Big ideas, but no funds, for decaying Bear Dens

The century-old Bear Dens in Franklin Park, abandoned since the 1970s, will continue to fall prey to decay and theft for the foreseeable future. There are no public or private plans to renovate them, and it is unclear who even owns them, the Gazette has found.

The Bear Dens also have no special historic protection and are currently considered “architectural ruins” by the City.

“I’ve watched the hardscape decline in the last decade and worry that we will lose the beautiful stonework,” said Christine Poff, executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition (FPC), a group that organizes park volunteers and programs.

The ornate metal-and-stone cages formerly housing Franklin Park Zoo bears stand near Seaver Street. The site includes a stone staircase sweeping up to the exhibit cages, and walls decorated with bear images, including a City of Boston seal held aloft by two upright bears. As the Gazette previously revealed, the iron bars are collapsing or being stolen, and the stonework is covered with graffiti.

The Parks Department issued “General Plans” for Franklin Park in 1980 and 1990 that included ideas for an interpretive area, a stop on a nature trail, a playground or a snack bar for the Bear Dens.

But, according to City Parks and Recreation spokesperson Jacquelyn Goddard, the City has never had an active plan to renovate or maintain the Bear Dens.

“The area was not needed for any other purpose and there was never any additional money to do anything with them,” she told the Gazette last week. Park security “just did what they could to patrol the area and to make sure the area wasn’t used by vagrants or transients or locals doing any criminal activity.”

Poff said the FPC “would love to figure out a plan for the Bear Dens, but [we] don’t have capacity right now to raise that kind of money.”

“It is hard for a small nonprofit like us to take on such a big capital restoration. It would really need to be a public-private partnership,” she said.

The FPC frequently has volunteer groups in the Bear Dens area, working to keep the area clean and clear of debris and weeds. FPC frequently asks for the volunteers’ “dreams or ideas for the site,” Poff said, noting the most common are a “theater or arts space, a café, and a restored landscape feature with the masonry repaired and the weeds managed.”

Poff also said that she personally “would love to see the Bear frieze restored and the masonry repaired and repointed.”

‘Architectural ruins’

Currently, the Bear Dens do not have any historic protection beyond that which is applied to the whole park, Goddard said.

“We consider them architectural ruins that are part of Franklin Park,” she said.

Another famous JP ruin was the Pinebank mansion, located on the Pinebank site overlooking Jamaica Pond. After being acquired by the City in 1892 and serving as home to the Boston’s Children’s Museum and the engineering department of the Boston Parks Commission, it was abandoned following fires in 1976 and 1978.

The mansion, even while part of the National Register of Historic Places, was allowed to molder until it was condemned in 2006 and finally demolished in 2007. A new greenspace with a memorial to the building now occupies the spot, which has become a popular site for concerts and other park programming.

At the Bear Dens, graffiti on the dens’ walls and theft of the iron bars for scrap haven’t gotten worse lately, Goddard said. The last report of stolen metal was in October.

“We don’t believe there’s been theft of any items since then,” she said.

Ownership mystery

Part of the problem is that there is conflicting information on who actually owns the Bear Dens. Originally, the Bear Dens held Franklin Park Zoo’s first exhibit: bears brought from Germany and Yellowstone National Park. The exhibit opened in 1912 to crowds of 10,000 people.

But because the zoo wasn’t owned by the City when the area was abandoned, jurisdiction over it became “fuzzy,” Goddard said.

The Parks Department currently has a verbal agreement with the state and the zoo to police the area, Goddard said, but “until someone wants to do capital work, there’s no reason to get lawyers involved over jurisdiction.”

A Gazette call to Franklin Park Zoo’s spokesperson, Erin DeVito, was not returned by press time.

According to former FPC director Richard Heath, former Gov. Christian Herter signed a bill that transferred the Franklin Park Zoo to the Metropolitan District Commission, the precursor to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), in 1957.

“This legislation only stipulated ‘care, custody and maintenance’,” he said. “The boundaries were not set. There was no land transfer…In over one half-century, no mayor has ever taken steps to determine the boundaries of Franklin Park under City of Boston jurisdiction or signed memorandums of agreement stipulating areas of management responsibility.”

Funding challenge

The Parks Department has had financial challenges in the last 10 years, Goddard said, and it has focused on “improving with capital funds those structures that the most people would get the most use out of.”

JP has seen public-private partnerships aid the parks system on such issues as retaining horse-riding Park Rangers.

In 2007, another such partnership was formed to restore part of a collapsed stone wall on the Arborway near Kelley Circle, between Orchard Street and Dunster Road. The Arborway is a historic parkway maintained by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The community, led by Arborway resident Sarah Freeman, raised half of the $30,000 required. The other half was matched by the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs’ Office of Public Private Partnerships.

“From the perspective of a friends group, DCR has a great number of deferred maintenance projects. Public safety trumps everything, so this wall might not [have been] very high on their priority list statewide, but for our neighborhood, it was highly visible, and we did not want to sit back and watch it crumble,” she told the Gazette last week.

The matching funds program is a way for DCR to get more done by attracting private support, she added. The projects must be something that DCR and the public have agreed on.

Heath said has faith that the FPC and Mayor Martin Walsh’s new administration can do right by the park and the Bear Dens.

“In my time as director, the FPC raised and leveraged $900,000 for park capital improvements and supervised seven years of paid summer work crews with an annual budget of $25,000. That was because the city had an inspired and superb park commissioner, Bob McCoy,” he said. “It can happen again under Mayor Walsh.”

For more about the Bear Dens and Franklin Park, see

The staircase of the Bear Dens in Franklin Park. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)

The staircase of the Bear Dens in Franklin Park. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)

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