Theater/Performance Art

Allston’s Publick Theatre: Where it went and why it must return

Down by the water in Allston lies the largest section of open parkland in the Charles River Basin.

Christian A. Herter Park, named after the 53rd Secretary of State and 59th Massachusetts Governor, is Allston’s own esplanade. Maintained by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), it is used by residents every day whether it be for recreation or to simply enjoy the oasis-like patch of land bordered by industrial and commercial businesses, a crosstown parkway, and the Charles River.

It’s a hidden gem.

With monstrous construction projects reshaping foot traffic and transit use in the area, many residents and tourists may soon learn of a dilapidated piece of Herter Park — an amphitheater which once housed the Publick Theater, and before it, an even more ambitious project riddled with corruption. But during the past four years has seen absolutely nothing except the occasional loiterer.

The theater lies just east of the parking lot, through a pathway clearly labeled “Publick Theater.” A bridge leads over the moat where small lights illuminate a path leading the way to the top of the island’s hill, where a jogger could have once peered down past the crowd and seen part of a performance.

Today, the spot is falling apart, with deconstruction of a past structure leaving un-level planks and holes in the stage. The wooden benches on both sides of the seating area have rusted bolts and torn-off planks. The lighting setups on both sides are ransacked, with the wooden poles themselves leaning over at dangerous angles. It is simply there, through every season, untouched and unused.

The space itself isn’t just the amphitheater either -- Herter Center is a 2,520 sq. ft. modernist building in the middle of the park that also has great potential, but as of now it is underutilized. The only use of the building in recent times has been to house the archives of The Sports Museum.
The Allston of today needs a space where the public can put on performances without having to go through a confusing and redundant permitting process, without having to sell a number of tickets only to have to pay-to-play if a certain mark is not met, and a legal alternative to basement shows. It needs a place where local talent can shine, whether it be youth groups, rock bands, or theater performances. With the increased foot traffic from Harvard and New Balance’s projects, a revitalization of Herter Parks cultural history is imperative.

When the Charles River Speedway closed in the 1950s, the roads were turned into Soldiers Field Road and a grand plan for the riverbed area was unveiled. The Metropolitan Boston Arts Center (MeBAC) would be the country’s first public-private artspace and theater. Funded largely by the Metropolitan District Commission (what is known today as DCR) the complex planned to include a boat dock, restaurant, galleries, and a large 1800-seat theater with a nylon bubble-tent roof. At one point, it was a top candidate for the new Boston Opera House, but a study crossed it off the list after traffic and public transportation support just wasn’t there.

From the beginning of the planning process it became apparent that only one group, the Cambridge Drama Festival, would be allowed to use the theater, despite the efforts of other groups such as Group 20 of Wellesley. Politics made the theater project bittersweet in the eyes of many of the city’s artists.
The building that was completed, today’s Herter Center, would become the on and off home to the Institute of Contemporary Art until the permanent move back into the city less than three years later. Still, according to Nelson Aldrich, former Trustee of the Metropolitan Boston Arts Center, in an interview in the Archives of American Art, the ICA did much better than the theater.

“I became very good friend with Charlie Greenhill, who was the MDC commissioner,” said Aldrich. “And he was just marvelously helpful. He saw this as being a really superb thing to do. And of course, our idea, as far as the theater was concerned, was, this is an incredibly inexpensive way of getting a theater built. And it was extremely successful, with one exception. And that was that the balloon roof had to be taken down in the fall and put up again in the spring. And it just couldn't stand the treatment. And it became pretty obvious that it would going to be very expensive to replace that balloon every three or four years.”

Sometime in the planning process, Commissioner Greenhill would be replaced by Commissioner Maloney, who would oversee MeBAC.

When the day did come for it to open, there was a huge celebration. Boats made their way down the Charles River docking at the park, with photos of socialites on the pages of the Globe the next morning. But the celebration didn’t last long. In fact, Globe writer Cyrus Durgin, who had the MeBAC beat, once noted that he still thought that it was too good to be true. He wasn’t far off.
Because of the nylon tent, it was estimated that to get the theater ready for each season it would cost $50,000. According to a Sept. 16 1960 article in the Globe, “Contractors doing business with the MDC were advised to do their insurance and bond business with a firm in which MDC Commissioner John E. Maloney holds a substantial interest, Senate probers were told yesterday.” In other words, contractors were charged double on the project, and before too long investigators figured out Comm. Maloney was using the project as a get-rich-quick scheme.

“The artistic history of the Arts Center Theater has not been encouraging,” wrote Durgin in another article. “There have been ups, but more downs. The financial history, taken Summer by Summer, has been disastrous, one of the consistent losses.”

What was supposed to be a $250,000 project would end up over $1 million before MDC cut the funding and the theater stood for a couple years while its fate was debated.

“In addition to being a political tinder box, the Metropolitan Boston Arts Center on Soldiers Field Road has become, quite literally, a fire trap,” wrote Kevin Kelly in an early 1964 Globe article.  “On May 28 a $25,000 blaze raged through the rusting steel frame and destroyed the stage, 1800 wooden folding chairs, some props and fixtures.”
Allow it to die (Jan 28, 1965, Boston Globe):

“To the Editor -- The Metropolitan Boston Arts Center, an un-natural creation, should be allowed to die a natural death. In Consolation, we should accept with pride the fact that there are not yet sufficient of our citizens foolish enough to support a “cultural complex” divorced from public transportation, devoid of surrounding restaurants, stores and clubs, remote from where people live and work -- in short, disastrously isolated from the active city to which it belongs. Robert Kramer, Brookline.”

