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Marblehead’s artist, Childe Hassam, helps another community

June 10, 2011

by Robert Fichter

Departed artists have helped to sell innumerable T-shirts and coffee mugs, but it is a little less common to have an artist no longer with us very much involved in a community improvement project. Such, however, is the case of Childe Hassam and the Friends of Childe Hassam Park.

The fundraising phase of the Friends of Childe Hassam Park has just commenced.

Childe Hassam park was looking a little tired and neglected… but…

The genesis of the project was familiar enough in improving urban neighborhoods. A small group of neighbors in Boston’s South End became concerned about the neglected condition of a vest-pocket park at the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Chandler Street. The 2,700 square feet park, had deteriorated over the years, was closed to the public, and, if not quite an eyesore, contributed little to an area in several other ways distinctly on the upgrade.

Turning the park into an asset was the easily stated goal; how to go about achieving the goal was, at the outset, very much an open question. In what ways should the park be redesigned, and with what constituencies in mind? Since the facility was legally a property of the City of Boston, how should the city government be approached? And there was, of course, the challenge of how any improvement scheme was to be paid for.

At an early point in the project, as the organizers were expanding their membership and educating themselves about a variety of relevant issues connected with small-scale, grass-roots civic improvement, one of the participants mentioned that the noted Boston-born American Impressionist artist, Childe Hassam, had at one point in his life lived on the same block and had painted an iconic picture, “Rainy Day, Columbus Avenue, Boston,” that featured Columbus Avenue with the site of the current park practically in view.

“Rainy Day,” painted in 1885 and now in the Toledo Museum of Art, was beloved by all the organizers, as it is by every Bostonian who knows it, became a kind of reference point as discussions moved from the concept stage to early implementation. As the organizers, who by this time had become a board of directors, did so, they began to wonder if there might be some small way of linking a well-known Boston artist and one of his best-known Boston works with this neglected neighborhood park.

The renovated park in an artist's rendering.

Month by month, the project gained traction as the board members educated themselves, expanded their base, and increasingly saw renewal of the park as a still challenging but realizable goal. By late 2005, the “Friends of Childe Hassam Park, Inc.” had been incorporated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, had gained 501c3 non-profit status with the IRS.

Since then the Boston Parks and Recreation Commission voted unanimously to rename the site “Childe Hassam Park.” As a result the little spot of greenery would no longer be just one more neighborhood improvement project but rather a living monument to an artist who had immortalized that bit of Boston in his famous painting. Very few parks in this country honor American painters, with Boston’s Copley Square being one of them. Overlooked in Boston’s history, Hassam’s works have gained in popularity in recent years, culminating in a major 2004 exhibition of his paintings at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Meanwhile the Hassam connection continued to grow. Each time the artist’s name was invoked the members of the board felt a positive response. The Toledo Museum of Art was contacted in regard to using reproductions of “Rainy Day” in the project’s promotional work, permission the museum graciously provided. Additionally, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts gave the organization permission to use reproductions of Hassam’s “Boston Common at Twilight” and “Charles River and Beacon Hill.” Thus it began to appear that Childe Hassam, who had spent his early married life in an apartment hotel, now subsidized housing, a block away, not only might be a useful reference point but also in fact might be an organizing theme.

A statement of purpose published soon after summed up the objectives and announced to the world—and to potential art-oriented allies and contributors—the goal of honoring Childe Hassam, as well as adopting an arts theme to highlight the South End’s large performing and visual arts community.

The park’s design and contents have received preliminary approvals by city agencies—including a centerpiece of the park that will be a visual tribute to honor Childe Hassam. More important than this testimonial, however, will be the living presence the naming of the park has given to an artist who, along with Revere and Copley and Sargent, has put Boston on the map of accomplishments in the history of American visual arts. The organizers like to think that if he were to return, Hassam would be deeply pleased to see himself honored in such a vivid way in a neighborhood he knew so well. The organizers aren’t praying for a rainy day on the day of the park’s dedication, but if that should happen, it would not be at all out of place.

The Friends of Childe Hassam Park has now begun a vigorous fund-raising campaign. Anyone wishing to contribute or to obtain additional information please visit www.childehassampark.com or contact the organization’s President, Tom Boyden, 617-267-1882, or tom.boyden@gmail.com.

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