Adding a welcome sign

Building to invite visits to Emerald Necklace

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By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / September 22, 2010

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For the legions who wind their way through the Back Bay Fens, the low-slung stone building has long been a charming curiosity, a graceful structure with no apparent purpose beyond its weathered beauty. Built in 1883 to regulate water flow in the marshy area, the cottage-like gatehouse on the edge of the park has stood vacant for years, a landmark from another time.

Now the Old Stony Brook Gatehouse, designed by renowned 19th-century architect H.H. Richardson, will be reborn as a gateway to the Emerald Necklace, the ribbon of parks that stretches from the Boston Common to Franklin Park. Work has begun on a first-ever visitors center for the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park network that coils through the city, a hub that will offer walking and biking tours, maps and exhibits, and information on activities in the parks.

At a ceremonial groundbreaking yesterday, city officials and leaders of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy said they hope the center will introduce newcomers to the series of parks and encourage return visitors to explore further.

The $1.3 million project, privately funded and backed by some of the city’s biggest philanthropists, should be completed by year’s end.

“A once-forgotten architectural gem will sparkle again,’’ said Julie Crockford, the conservancy’s president.

“We have wanted to do this for a very long time.’’

Crockford said the building’s location — at a main entrance to the Fens near the Museum of Fine Arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and a host of Fenway-area colleges — makes it an ideal launching point for visitors. From there, the necklace extends along the Riverway to Jamaica Pond, the Arnold Arboretum, and Franklin Park.

The restored building, which will be known as the Emerald Necklace Visitor and Volunteer Center, will also serve as the conservancy’s headquarters and a meeting place for volunteers who help maintain the parks.

The conservancy plans to offer tours of the Fens and its popular gardens and to hold classes to train volunteers as guides.

Designed by Richardson, Olmsted’s friend and collaborator, and standing in the first park Olmsted designed in the necklace, the gatehouse is a fitting place to showcase Olmsted’s work, organizers said.

Beginning in the late 1870s, Olmsted spent 20 years creating the Back Bay Fens, The Riverway, Olmsted Park, Jamaica Pond, Arnold Arboretum, and Franklin Park.

He linked the park network to the already established Boston Common and the Public Garden via the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

Recognized as the nation’s leading park creator, he died in 1903. “I think he’d be pleased’’ by the new center, said Myra Harrison, superintendent of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, where Olmsted lived and worked.

The gatehouse, which stands beside a companion gatehouse that is still active, was built as part of Olmsted’s plan to regulate the flow of storm water into what was then a foul-smelling marsh. But in the 1970s, it was decommissioned and gradually fell into disrepair.

In 2002, the city restored the exterior of the one-story building and replaced its gently sloped roof. The conservancy is now remodeling its interior, which has brick walls and wood-beamed ceilings.

The conservancy is leasing the building from the city for $1 a year.

“This was a jewel that had been neglected,’’ said Jeanine Knox, the conservancy’s director of external affairs. The renovation will not alter the building’s structure.

When complete, the center will feature maps, bike racks, and benches made from the current granite steps.

The center will also be used for community meetings and educational presentations.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said the center will help preserve Olmsted’s parks “for generations to come’’ and will enrich the experience for visitors.

Recalling the city’s former parks commissioner, Justine Mee Liff, Menino said the project will honor her legacy. A champion of the Emerald Necklace, Liff died in 2002, and the conservancy established a fund in her name to support special projects in the parks.

Menino said Liff was guided by a “love of beauty and a commitment to making the world a better place,’’ and added that he fondly remembered the high-top sneakers she wore each day.

The conservancy has raised $1.2 million for the project, including gifts from the Yawkey Foundation, Jane’s Trust, the Lynch Foundation, and three anonymous foundations.

Malcolm Rogers, who directs the MFA, welcomed the conservancy to the Fenway.

“We’re thrilled this building is coming alive and to have you as neighbors,’’ he said.

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