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Deep in the northernmost corner of Boston’s sprawling Franklin Park, a neatly manicured path gives way to a tumble of weeds and vines and dead-ends at the base of a wide stone staircase. Climb those lichen-encrusted steps and you’re greeted by a group of giant, overgrown metal enclosures.
The structures are pockmarked and rusted with age. Many of the vertical bars that once lined their facades have fallen off or been removed, though enough remain to suggest how imposing the cages must once have been: tall barricades designed to protect visitors from the dangers within.
These are the bear cages of Franklin Park. Once the pride of the Franklin Park Zoo, they’ve long since been abandoned, left to deteriorate into the creepy skeletons on display today. The only vestige of the dens’ one-time grandeur takes the form of a bas-relief stone carving at the back of the central cage depicting two bears standing on their back legs, their muscular paws outstretched and heads upturned in a tableau of brute force.
The history of the bear cages spans more than 100 years, and the cast of characters includes visionary landscape architects, President John F. Kennedy’s grandfather, and several species of bear. It begins at the turn of the 20th century, when electric streetcars had only recently replaced horse-drawn trolleys on Boston’s streets and the nascent Red Sox were still called the Boston Americans.
John Fitzgerald, maternal grandfather to the 35th president of the United States, ran for mayor with a promise to build a “Bigger, Better, Busier Boston.” Delivering on that promise meant, in part, establishing a series of public parks and playgrounds during his two terms (1906-1908 and 1910-1914) — including Fenway Park and a municipal zoo.
The zoo would be situated in Franklin Park, a 572-acre expanse designed in the 1890s by the renowned American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The park was the “crown jewel” of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, a seven-mile system of urban parks stretching continuously from the Boston Common on one end to Franklin Park on the other.
Olmsted believed in the power of public parks to build community, connect people to nature, and boost physical and mental wellness. They were, to him, “the most valuable of all possible forms of public places.” His original design for Franklin Park included miles of walking paths through great swaths of woodlands and meadows, as well as a children’s play area. A proponent of embracing the land’s natural contours and ecosystem, he also left plans for the eventual addition of native animal displays.
The Fitzgerald administration had something a bit more exotic in mind for the Franklin Park Zoo, though. Arthur Shurcliff, another landscape architect and Olmsted’s protegé, was brought on in 1910 to riff off his (by then retired) mentor’s plans and design a truly spectacular zoo.
The bear cages were one of the first exhibits to open to the public. Shurcliff had arranged the four cages in a semicircular formation around a central viewing platform accessible via a wide staircase. Each cage had a swimming pool and tree plantings for the bears — polar bears, black bears, brown Russian bears, and silver-tipped grizzlies brought all the way from Yellowstone National Park.
“The dimensions of the cages are ample enough to satisfy even the most ardent advocate of animal freedom,” the Boston Evening Transcript assured its readers in the summer of 1912, ahead of the cages’ fall opening. They measured 70, 50, 45, and 25 feet wide, respectively, and about 12 feet deep, with high walls and concrete slab flooring. A 10-foot-deep border of flowers and shrubbery between the cages and the viewing platform kept the humans safe from the bears, and vice versa.
The cages opened that October to great fanfare, the Transcript reported at the time.
“In the presence of nearly 10,000 people, most of whom were schoolchildren, Boston’s bear cages were opened to the public by Mayor Fitzgerald yesterday afternoon,” the newspaper announced. “Twelve bears of various kinds were given range in the spacious pens and their antics delighted the crowd for a long time. … [Fitzgerald] said this was the third section of the new zoo, which will be one of the greatest in the world.”
The cages were truly of a world-class caliber, the Transcript crowed, comparing them favorably to the bear pit in Bern, Switzerland: a “world-famous affair, but … small potatoes beside the four dens at Franklin Park.”
The bear cages continued to draw big crowds in the years that followed. At the time, the zoo was free and had no boundary fences separating it from the rest of the park, so it’s hard to know exactly how many people visited each year. But in 1920, according to Dr. Rory Browne — a zoo historian and a member of Zoo New England’s Board of Directors — the zoo claimed to have welcomed 2 million visitors. (Boston’s population was about 750,000 that year.) News reports called the cages “amazingly clean,” and described the bears within as well-fed and content.
