What’s the story behind the deserted bear cages in Franklin Park?


The cages have sat empty and uncared for for many years, a reminder of what the Franklin Park Zoo may need been. Now, they’re lastly getting a facelift.

Franklin Park’s bear cages opened to the general public greater than a century in the past, in 1912. At this time, they’re rusted and overgrown — however nonetheless there. Chloe Courtney Bohl/Boston.com

Deep within the northernmost nook of Boston’s sprawling Franklin Park, a neatly manicured path offers approach to a tumble of weeds and vines and dead-ends on the base of a large stone staircase. Climb these lichen-encrusted steps and also you’re greeted by a gaggle of big, overgrown steel enclosures. 

The constructions are pockmarked and rusted with age. Lots of the vertical bars that after lined their facades have fallen off or been eliminated, although sufficient stay to counsel how imposing the cages should as soon as have been: tall barricades designed to guard guests from the hazards inside.

Chloe Courtney Bohl/Boston.com

These are the bear cages of Franklin Park. As soon as the satisfaction of the Franklin Park Zoo, they’ve lengthy since been deserted, left to deteriorate into the creepy skeletons on show as we speak. The one vestige of the dens’ one-time grandeur takes the type of a bas-relief stone carving in the back of the central cage depicting two bears standing on their again legs, their muscular paws outstretched and heads upturned in a tableau of brute power.

The historical past of the bear cages spans greater than 100 years, and the forged of characters contains visionary panorama architects, President John F. Kennedy’s grandfather, and several other species of bear. It begins on the flip of the twentieth century, when electrical streetcars had solely not too long ago changed horse-drawn trolleys on Boston’s streets and the nascent Crimson Sox have been nonetheless referred to as the Boston People.

The best zoo on this planet

John Fitzgerald, maternal grandfather to the thirty fifth president of the US, ran for mayor with a promise to construct a “Larger, Higher, Busier Boston.” Delivering on that promise meant, partially, establishing a sequence of public parks and playgrounds throughout his two phrases (1906-1908 and 1910-1914) — together with Fenway Park and a municipal zoo.

The zoo could be located in Franklin Park, a 572-acre expanse designed within the Eighteen Nineties by the famend American panorama architect Frederick Regulation Olmstead. The park was the “crown jewel” of Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace, a seven-mile system of city parks stretching repeatedly from the Boston Frequent on one finish to Franklin Park on the opposite.

Olmstead believed within the energy of public parks to construct neighborhood, join folks to nature, and enhance bodily and psychological wellness. They have been, to him, “probably the most helpful of all attainable types of public locations.” His authentic design for Franklin Park included miles of strolling paths by way of nice swaths of woodlands and meadows, in addition to a kids’s play space. A proponent of embracing the land’s pure contours and ecosystem, he additionally left plans for the eventual addition of native animal shows.

The Fitzgerald administration had one thing a bit extra unique in thoughts for the Franklin Park Zoo, although. Arthur Shurcliff, one other panorama architect and Olmstead’s protegé, was introduced on in 1910 to riff off his (by then retired) mentor’s plans and design a very spectacular zoo. 

The bear cages have been one of many first reveals to open to the general public. Shurcliff had organized the 4 cages in a semicircular formation round a central viewing platform accessible by way of a large staircase. Every cage had a swimming pool and tree plantings for the bears — polar bears, black bears, brown Russian bears, and silver-tipped grizzlies introduced all the best way from Yellowstone Nationwide Park. 

A plan for the bear cages printed within the Boston Night Commonplace in October 1912 forward of their opening.

“The scale of the cages are ample sufficient to fulfill even probably the most ardent advocate of animal freedom,” the Boston Night Transcript assured its readers in the summertime of 1912, forward of the cages’ fall opening. They measured 70, 50, 45, and 25 toes extensive, respectively, and about 12 toes deep, with excessive partitions and concrete slab flooring. A ten-foot-deep border of flowers and shrubbery between the cages and the viewing platform stored the people secure from the bears, and vice versa.

The cages opened that October to nice fanfare, the Transcript reported on the time. 

“Within the presence of almost 10,000 folks, most of whom have been schoolchildren, Boston’s bear cages have been opened to the general public by Mayor Fitzgerald yesterday afternoon,” the newspaper introduced. “Twelve bears of assorted sorts got vary within the spacious pens and their antics delighted the group for a very long time. … [Fitzgerald] mentioned this was the third part of the brand new zoo, which will likely be one of many best on this planet.”

The cages have been really of a world-class caliber, the Transcript crowed, evaluating them favorably to the bear pit in Bern, Switzerland: a “world-famous affair, however … small potatoes beside the 4 dens at Franklin Park.”

