Once, more than 100 years ago, a garden, walled in with a classic Beacon Hill brick wall, distinguished the corner of David G. Mugar Way and Beaver Place. But subsequent changes in the property use led to years of neglect, abuse and controversy. The site became a woeful hole in the ground, enclosed by an unsightly chain link fence and populated by empty liquor bottles, litter, graffiti and camps set up by the homeless and drug addicts.
Until now. In the next few weeks, landscape architects will return to the site to begin its restoration to its original state – a private garden. And it is all due to the generosity and civic mindfulness of Beacon Street residents John and Cynthia Reed.
When the Reeds decided to purchase and give new life to what had become an eyesore, they sought not only to create a private backyard garden for their own enjoyment but also to create a pleasant amenity for neighbors and the public to view as they passed by the corner, said Catherine Donaher, a real estate consultant who shepherded the project through the permitting, architectural and zoning process.
By doing so, they are preserving the views and sunlight enjoyed by abutting Beaver Place and Beacon Street residents, who spent a tumultuous decade resisting the construction of a building there by its former owner.
Adjacent to the Union Boat Club, the odd-shaped lot appears in early photographs with a carport and one-story storage building, installed in 1916 by the Metropolitan Park Commission to store maintenance equipment for the Esplanade before Storrow Drive was built in 1951. In 1983, the Commonwealth declared it surplus park property and tried unsuccessfully to sell it for park use, according to a 2009 Boston Globe story.
In 2002, George La Perle, a pilot for Delta Airlines who had recently moved from California, became interested in building a four-story two family-home on the parcel of land, one of the last buildable lots on Beacon Hill. He successfully convinced the Legislature to allow the property to be used for non-park purposes and to be sold at a closed auction. In 2003 he won the property at its second auction, paying $457,000 for the 1,500-square-foot lot. He then began to navigate his way through the planning, design, zoning and permitting process.
It took 10 years. His neighbors objected to the size of the proposed building, fearing that its height and massiveness would cut off light and views of the Charles River from their windows and roof decks. They worried that it would destroy the historic character of the unique street, populated by 19th century 2 ½ story carriage houses. Lawsuits were filed and tempers flared, but La Perle continued on, undaunted. By mid-August of 2013, all lawsuits were settled, zoning variances allowed, architectural appropriateness granted and permits collected for him to begin construction.
But he didn’t. Instead, he decided to put it on the market.
The Reeds, a philanthropic couple who formerly owned a townhouse on Chestnut Street, had been aware of, but not a part of, the contentiousness between La Perle and the neighbors. For years John Reed, the retired CEO and Chairman of Citicorp, Citibank and the post merger Citigroup, and his wife have magnanimously supported higher education and projects benefiting the public, arts, culture and the humanities through their charitable foundation.
Four years ago they moved to a Beacon Street condominium whose windows overlooked the forlorn corner, said Donaher. When La Perle put it on the market, the Reeds purchased it for $3 million, according to the Massachusetts Land Records, to convert it to a 1500 square foot enclosed private pocket garden at street level that they could enjoy year-round. The only structure on the parcel would be a small garden potting shed with water for the trees and plant materials and perhaps a seat for a rainy day.
The Reeds hired Landscape Architect Lynne Giesecke of Studio 2112 Landscape Architecture and Donaher, who gained support from neighbors and elected officials as they too navigated their way through the design, zoning and and permitting process. It took about six months. Last week they cleared the last hurdles and plan to start demolition within a week or two. Construction will take place this summer, and trees and plants will be installed next spring.
“Their whole process has had a friendly and positive air about it,” said Kyndal Henicke, deputy chief of staff for City Councilor Josh Zakim. “The landscape architect was wonderful and reached out to us and the neighbors in late February and March. Although the owners are the main beneficiaries, they have taken into account what people will see. They are making an eye sore into a beautiful garden for all living in or visiting the neighborhood.”
Next spring many of the millions of visitors to the Esplanade will pass over the Arthur Fiedler pedestrian footbridge and be welcomed to Beacon Hill with the views of the Reed’s garden, surrounded by a wrought iron fence and filled with mature flowering trees, lush plant materials, brick walkways and the garden shed. “While this is a Beacon Hill property, people from all over the world will get an idea of what civic involvement can do for the neighborhood and the city of Boston,” said Donaher.