The Great Depression and World War II years were not kind to the bear cages or the Franklin Park Zoo. City funding for the zoo was scarce, as was independent revenue — admission to the zoo was still free. Olmsted’s circa-1890 plan for a sprawling, naturalistic Franklin Park hadn’t included parking lots, which by the 1950s had become a problem for visitors.
The zoo kept expanding, but new exhibits (sea lions and rhinoceros and chimpanzees, oh my!) were placed far away from the bears, forcing visitors to walk long distances across the park in order to reach the furry beasts. The now-peripheral bear cages became less popular and fell into neglect.
“The whole zoo was run down after years of underfunding, vandalism, and neglected maintenance,” explained Browne, the zoo historian. The bear dens were no exception.
The public seemed to recognize that the Franklin Park Zoo had not lived up to its one-time potential. Media commentators no longer boasted about the zoo as a Boston destination. Instead, they wondered why it had fallen behind its counterparts in the Bronx, San Diego, Chicago, and St. Louis. (Those zoos were charging for admission, raking in money, and could afford to open flashy, kid-friendly new exhibits.)
In 1958 the Metropolitan District Commission, a state agency, assumed control of the zoo. The MDC wasted no time putting up fences and adding an admissions fee. Once the highlight of any visit to the zoo, the bear cages — too far away from the other exhibits, and too costly to maintain — were excluded from the fenced-in area.
But the cages weren’t torn down. Instead, they sat empty in the park for decades, an increasingly dilapidated monument to a bygone era.
Around them, time marched on. New management didn’t rescue the Franklin Park Zoo from its troubles; it continued to stagnate, and in 1984 made Parade magazine’s list of the 10 worst zoos in America. The MDC managed the zoo until 1991, when ownership passed to the private Commonwealth Zoological Corporation, which in 1997 changed its name to Zoo New England. Today, the company manages the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, as well as the Franklin Park Zoo.
“I know it’s not a great zoo yet,” John Linehan, president and CEO of Zoo New England, said of the Franklin Park Zoo in 2015.
More recently, Linehan told Boston.com that the two zoos “have grown tremendously in recent years,” collectively welcoming more than a million visitors last fiscal year for the second year running. Memberships are up. The Franklin Park Zoo got 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 2025.
“The zoo is more relevant and important to people than ever before,” Linehan said.
The bear cages, too, are poised to regain some relevance. Though they’ve fallen into disrepair, they remain a fixture of Franklin Park, where visitors still wander over to snap photos, skate, or just sit quietly (according to the cages’ recent Google reviews). But some neighbors and patrons of the park see unfulfilled potential — and safety hazards — in the cages’ current state.
That’s why the City of Boston — based on public feedback and input from its community partner the Franklin Park Coalition — has decided to invest about $800,000 in some overdue safety and accessibility updates to the bear cages in the near future, which will lay the groundwork for a longer-term, as-yet-undefined reimagining of the space.
Community members have suggested the old exhibit be converted into a children’s play area — with the pools repurposed as shallow splash pads — or an amphitheater, or an event space, explained Boston Parks Department project manager Lauren Bryant.
For the moment, though, the city is focused on bringing the bear dens area into compliance with the ADA (currently, the only access points are via the staircase or a circuitous, unpaved path around the back) and addressing immediate safety concerns by clearing away weeds and stabilizing what’s left of the cages.
Bryant and her colleague Amy Linne, also a project manager at Boston Parks, stressed that the city hasn’t been able to take on this project until now because Boston doesn’t currently own the bear cages, even though they’re located in a city park — the state does.
The city and state are in the process of transferring ownership of the cages, a complex process the project managers said must be completed before Boston Parks can do any construction work on the site.
Since Bryant started at Boston Parks 12 years ago, she’s always believed the bear dens have a lot of potential.
“For me personally,” she said, “I’m just really excited — and I know Boston Parks in general is really excited — about being able to see what this space becomes.”
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