you thinking?

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