An Almost Perfect Circle: Halcyon Lake

July 28, 2023

Visitors never fail to marvel at the tranquil beauty of Halcyon Lake. Over time, major design and preservation efforts, inspired by changing aesthetic tastes and practical needs, have shaped and protected the distinct character of one of Mount Auburn’s most iconic landscapes.

Detail of a topographic plan showing roads, paths, and a pond with three lobes.
Plan of Mount Auburn, Alexander Wadsworth, 1831.

Halcyon Lake was not always circular in shape. An 1831 map reveals that the Lake made up the eastern half of what was once called Garden Pond, a prominent, more expansive body of water in the northeastern corner of the original 72 acres of the Cemetery. The Pond, which consisted of three lobes, extended west from the present-day Coolidge Avenue all the way to Story Chapel and the Administration Building. Wooded areas bordered the south side of the Pond, and to the north, lay the Horticultural Society’s Experimental Garden, which by 1835 was no longer maintained by the Cemetery. Early guidebook illustrations depict the Pond surrounded with flowering plants and with a picturesque wooden bridge leading to a small island.  

Black and white print of a pond surrounded by trees with a bridge leading to an island in the center of the pond.
Garden Pond, Stranger’s Guidebook, 1839.

Annual Reports in the 1850s, however, began recording the presence of stagnant, muddy water in the western area of the Pond, and in 1855-1856, the Cemetery decided to fill in the western-most lobe.[1] Jacob Bigelow, Mount Auburn’s President at the time, outlined the renovation:

The westerly portion of Garden Pond, near Central Avenue, has justly been considered a blemish to Mount Auburn, on account of the stagnant condition of the water, and the muddiness of the banks and bottom. A contract has been made for filling up this pond with gravel from the neighboring hill, for the sum of $850. The earth will be raised to six and a half feet above the present surface of the water, by which operation the Corporation will gain more than an acre of valuable land in one of the most eligible parts of the Cemetery.[2]

Plan of Mount Auburn, Alexander Wadsworth, 1854.

While the Cemetery had laid out a significant number of burial lots in its first decades, by the 1850s, the area around Garden Pond had remained relatively undeveloped. As Bigelow remarked, filling in the western lobe would reclaim additional land for interment space. The Annual Report for the following year noted the area “constituting one of the most desirable parts of the Mount Auburn” was being surveyed and lots around it would be offered for sale.[3]

In 1862, the Trustees voted to further alter Garden Pond into a circular waterbody ornamented with granite edges and a gravel bottom. The Annual Report for 1864 announced: “A new avenue called Halcyon Avenue has been commenced on the easterly side of what has heretofore been called Garden Pond, and many lots have been sold and finished upon it. By a prospective plan . . . this avenue is to be continued around a circular water basin called Halcyon Lake.”[4] Another word for peaceful and calm, “Halcyon” became a popular name for other rural cemeteries modeled after Mount Auburn.

A series of maps document the evolution of the Pond as it was shaped into a circular body of water. In 1870, Ernest Bowditch, a civil engineer from the offices of Shedd & Sawyer, began to survey and lay out Halcyon Lake using a clothesline and stakes. [5] He remembered, “When I looked at the working drawing and realized Halcyon Lake was a perfect circle, I had a chill run down my spine.”[6] While the perfect circle was not entirely achieved, the Lake nonetheless became a pleasing rounded shape.

Four plans (1846, 1860, 1874, and 1990s) showing the evolution of the oblong shape of Garden Pond into the circular form of Halcyon Lake.
Four plans (1846, 1860, 1874, and 1990s) showing the evolution of the oblong shape of Garden Pond into the circular form of Halcyon Lake.

Further improvements to the Lake took place over several years in the 1870s. Like many of the distinct landscapes within Mount Auburn, the design of Halcyon Lake and its surrounding areas evolved from practical, as well as aesthetic, considerations. Trustees voted at a meeting in July 1875, for example, that the sale of nearby lots could be made with the stipulation that no fences or curbs would ever be placed around the lots.[7] By the 1870s, granite curbing around the edges of ponds in Mount Auburn fell out of favor and was substituted with graveled edges. The overall effect was a more open and unified picturesque landscape, which came to be populated with monuments that included mausoleums, columns, an altar, and an obelisk.

