Icons Among Us: The BU Beach
No sand, no lifeguards, and a divided highway blocking the water
Boston University has a beach, and its own mall, too. But the beach doesn’t lead to the ocean and you can’t buy shoes at the mall. You can, however, lie on the beach on a sunny afternoon or take a stroll along the mall, dodging Frisbees and footballs, and be in the same place: the BU Beach and the Warren Alpert Mall both refer to the familiar green space directly behind Marsh Chapel.
Half a century ago, the Charles River Campus looked drastically different. The basics were there, buildings we know as the School of Theology, the College of Arts & Sciences, and Marsh Chapel. But many of the areas we enjoy as parks were a different kind of open space — parking lots.
When President Emeritus John Silber (Hon.’95) took office in 1971, one of his missions was to transform BU from a commuter school into a university with global reach and recognition.
His plan included improving campus aesthetics. He had hundreds of trees planted, and partly in response to the OPEC oil crisis of 1973, turned many campus parking lots into parks. The BU Beach used to be one of those lots.
In 1974, when wealthy philanthropist Warren Alpert (CAS’42) donated money for a bit of green space, the Warren Alpert Mall was born. The old parking lot was uprooted, trees planted, a path forged through the grass, and a grassy berm built to cut down on noise from busy Storrow Drive. Only a few years ago, the University paved the pathways through the space.
But none of that explains how the mall came to be known as the beach. One hypothesis: a long time ago (and we’re talking a long time), people used to swim in the Charles River; it wasn’t quite the “muddy water” we all know, love, and stay out of now. Bay State Road continued all the way to what is now the BU Bridge, and the grassy area behind Marsh Chapel, next to a parking lot, gradually sloped down to the river. In a sense, it was a beach, albeit with grass instead of sand.
Another hypothesis is that the nickname emerged from 1960s and ’70s tongue-in-cheek self-mockery. Bikinis became commonplace then, tans were in, and female students began stretching out on blankets, adding to the beach-like aura. Hence, the BU Beach.
My freshman orientation group leader offered another theory back in June 2005. She said that the beach got its name because the curvy metal sculpture on the grassy stretch looks like a wave. A far-fetched notion, but possible.
Whatever the origins, the moniker has stuck; BU students decided they would rather have a beach on campus than a mall. So beach it is, so much so that few people have ever heard of Warren Alpert Mall. But when someone says, “Meet at the beach,” everyone knows to head toward the water and stop when you hit grass. Don’t bother looking for sand; you won’t find any.
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