The return of George Wright and the ghost of Olmsted

  • George Wright
    Mungeam Golf Design

    Mark Mungeam is restoring George Wright Golf Course in Hyde Park, Massachusetts

  • George Wright
    Mungeam Golf Design

    The Donald Ross layout is now ranked by Golf Digest as the number three public golf course in the country

  • George Wright
    Mungeam Golf Design

    The project at George Wright has been in response to the popularity of the parks and renewed interest in public golf

  • George Wright
    City of Boston Collections

    Mungeam has worked at William J. Devine Golf Course at Franklin Park since 2003, pictured is Franklin Park in 1903

  • George Wright
    Mungeam Golf Design

    The restored seventeenth hole at William Devine

Mark Wagner
By Mark Wagner

George Wright Golf Course in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, which was built by the Public Works Administration between 1933 and 1938 during The New Deal, recently caught my eye in being ranked by Golf Digest as the number three public golf course in the country.

The locals will tell you there were dark years, when the course was a nearly abandoned dirt patch and out of bounds stakes were used as pins, but if you were dropped into George Wright today, you’d be returning to a leafy, original, parkland nature course, and some challenging golf.

The recent accolades for George Wright are also testament to the restoration design put in by Mark Mungeam, the chief landscape architect in the restoration of the William J. Devine Golf Course at Franklin Park, also in Massachusetts. “To be working on such historic sites, a Ross original design [George Wright], a Frederick Law Olmsted conceived and designed park, and the second oldest public golf course in the country [William Devine], it gives me goosebumps,” says Mungeam. “I feel honoured and proud to work on such historic sites.”

George Wright was designed by famed architect Donald Ross as a private enterprise. When the stock market crashed in 1929, developers backed away. Mungeam points out that, by stroke of luck, one of Ross’s engineers, James McGovern, had hired on as a superintendent with the city of Boston and, given the stimuli of the New Deal, McGovern and the city revived the project. The Public Works Administration assigned as many as 1,000 men (with dynamite) to cut Ross’s design out of the ledges of Bearberry Hill and the wetlands of Stony Brook. According to the Boston Globe, at its opening in April 1938, a Works Progress Administration Band played ‘Annie Laurie’ as Mayor Tobin launched the first ball down the first fairway, parallel to Poplar Street.

Mungeam has been at work on George Wright and William Devine since 2003. Currently at work on what can only be described as a work of landscape art, in redesigning the sixth tee at George Wright in Hyde Park, Mungeam suggests: “If you don’t have a connection to the past, without connecting to the past, you can’t do this. When I think about Olmsted and what he brought to the city of Boston, I work with a sense of apprehension, to not screw it up.”

What does this past bring to us in the present?

It’s fitting that the last jewel in Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, the Boston Common, has been used to illustrate the idea of the tragedy of the commons. Established in 1634, ‘The Common Land’, as it was known, was first used as a pasture, but it soon became apparent that the resource would be depleted if everyone let cattle and sheep graze there. Pasturing your animals was outlawed, and the colonists planted trees and established the garden.

And it’s fitting that the city’s leadership has been uneven in the care for Olmsted’s masterpiece. There were dark days for the William Devine course at Franklin Park as well as George Wright.

Louis Elisa is part of a concerned group of local citizens who founded the Franklin Park Coalition in 1978.  At that time, Elisa recalls, the city had largely abandoned the park and the back nine of the golf course became a no-go zone. Elisa recalls: “The front nine was kept open by folks with their own lawnmowers, carrying buckets of water out to keep the greens alive.”

Elisa, who served in the Clinton administration as the US representative to NATO, and in the Patrick administration as secretary of the seaport advisory council, remembers – in addition to the decades long work of Mark Mungeam – certain local legends. “Frank Williams, George Lyons and Ira Cooper kept up with it,” he says. “Dedicated and committed. Even after we founded The Coalition. It took the city a long time to come around to restore the park. The coalition raised money from banks and insurance companies and did what the city refused to do.”

Mungeam also makes note that dedicated and local individuals are key to the decision making that has led to the parks’ revival, to the point that they create revenue and draw folks from all around the country. “Two guys in particular, that, like me, are very conscientious of what they are there for – Len Curtin of George Wright and Russell Heller of Franklin Park. They have been a delight to work with and share similar goals; to be respectful to what Olmsted wanted, big meadows and big open spaces.”

With the resurgent interest in golf during the pandemic, as outside recreation becomes one of the ways in which we socialise and avoid a deadly infection, for the second year in a row the city has had to dial back memberships. George Wright hosts 30,000 people a year, folks called to our public parks that embody what Olmsted called, “the self-preserving instinct of civilisation”. Mungeam notes that Donald Ross could not have anticipated this volume of golfers. His redesign and restoration work is, in part, a response to the popularity of the parks and renewed interest in public golf.

With the George Wright and William Devine, under the committed eyes of Mungeam and local advocates, again being counted among the nation’s finest public golf courses, we are reminded of something Olmsted said in designing Central Park, one of the more than 1,000 public parks he and his firm completed: “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future.”

Walking the resurgent green fairways of George Wright, both the past and future call to us from out of our very complex present.

Mark Wagner is a golf historian based in Boston and has written about golf for Northeast Golf, The Worcester Telegram and Gazette, and The Boston Globe