Black-and-white photograph of the shore of a lake with trees and plants, showing a white circular memorial with columns on the far side. The memorial is reflected in the water.
Halcyon Lake, Postcard, 1934.

Among the striking landmarks on the banks of Halcyon Lake is that of the Mary Baker Eddy Memorial. Mary Baker Eddy, discoverer and founder of the Church of Christ Scientist, had requested that “a beautiful burial lot” be secured for her at Mount Auburn.[8] When she died in 1910, a lot for her memorial was purchased at Halcyon Lake. From 1915 to 1917, a magnificent circular colonnade, complementing the shape of the Lake, was built from a design by architect Egerton Swartwout. In 1946, the Christian Science Church purchased a viewing lot across the Lake, designed by landscape architect Sidney Shurcliff with plantings and granite steps that offered striking views of the Memorial.

In 1915, part of the Lake was filled in and in 1918, a fountain was installed for a short time as a picturesque feature as well as to help to clear the water. In 1998, the extensive rehabilitation of the areas near the Lake by Reed-Hilderbrand landscape architects included new plantings and the removal of damaged trees and invasive shrubs to improve water quality and habitat diversity and reinforce visual and spatial connections between the Lake and its surroundings. In 1999, Halcyon Lake was dredged, and in 2000, aeration pumps were installed for better water quality.

Black-and-white photograph of a cemetery landscape with memorials. large trees, and plantings around a lake.
Halcyon Lake in Spring, Alan Ward, c. 1970-1980s.

The area surrounding Halcyon Lake today reflects a landscape style that is less naturalistic, or rural, than Mount Auburn’s early design which according to historian Shary Page Berg “was largely in the picturesque style, where darkness, intricacy and complexity were valued.” Berg notes, “By the late nineteenth century the landscape of Mount Auburn had evolved into the gardenesque style. . . . At Mount Auburn, this period was characterized by large areas of grass with occasional trees, accented by beds of annuals and other exotic species selected.”[9] Among the diverse species of magnificent deciduous trees and flowering shrubs that frame the Lake are Sawara Falsecypress, Purple European Beech, Smoothleaf Elm, Golden Weeping Willow, Slender Deutzia, and Ginkgo. Meg Winslow, Curator of Historical Collections & Archives, adds, “The design emphasis was on the natural beauty and shape of individual plants and a mature tree canopy with no dense understory, which allowed for open views of the water, trees, and monuments.”

Through all seasons, visitors discover enchanting vistas that have been created and preserved over the years through the thoughtful balance of art and nature surrounding and reflected in the circular lake. The word Halcyon (calmness and serenity) and Halcyon Days (idyllic times of the past) come to mind from the feelings evoked by this ethereal Mount Auburn landscape. 

Color photograph of a lake in spring with flowering plants and tree branches in the foreground and large trees, smaller flowering trees, and monuments on the far side of the lake.
Halcyon Lake, Melissa Banta, May 2015.

[1] In 1860s, the completion of a drain connecting Garden Pond to Auburn Lake (then Meadow Pond) helped with drainage issues as well.

[2] Jacob Bigelow, A History of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn. Boston and Cambridge: James Munroe and Company, 1859, 91.

[3] Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn. Boston: J. H Eastburn’s Press, January 1859, 5.

[4] Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cemetery of Mount Auburn. January 1865, 3.

[5] Ernest Bowditch, Diary and explanation of survey of Halcyon Lake, Historical Collections & Archives, Mount Auburn Cemetery.

[6] Personal Reminiscences, vol. 1, Ernest Bowditch Papers, Essex Institute in Kevin D. Murphy, “Ernest W. Bowditch and the Practice of Landscape Architecture.” Essex Institute Historical Collections, vol. 125, no. 2, 1989, 165.

[7] Mount Auburn Trustee Minutes, July 19, 1875.

[8] Document LO6475. Collection of the Church History Department, The First Church of Christ, Scientist.

[9] Shary Page Berg, Mount Auburn Cemetery Master Plan 1993, Vol. II, 35.

About the Author: Melissa Banta

Consulting Curator, Historical Collections & Archives View all posts by Melissa Banta →

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