The dream for an arts and culture center on the bank of the Charles River was dead for about a decade.

“Vandals, fire and erosion had left little but a cracked asphalt pavement on the moated island in the Charles where the MEBAC tent had stood,” wrote Christina Robb in a July 1978 Globe article about a group that called themselves the Publick Theater. They started their productions on a farm wagon and eventually MDC donated enough money and time to build a “28-foot Elizabethean platform stage,” spending $155,000 in ‘78 on new lighting setups and seating for 375.
The Publick Theater has a legacy that was as far away from MeBAC’s as possible. It was one of great performances under the evening skies, one that will be in the memories of attendees and members for life.

“It was fabulous,” said Diego Arciniegas, former Artistic Director of the Publick Theater.  “On perfect summer nights it was amazing, on rainy summer nights it was hell. All the ups and downs of outdoor theater.”

The Publick Theater group spent its summer seasons in the amphitheater for close to 38 years before moving to the Boston Center for the Arts. In the last year of use, the Orfeo Group put on a few performances that didn’t require much electricity or light, as the amphitheater’s system was once again too expensive to upkeep.

And now once again, the land is underutilized when there is a cultural need.
“The Charles River Conservancy is a guardian of that area and they're trying to preserve the natural beauty,” said Arciniegas, who added that whoever has plans for the space “has got to be keeping in mind the balance between the natural and the value of the real estate/commercial purposes. It's a really interesting intersection. It's not just a theater, it's a park. There are running trails and people can go out into the water; truly an amazing place.”

But The Charles River Conservancy is asking for help from the city to get things moving towards the revitalization of the area. The same problem that the Boston Opera group found back in 1950 in the accessibility of the area is still something that needs to be addressed now if this piece of land is to be inviting.
A letter written by Jessica Parsons, Director of Projects for the Charles River Conservancy, to the Boston Mayoral Transition Team in January asked for help with the much-needed upkeeping of the grounds as well as the rehabilitation and construction of several bridges which would make accessibility easier. She wrote that DCR is “a state agency whose budget has decreased by 20 percent in the last five years,” and that it is “simply too strapped for resources to keep up with the maintenance needs of the urban parks and parkways in Boston.” As an example of a successful effort, Parsons cited Magazine Beach in Cambridge, which has recently seen a public/public partnership between the city and DCR to make the area attractive for use.

According to a year-old study by DCR titled “Charles River Basin Pedestrian and Bicycle Study for Pathways and Bridges,” there are plans which would turn the entrance to the park, located across from WBZ studios on Soldiers Field Road, into an “entry node to the river with art, seating, lighting, landscape elements and small plaza features.” The study also proposed crosswalks at the end of Everett Street to make it easier for foot traffic from Boston Landing, Harvard’s Expansion, and the new Allston-Brighton Commuter Rail stop to flow into the park.

However there are still only traffic signals, not crosswalk signals. The current overpass one block to the west is an unattractive and remote bridge, which needs to be replaced and supplemented by other crosswalks in the area. Public space can only be great if the urban planning leads people there, and with the ideas proposed of a small art plaza, it seems like the idea of having a true cultural center on the Charles River could be in the future still.

Even with the updates to the park’s entrance, there is still an underutilized amphitheater and building. According to a statement, DCR, “has received interest in the space from a number of groups. The agency is looking into how best to proceed balancing agency needs and the best use of the space.”
Now is the time for Allston’s artists and community groups to partner with DCR to use the amphitheater and Herter Center as a place of natural cultural expression, located in a natural reservation.

The Herter Center building can be reutilized in the same fashion old warehouses in Providence became the cultural-center of AS220. For those unfamiliar, AS220 was started by a group of community members and today boasts galleries, performance spaces, artist studios, youth programs, and fundraisers to help the area. What were once in bad condition are today beautiful buildings. Zumix, located in East Boston, provides similar programming. Herter Center and the Publick Theater are the perfect spot for a partnership with community arts groups in hopes of building such a space.

Filmmakers young and old can have a place to screen their work without having to lease out expensive theaters. Those commuting by bike or just jogging by can hear a genre of music or see a performance that could pique their curiosity. Kids from the area’s schools could come and take free classes put on by the city’s art students or graduates. A shared, positive space would form bonds in the community between the younger crowd, the long-time residents, and their children. The grounds are there, the execution just needs to happen.
In fact, a Massachusetts Cultural Council press release last month states that “Young people learning through the arts, humanities, and sciences develop personal, social, and intellectual skills and capacities that are important for healthy growth and success in life, school, and work. They also use these disciplines as means to understand and change the world around them, to connect to the human experience, and develop and express their sense of identity.”

It is only natural that a public cultural center in Allston be put in place. Volunteers do a lot of work in the community for organizations such as ArtsBoston and Boston Hassle, but there is no home for these types of integral groups to expand.

Perhaps when the city hires a new cabinet-level Arts and Cultural Affairs Commissioner, she or he will have an idea on how to jumpstart the process. Allston is a neighborhood with distinct groups that can only stand to learn more about each other. What better way than creating our future together?

[photo credit: Ethan Long and Globe archives]