Russian brown bears Rose, Marie, and Harry stepping into for a swim on a scorching day in 1922. (Leslie Jones by way of the Boston Public Library)

The bear cages continued to attract huge crowds within the years that adopted. On the time, the zoo was free and had no boundary fences separating it from the remainder of the park, so it’s arduous to know precisely how many individuals visited every year. However in 1920, in accordance with Dr. Rory Browne — a zoo historian and a member of Zoo New England’s Board of Administrators — the zoo claimed to have welcomed 2 million guests. (Boston’s inhabitants was about 750,000 that yr.) Information studies referred to as the cages “amazingly clear,” and described the bears inside as well-fed and content material.

The bear cages’ decline

The Nice Despair and World Struggle II years weren’t variety to the bear cages or the Franklin Park Zoo. Metropolis funding for the zoo was scarce, as was impartial income — admission to the zoo was nonetheless free. Olmstead’s circa-1890 plan for a sprawling, naturalistic Franklin Park hadn’t included parking tons, which by the Nineteen Fifties had turn out to be an issue for guests.

The zoo stored increasing, however new reveals (sea lions and rhinoceros and chimpanzees, oh my!) have been positioned distant from the bears, forcing guests to stroll lengthy distances throughout the park in an effort to attain the furry beasts. The now-peripheral bear cages grew to become much less well-liked and fell into neglect.

“The entire zoo was run down after years of underfunding, vandalism, and uncared for upkeep,” defined Browne, the zoo historian. The bear dens have been no exception.

The general public appeared to acknowledge that the Franklin Park Zoo had not lived as much as its one-time potential. Media commentators now not boasted in regards to the zoo as a Boston vacation spot. As an alternative, they puzzled why it had fallen behind its counterparts within the Bronx, San Diego, Chicago, and St. Louis. (These zoos have been charging for admission, raking in cash, and will afford to open flashy, kid-friendly new reveals.)

In 1958 the Metropolitan District Fee, a state company, assumed management of the zoo. The MDC wasted no time placing up fences and including an admissions price. As soon as the spotlight of any go to to the zoo, the bear cages — too distant from the opposite reveals, and too expensive to keep up — have been excluded from the fenced-in space. 

However the cages weren’t torn down. As an alternative, they sat empty within the park for many years, an more and more dilapidated monument to a bygone period.

Chloe Courtney Bohl/Boston.com
Chloe Courtney Bohl/Boston.com

Round them, time marched on. New administration didn’t rescue the Franklin Park Zoo from its troubles; it continued to stagnate, and in 1984 made Parade journal’s checklist of the ten worst zoos in America. The MDC managed the zoo till 1991, when possession handed to the non-public Commonwealth Zoological Company, which in 1997 modified its identify to Zoo New England. At this time, the corporate manages the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, in addition to the Franklin Park Zoo. 

“I do know it’s not an amazing zoo but,” John Linehan, president and CEO of Zoo New England, mentioned of the Franklin Park Zoo in 2015. 

Extra not too long ago, Linehan instructed Boston.com that the 2 zoos “have grown tremendously in recent times,” collectively welcoming greater than 1,000,000 guests final fiscal yr for the second yr operating. Memberships are up. The Franklin Park Zoo received a brand-new, $9.1 million gorilla habitat in 2022, with a $16 million African Penguin Coast and African Savannah set to open in summer season 2025. 

“The zoo is extra related and vital to folks than ever earlier than,” Linehan mentioned.

What’s subsequent for the bear cages?

The bear cages, too, are poised to regain some relevance. Although they’ve fallen into disrepair, they continue to be a fixture of Franklin Park, the place guests nonetheless wander over to snap images, skate, or simply sit quietly (in accordance with the cages’ current Google opinions). However some neighbors and patrons of the park see unfulfilled potential — and security hazards — within the cages’ present state.

That’s why the Metropolis of Boston — primarily based on public suggestions and enter from its neighborhood accomplice the Franklin Park Coalition — has determined to take a position about $800,000 in some overdue security and accessibility updates to the bear cages within the close to future, which can lay the groundwork for a longer-term, as-yet-undefined reimagining of the house. 

Neighborhood members have prompt the previous exhibit be transformed right into a kids’s play space — with the swimming pools repurposed as shallow splash pads — or an amphitheater, or an occasion house, defined Boston Parks Division mission supervisor Lauren Bryant. 

For the second, although, town is targeted on bringing the bear dens space into compliance with the ADA (presently, the one entry factors are by way of the staircase or a circuitous, unpaved path across the again) and addressing rapid security issues by clearing away weeds and stabilizing what’s left of the cages.

Bryant and her colleague Amy Linne, additionally a mission supervisor at Boston Parks, careworn that town hasn’t been capable of tackle this mission till now as a result of Boston doesn’t presently personal the bear cages, despite the fact that they’re situated in a metropolis park — the state does.

The town and state are within the strategy of transferring possession of the cages, a fancy course of the mission managers mentioned have to be accomplished earlier than Boston Parks can do any development work on the positioning.

Since Bryant began at Boston Parks 12 years in the past, she’s at all times believed the bear dens have a variety of potential. 

“For me personally,” she mentioned, “I’m simply actually excited — and I do know Boston Parks generally is de facto excited — about having the ability to see what this house turns into.”