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The Case Of The Hatch Shell's Missing Letters

The Edward A. Hatch Memorial Shell
Edgar B Herwick III/WGBH News

Listener questions are the lifeblood of The Curiosity Desk, and our latest comes courtesy of Eric Kolman from Stoughton, Mass., just in time for the kickoff of the spring and summer outdoor concert season.

"I've enjoyed a number of concerts and events at the Hatch Shell. When I'm fortunate enough to sit up close, I notice the names of the great composers. But there's a problem. Many of them have letters missing. It's been that way for years. So I'm curious as to who's responsible for maintaining the Shell and could it be repaired?"

As Kolman suggests, at the front of the Hatch Shell stage, along the stone base in front of the stage, are the last names of some two-dozen great composers, in custom-made bronze lettering.

Composer names on the front of the Hatch Shell
Edgar B Herwick III/WGBH News

A quick trip to the Hatch Shell revealed that Kolman was right. There are more than a handful of composers whose names are indeed missing letters, including Bach (BA H), Beethoven (BEE HOVEN) and Handel (HAND L).

Edgar B Herwick III/WGBH News

It's like a beautiful smile that is missing a few teeth. 

Upkeep, maintenance and management of the Hatch Shell, as well as the surrounding Esplanade, falls to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

My first thought was that the missing letters could simply be the result of a tight budget, and I reached out to DCR to find out if that was the case. As it turns out, DCR has been far from shy about allocating funds to keep the high-profile Hatch Shell in peak condition.

According to DCR spokesperson Troy Wall, between recent and ongoing projects, the department has invested more than a million dollars in upkeep and improvement of the area. That includes new sod and an upgraded irrigation system to keep the grass vibrant and green; new teak wood flooring for the Hatch Shell stage; and a full replacement of the iconic Hatch Shell roof that will begin in earnest in the fall of this year. 

But Kolman says that letters have been missing for years. Why spend a million-plus dollars on things like irrigation and the stage floor, but not replace missing letters that are so visible at the front of the iconic venue? 

As it turns out, it's not that the letters haven't been replaced for years, it's that they have to be continuously replaced, over the years, thanks to wear and tear – and vandals. 

"It's a problem that seems to ebb and flow," said Nick Gove, deputy commissioner for operations and recreation at DCR. "We've gone periods of years without them being touched. And then, unfortunately, sometimes we go months with multiple letters going missing."

Since the entire roster of custom-made bronze letters was replaced in 1990, missing and damaged letters have again had to be replaced in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2014. As for the current missing letters, Gove expects that by the time Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture blares out into the summer night on July 4, all will be made whole.

"They're unique and it takes a little bit of time to order the replacements and get them properly installed," said Gove. "We're hoping for later this spring and certainly by the Fourth of July."

As for whether something more systematic could be done to stem this ongoing problem, Gove says not really – short of installing fencing or something equally restrictive. Doing so, he said, would defeat the purpose of a free space that is open to all. But he does have a message for those who may be tempted to grab a letter for themselves.

"We ask that people just respect their open space areas," said Gove. "The Hatch Shell, in particular, is one of the city's more unique and historic venues, and we just ask people to respect that."

Our thanks to Eric Kolman for his question that led to this story. If there is something you have been itching to know more about, email The Curiosity Desk.


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