Yvonne Abraham

Secret garden spots

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / September 4, 2011

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Here are secrets well-kept, and for too long.

They’re just around the corner, or up a few flights, from the places we go every day. But most of us never see them.

There are cool, magical, hidden spots all over the city: beautiful gardens tucked in amid the concrete, observation decks that will change your perspective, inviting lobbies that double as museums, cozy community rooms offering respite from bustle or cold.

They’re places where you can actually pause and think. And though it might not seem like it sometimes, they’re open to us all - most of them given to the community as requirements of development deals.

Each of these places was almost deserted when I visited earlier in the summer. We’ve got a few weeks before it starts snowing.

Go claim them.

Independence Wharf

There are a couple of ways to enjoy this recently made-over building on the Fort Point Channel near the Evelyn Moakley Bridge. First, there is the observation deck on the 14th floor, which you can get to by flashing an ID at the front desk between 10 and 5 each day. There, you get sweeping views of a resurgent Fort Point Channel, and a sense of just how quickly this part of the city is being transformed.

The hotels and office buildings seem to have dropped, fully formed, on the downtown side of the channel, and the Seaport District is jumping across the water. Workers and tourists saunter on the Harborwalk, or park on the benches and grass by the channel, an inviting green the day I visited. You can bring a sandwich up here on cold days too, avoiding shivers in the enclosed viewing area.

Back at ground level on the channel side of the building, there’s a huge community room with couches, flat-screen TVs, and free Wi-Fi. Workers sometimes eat lunch in here, tourists occasionally stop in for a rest (there’s a good public bathroom open 24/7 just around the corner at the side of the building), and community groups sometimes use it for events. The visionary Boston group Street Lab, all about activating public spaces with cultural programming, held its annual amateur film festival here last year. At 470 Atlantic Ave, Boston.

Cambridge Center Roof Garden

I had heard about this place for a while, but nothing quite prepared me for the first time I stepped into a squat, homely parking garage a few seconds from the Kendall T stop and took an elevator to the top floor. Here are 30,000 square feet of beautifully maintained gardens, with benches and picnic tables tucked away so that you feel like you’re the only person up here (a lot of the time, you are).

When I visited, the garden - which the city required of developer Boston Properties - was bursting with coneflowers and black-eyed Susans. I could hear mockingbirds and mourning doves in the trees. It’s partly enclosed by red brick buildings, but somehow, it doesn’t matter. I want to go back there and lie on the grass for hours, but I fear reprisals from the small but extremely devoted band of park users who would rather keep the place to themselves. At 4 Cambridge Center, Kendall Square.

The observation deck at the Custom House

For 14 years, this beautiful, neoclassical landmark lay empty and inaccessible in the heart of the Financial District. In the late 1990s, it reopened as a Marriott time-share hotel. You can saunter up a short staircase to check out the immense grand rotunda, now a maritime-themed exhibition space, whenever you want.

For nonguests, getting to the most spectacular part of the building - the 26th-floor observation deck - is more difficult than it should be. A hotel worker escorts visitors who gather at the reception desk once a day - at 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, weather permitting. It costs three dollars. (I would gripe about this, but every cent goes to the Children’s Miracle Network, which supports children’s hospitals.)

On the day I visited, state conservation workers were tagging fluffy white peregrine falcon chicks (the tower is the state’s most prolific nesting spot) in a room behind that famous clock. Out on the vertigo-inducing observation deck, the views were truly awesome in every direction. The harbor and airport looked particularly spectacular, as did the lush Greenway, the whole ribbon visible threading through the streets. At 3 McKinley Square, Boston.

The atrium on Merrimac Street

You could walk by for years without noticing this nondescript building not far from TD Garden. But head through the doors and into the public atrium at its center and things get more exciting. There, you will find a jungle - a trompe l’oeil jungle, complete with lush vegetation, exotic wildlife, and a fountain doing an approximation of a waterfall that somehow becomes more convincing the longer time you spend with it (squinting helps).

And you can spend a long time with it, parked on the café tables and chairs outside the Au Bon Pain (outside food welcome). The place screams 1990, in a charming way, with its pastel hues, fake rivets, and shadows painted on the walls to make the place look more like an architectural marvel. It’s tropical, Vegasy (the wrong end of the Strip), cozy - just the kind of place for which one might hanker on a bleak winter day, especially if one is a kitsch-lover. At 101 Merrimac St, Boston.

The Healing Garden at the Yawkey Center

In need of perspective? This is your spot. It was designed for patients and their visitors, but anybody can head up to the eighth-floor garden in this recent addition to the sprawling Massachusetts General Hospital complex, right across from the Charles/MGH stop. The handsome grass-and-stone terrace has plenty of private nooks, a neatly manicured garden, comfortable chairs, and gorgeous views - of Beacon Hill in one direction, and of the Longfellow Bridge and sailboats gliding along a sparkling Charles in the other. For colder weather, there’s a glass-enclosed conservatory stocked with orchids and spider plants.

It’s a place that encourages you to think about things, not just because cellphones are prohibited (as is food), but because the garden is attached to the hospital’s cancer center. A guest book in the conservatory is filled with messages from patients and the people who love them. “The best part of my day is coming here,’’ reads one. “Long live everyone,’’ goes another. The hallway leading to the garden goes by a Wall of Hope, on which cancer survivors tell their stories. It’s hard to leave this place without feeling uplifted. At Massachusetts General Hospital, 55 Fruit St., Boston.

So, there are five secret spots to which I’m partial, but there are plenty more. For example, Kendall Square, in addition to boasting some of the region’s most interesting architecture, also hosts its most fascinating lobbies: The Broad Institute and the Koch Institute each have beautiful, interactive exhibition spaces where you can learn about biomedical and cancer research.

On the Boston side of the river, many of these hidden treasures - like the impressive pocket maritime museum at Battery Wharf - are on Boston’s Harborwalk. The Boston Harbor Association offers an MP3 tour that guides you to each of them, though not all of the public sites are as accessible as they should be. (I’m thinking of you, Foster’s Rotunda at Rowes Wharf, and especially you, Constellation Wharf in Charlestown.)

The only way that will change is if more of us get out and use these places. They’re ours, after all.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at