The Commonwealth Avenue Mall stays bright every winter through community efforts


Lights have draped trees along Commonwealth Avenue Mall every winter. for 20 years. Matthew Sidman, current president of Committee to Light the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, continues Ted and Joan Cutler’s legacy to keep them on. Photo credit Harriet Rovniak.

Jennifer Suryadjaja, city editor

For over 20 years, the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, or the Mall, has been lit up every winter. But the bright lights have prompted a mix of opinions from the public, from charming to controversial. 

After art philanthropist Ted Cutler returned home about 20 years ago from a trip to Paris with his wife, Joan, they were inspired to wrap the trees along sidewalks with lights. Matthew Sidman, current president of Committee to Light the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, continues their legacy to keep the lights on after Ted and Joan Cutler passed away in 2017 and 2010 respectively. 

“They really deserve the credit for starting this whole process,” Sidman said.

Sidman once spoke with Cutler and discovered only a handful of people donated to support the annual project about 15 years ago. That was when Sidman stepped up to keep the Mall lit by reaching out to the community. 

“Through my thinking, I found out that it needed to be more of a community effort, but [Cutler and I weren’t] going to be around forever … and you need to create organizations and survive people,” Sidman said. 

Chairman of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall Committee — a joint committee of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and the Friends of the Public Garden — Margaret Pokorny said the committee sustains the Mall. This includes grass cutting, irrigation system check-ups, tree planting and preventing disease in the trees. 

When the lights went up 20 years ago, it caused mixed reactions among Back Bay residents. 

“A lot of neighbors who lived along Comm. Ave. did not want the lights. They thought it looked too commercial and it was inappropriate and would hurt the trees. One of the important things was that the trees were not damaged by the lights, which turned out not to be a problem,” Pokorny said. 

However, the consensus among Boston residents and visitors has changed for the better. 

“People do love it in the wintertime because it gets dark so early,” Pokorny said. “That’s when it’s really important to have the lights on the Mall for public safety, which is great, and also just so people can use the park more. In the last two years, all parks have gotten a tremendous increase in usage, so they were really appreciated this winter.”

Lynn Page Flaherty, vice president of advancement and external affairs at the Friends of the Public Garden, or the Friends, said her organization maintains Boston Common, the Public Garden and the Mall. 

“Here at the Friends, part of our business is to make sure these parks are welcoming and accessible to all,” Flaherty said. “We want people to use the parks, but it also means we have to really work hard to take care of them so that they’re in the condition that the city deserves.”

Pokorny said the cost to keep the Commonwealth Avenue Mall lights on averages to about $130,000 per year. But this past year in particular, the cost has jumped to almost $200,000 due to necessary upgrades to the underground infrastructure and electrical conduit system after two decades’ worth of wear and tear. 

“Now we’re using LED lights,” Pokorny said. “Every year, we have to buy new lights and the LEDs are more expensive, which is one of the reasons [the budget has] just gone up.”

Sidman said consistent donors have been supporting the lighting of the Mall, but it’s not enough to keep the lights on for future generations. Originally a group of about 20 donors, it has grown to 300 to 400 donors every year. Sidman’s yearly fundraising campaign starts at the end of October and runs through New Year’s. 

“It really should be even more than that because if you think about how many people live in the Back Bay, we should be even doing a better job of getting more people in the community to be involved,” Sidman said. “When people realize that it’s privately funded, they’re willing to step up because it’s almost their backyard.” 

The Mall is lit in the first week of December, when the Boston mayor attends the annual Boston Common Tree Lighting to kick off the holiday season. On the same day, the lights surrounding the Public Garden also turn on.

Electrical contractor John Lentine and his crew of certified electricians are the ones who manually assemble the wires and lights. Lentine’s work revolves around the lighting schedule, typically starting the project in early November, Pokorny said. 

Pokorny explained the 600 trees that decorate the Mall have to be pruned on a rotating basis and it is only possible without the presence of the lights. Hence, the lights cannot stay on all year round. After a winter full of lights, Lentine turns off the lights April 15 and removes the infrastructure, pending conducive weather.

“People are shocked when we tell them the lights are cut off and they’re not used again,” Pokorny said. “But there really isn’t any other way to safely get them off the trees because in most cases, the trees are already in leaf when they are taking them down.”

Lentine has been involved with sourcing the lights, putting them on the trees and taking them off. 

“[Lentine] makes the decision in terms of who his suppliers are and how fast he can get [the lights],” Pokorny said. “LEDs come in all kinds of different light quality, though I think he’s trying to make them look as much like the old lights as possible.”

New Hampshire-native Flaherty, who works for the Friends, grew up watching the Comm. Ave Mall lights glimmer on the trees against the historic brownstones. 

“We would come down and see the lights with my parents when I was a little girl. I thought it was magic and I honestly don’t feel any different now when I walk out of the office in the dark,” Flaherty said. 

Flaherty’s team at the Friends are currently completing a $5 million capital campaign to light all nine statues on the Mall. 

“Every statue has been restored and they’re all on a regular schedule of conservation maintenance,” Flaherty said. “[There is] a memorandum of understanding with the City that empowers us. It empowers us to be the ones who do clean it [and] invest in capital projects in the three parks as well.”

Future developments to extend the lights westward of Back Bay are underway, albeit complicated. Pokorny said the lights will feed off of electrical service on the block between Kenmore Street and Charlesgate West, where a new electrical system will be created.

For many who walk through the lights or drive past them, it’s a reminder to stay hopeful. 

“There’s something powerful about lights in the dark, there’s all sorts of ways it touches people,” Flaherty said.