A growing MFA helps Back Bay Fens glitter

The MFA’s Fenway entrance was newly lighted and landscaped before reopening in 2008. (Globe photo / Jonathan Wiggs) The MFA’s Fenway entrance was newly lighted and landscaped before reopening in 2008.
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / November 11, 2010

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For nearly three decades, the Museum of Fine Arts turned its back on its nearest neighbor, the Back Bay Fens. The museum’s entrance on the Fenway was shuttered, and strolling behind the museum or across the street in the park was perceived as less than safe.

“It was very dim and it was very dark over here,’’ Bill McAvoy, the MFA’s director of development, said on a recent walk along that stretch of the Fenway, where unkempt shrubbery and battered sidewalks were once a sign of the area’s neglect. “You would detour around the museum and around the Fens because it was considered dark and dangerous.’’

These days, the MFA’s Fenway side bustles with pedestrians treading wide, smooth walkways. As the museum prepares to open its new Art of the Americas Wing next week, exterior improvements continue — part of the museum’s ongoing efforts to embrace the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Back Bay Fens, surround the building with greenery, and in so doing, help to rejuvenate the MFA’s neighborhood.

“It’s not just for the museum,’’ said Michael Jones, a partner with London-based Foster + Partners, the MFA’s architects. “It’s about extending beyond the doors of the museum.’’

Outside the museum’s Fenway entrance, which was newly lighted and landscaped before reopening in June 2008, visitors now rest near the museum’s fountains and snap photos of Antonio López García’s giant bronze baby head sculptures, “Day’’ and “Night.’’ Bicyclists whiz across the bridges over the Muddy River and out of the park onto Forsyth Way, where they pedal past construction workers digging up the street next to the new wing.

With the wing set to open to museum members on Sunday and the general public Nov. 20, that uptick in traffic is very much what the MFA and Foster + Partners say they had in mind when they conceived the renovation and expansion project.

In fact, while the MFA has done much to improve its own property, many of the upgrades are being made to adjacent city-owned land.

During the lengthy project review process, the city, too, wanted the museum “to open their doors in a new way,’’ said Susan Elsbree, communications director at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Elsbree, who described the process as “collaborative,’’ said the city advocated strengthening the connection to the park and making Forsyth Way, along the MFA’s eastern edge, a more pedestrian-friendly environment.

The alterations to public land come courtesy of a $6.2 million federal appropriation that Massachusetts lawmakers had inserted into the 2005 transportation bill at the request of the museum. Among other items, the funding covers new streetlights and sidewalks on the Fenway and along Forsyth Way; new crosswalks between the MFA and the Back Bay Fens; the repaving of the streets around the museum; a granite sidewalk on Huntington Avenue, where the MFA’s main entrance is; and, on the building’s western edge, near the I.M. Pei wing, the conversion of Museum Road into a two-way street.

Much of the work is already finished, with not a little of it — like the granite sidewalk — only in recent weeks. All but Forsyth Way is scheduled to be completed in time for the new wing’s public opening.

Some of the roadwork needed to be done anyway, said Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat whose Eighth Congressional District includes the Fenway. But Capuano, who noted that the museum is one of Boston’s top tourist draws, said there was another reason for bettering the appearance of the area.

“Because people, I think, should expect to live in decent neighborhoods,’’ he said. “And that particular neighborhood, in my opinion, was long overlooked.’’

In the 1870s, when Olmsted began designing the Back Bay Fens, the first park in his Emerald Necklace, he aimed to do what he had done with Central Park: Provide people from all walks of life with a respite from the city, said Julie Crockford, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy.

By 1903, the neighborhood was home to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Six years later, the MFA moved from Copley Square to Huntington Avenue. And in 1915, when the MFA’s Evans Wing opened on the Fenway, architect Guy Lowell’s design had the Back Bay Fens in mind: Its facade was meant to be reflected across the street in the park, where the Muddy River widens into what looks like a pond.

But over time that connection to the park was lost, and the neighborhood went downhill. By September 1994, when Malcolm Rogers arrived from London to become the MFA’s director, the museum had long closed both its rear entrance and, in a cost-cutting measure, its Huntington Avenue front doors, a circumstance that he said symbolized to him “an abandonment of hope.’’ Seven months into his tenure, he reopened the front entrance.

Throwing wide the Fenway doors 13 years later gave the museum “a completely different presence in the community,’’ said Manuel Delgado, a Fenway Community Development Corporation board member and an associate professor of architecture at the Wentworth Institute of Technology on Huntington Avenue. “It is a friendly entrance,’’ he said.

In Rogers’s estimation, the more people the museum draws and the more comfortable they feel lingering outside it, the more secure the neighborhood will be. “People are the best way of bringing an area alive and making it safe,’’ he said.

Kelly J. Brilliant, executive director of the Fenway Alliance, a consortium of cultural organizations that includes the MFA, said upgrades such as those the museum is making — and those for which the alliance has successfully lobbied, notably the new streetlights and trees that stretch along Huntington Avenue from Symphony Hall to Brigham Circle — can also change people’s behavior.

“It’s like a civic amenity that makes people start to feel they have to act a certain way if things look a certain way,’’ she said. “It becomes more a place that you feel like you should be somewhat respectful of — maybe that your community cares enough about you to put in the lights.’’

The argument that cultural organizations are good for cities is one that arts professionals have long made. It’s a key element of National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman’s Art Works campaign, and it’s one Rogers echoed, saying that the MFA and the Gardner Museum, which is in the midst of its own Renzo Piano-designed expansion project, can be catalysts for positive change in the neighborhood.

“This is a very important moment in the life of the Back Bay Fens: to turn the tide from neglect to one of prosperity,’’ he said.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at