The Esplanade Is Blooming with New Improvements

More updates are planned, including restoration of the Lotta Fountain.

esplanade boston

Photo by Kyle Clauss

Tani Marinovich cringes as she watches a golf cart grumble across the bumpy edge of the Charles River.

In her nearly four years with the Esplanade Association, Marinovich has presided over a slew of restoration projects, fueled by an unprecedented amount of giving. Some changes to the 64-acre park are more noticeable than others. When thousands flooded into the Oval Lawn opposite the Hatch Shell for this year’s Boston Pops’ Fourth of July concert, their America-loving butts were treated to a lush carpet of new, carefully selected grass. The old turf had been packed down and yellowed by years of use.

“We’d like to say the park was loved to death,” Marinovich laughs.

But after the last firework splashed color across the sky over Beacon Hill and the crowds all scattered, the dozen or so new plants at the Esplanade lagoon continued filtering phosphorous from the water and blocking invasive species from taking over. It is this careful attention to detail where Marinovich’s passion for the park shines through, and why she recoils at the sight of a golf cart or port-a-potty parked on a lawn slated for aeration.

The Esplanade consists of five miles of trails and three-and-a-half miles of coast. Marinovich says she’s kicked around the idea of taking out a personal ad for one of the park’s more than 1,700 trees: “Tall, handsome, likes to watch the water.” She is forced to pause every few words to allow cyclists pass.

esplanade boston

Photo by Kyle Clauss

It’s tricky at first to understand where the jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation begins, and where the Esplanade Association’s ends. The DCR owns the land and controls all permitting, while the privately funded Association maintains the park. The Association coordinated the donation of $10,000 worth of time, expertise, and “the best organic compost in the state” from John Engwer of Eastern Landscape in Wrentham, and the DCR cuts the grass that sprouts up as a result. In the winter, the DCR plowed the snow off the running paths, while the Association consulted Fenway Park groundskeeper Davis Mellor on which non-volcanic black sand to help create a thermal layer, melting the heaps of snow on the Oval Lawn.

The Association was formed in 2001 after years of neglect had rendered the tired Esplanade a graffitied embarrassment, home to rickety docks, a condemned playground, and little else. Fourteen years and more than $12 million later, a couple sits drinking their morning coffee on Adirondack chairs placed on a dock rebuilt in 2011, while a group of children take turns on the new playground’s slick zip line.

Both the Esplanade Association and the DCR retain full-time horticulturalists to preside over the park. Renee Portonova, the Association’s green thumb, is a transplant from the New York City Parks Department. When she isn’t teaching gardening at two local prisons as volunteer, she’s on the Esplanade, brewing a compost “tea” made from materials found around the park, along with a few other ingredients (She admits molasses is one of them, but declines to divulge much else about her secret recipe). Portonova sprays different versions of this tea across the park—for trees, a more fungal brew, and for perennials, something a tad more bacterial.

esplanade boston

Photo by Kyle Clauss

“There is no genus ‘weed,'” Portonova says she tells her students. “Weeds are just plants that are misplaced or don’t have a purpose—yet.”

Of course, there is always more work to be done. The Esplanade Association has eyed a restoration for the Lotta Fountain, located at Berkeley Street and named after 1870s vaudeville star and animal lover Lotta Crabtree. Crabtree left $4 million for veterans, the homeless, and abandoned pets upon her death in 1924. Fifteen years later, her estate presented the structure, topped with a granite dog sculpted by Katherine Lane Weems.

At its base is a long-dormant fountain and a tiled drinking basin for animals, now filled with decaying leaves. The Association aims to restore the crumbling structure with a cemetery sculptor, and return the flow of clean drinking water with help from the DCR, once again making one of Boston’s quirkier memorials a refuge for passerby pups.

Seated at a purple patio set donated by a French benefactor, Marinovich’s face lights up as she talks about landscape architects Charles Eliot and Arthur Shurcliff, pupils of the great Fredrick Law Olmstead, mastermind of the Emerald Necklace, as well as Central Park. A key feature of Eliot’s work, she says, is an emphasis placed on ovals and vistas, as evidenced by the Oval Lawn and the idyllic riverscape sprawling out in front of her. To the side, a memorial to Eliot, restored last year.