The Back Bay is one of the largest and best-preserved examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture in the United States. Architecturally-comparable neighborhoods include Brooklyn Heights, Crown Heights, and Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City.
When Boston expanded the Shawmut Peninsula in the 1800s, over 430 acres of marshland were infilled, and the reclaimed land was developed as a planned neighborhood. The original dam is under Beacon Street. The Back Bay quickly supplanted Beacon Hill as the city's most desirable residential quarter. It remains so today (although the new Seaport District is kind of the 2000s version of what the Back Bay was in its day - a luxury neighborhood developed from the ground up). Residents can walk to the lively restaurants and bars on Newbury and Boylston streets, or to the quieter private clubs like the Algonquin or the Harvard Club.
Over the years, the Back Bay has been home to a number of significant artists, writers, and philosophers including Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Santayana (Editor's note: Not 'Santana' as our analyst had originally written), John Singer Sargent, and William Morris Hunt.
Parkland. The Back Bay is anchored by the Public Gardens and Boston Common, as well as the Charles River Esplanade. However, the esplanade has been significantly changed over the years, including by the construction of usually-gridlocked Storrow Drive – rather unfortunately named for philanthropist Helen Storrow (1864-1944), whose gift of land to the city actually prohibited any road being put through the park. On the neighborhood's southern edge, the Back Bay Fens is part of Boston's Emerald Necklace designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
The core of the Back Bay consists of five avenues, three of which (Beacon Street, Commonwealth Avenue, and Marlborough Street) are almost entirely residential, and two of which (Boylston and Newbury streets) are a lively mix of dining, shopping and residential. The cross streets (Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, and Hereford) are alphabetical – one of the rare instances where Boston's street design makes sense to anyone not born here.
Significant architectural heritage. The neighborhood represents the work of some of the most prominent artists working in the late 1800s, including Richard Morris Hunt; McKim, Mead, and White; Peabody and Stearns; and H.H. Richardson. In addition to the residential buildings, two of the neighborhood's cultural landmarks – Trinity Church (1872) and the Boston Public Library (1895) – are considered to be two of the most influential buildings erected in the United States after the Civil War, and each is credited with having changed the course of American architectural taste.
Eclectic architecture. While working within strict guidelines for massing and height when the neighborhood was developed, the individual buildings represent a range of Victorian architectural styles including Adams Revival, Beaux Arts, Georgian Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne. The buildings, particularly the exteriors, are protected by the oversight of the Back Bay Architectural Commission.
Built on reclaimed marshland. The Back Bay was built on, rather than next to, the eponymous bay. It is one of several Boston neighborhoods built on infilled land. As a result, the buildings were constructed on a series of wood pilings – basically tree trunks that were rammed into the ground. While these wooden pilings can remain solid when they are fully-submerged in water, rot can set in when the groundwater levels drop. If not caught early and addressed with water pumps to keep the pilings submerged, there can be structural damage to the buildings.
Considerable luxury new development. As of November 2017, prices in the Back Bay are just behind those in Seaport District and just above those in Beacon Hill. This is largely driven by new developments, and the Seaport is Boston's most expensive neighborhood on a per-square-foot basis because all of the housing there is higher end condominiums. By contrast, historic neighborhoods have a mix of housing types, and in different condition, which can make the average price a bit lower.
Sunny side vs. water side of the streets. The most desirable addresses in the Back Bay are the sunny side (odd-numbered addresses) of Commonwealth Avenue and Marlborough Street, and the water side (the even-numbered buildings) of Beacon Street , with views of the Charles River and the Esplanade. "Certainly, however, few ever questioned the prestige of living on the 'wrong' sides of Commonwealth, Beacon, or Marlborough." – Gerald Gamm, The Making of New Deal Democrats.
Taj Boston (15 Arlington St.) was built in 1927 as the Ritz-Carlton, and was the longest-running such hotel until it was sold in 2007. Over the years, it has hosted Winston Churchill, Eugene O'Neill, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Frank Sinatra. Tennessee Williams revised A Streetcar Named Desire here, and Rodgers and Hammerstein reportedly wrote the lyrics to “Edelweiss,” for The Sound of Music.
Commonwealth Avenue was modeled after the Parisian boulevards designed by Baron Haussmann in Paris between 1853 and 1870. When Arthur Gilman developed the master plan for the Back Bay, Commonwealth Avenue was 200 feet wide, with a planted center 'mall' that would be lined with trees and plantings.
Martin Luther King residence. (170 St. Botolph St.) He lived here for his first semester in graduate school at Boston University's divinity program. According to the New England Historical Society, Martin Luther King considered Boston his second home: "He was the son of a well-to-do Atlanta minister. During his three years at Boston University, Boston to him was a genteel city of concerts and teas, sermons and classes, tailored suits and highbrow discussions about Gandhi and Spinoza. He owned his own Chevrolet, wore tailored suits and consulted renowned philosophers Paul Tillich and Reinold Neibuhr for advice about his dissertation." At Boston University he was influenced by his advisor, theologian Howard Thurman, the first black dean of a predominately white university. Thurman, who had visited Mohandas Gandhi in India, educated his young student in the mahatma’s philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience.
122 Beacon St. is the former residence of Al Capp (1909-1979), the cartoonist behind Li'l Abner. His artistic legacy is overshadowed by his complex and contradictory personal life. On one hand, he invented Sadie Hawkins Day, when women ask men on a date. On the other hand, there are also many accounts of him being a sexual predator. And he later resigned the National Cartoonist Society when they wouldn't admit a female member.
Isabella Stewart Gardner House (150-152 Beacon St.). Former residence of philanthropist and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924) while she was building the Gardner Museum nearby. While living here, she displayed her art collection here, and held regular salons of leading literary and artistic figures.
151 Beacon St. former residence of Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike (1932-2009).
177 Beacon St.. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
185 Beacon St.. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
191 Beacon St.. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
193 Beacon St.. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
195 Beacon St.. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
240 Beacon St.. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
241 Beacon St. former residence of Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) who wrote the lyrics to Battle Hymn of the Republic. She was an active abolitionist and suffragist. She was a descendant of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, and her brother Sam married Emily Astor, the granddaughter of John Jacob Astor.
254 Beacon St.. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
256 Beacon St.. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
258 Beacon St.. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
260 Beacon St.. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
334 Beacon St. was remodeled by architect Ralph Adams Cram of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson.
233 Clarendon St. was designed by noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson.
Amy Beach House (28 Commonwealth Ave.). Former residence of Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944), one of the most eminent American composers. When her Mass in E flat major was performed by the Handel and Haydn Society in 1892, it was the first work performed by a woman, for that society, and she did the same for the New York Symphony Orchestra the same year.
62 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
64 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
66 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by noted architects Peabody & Stearns.
100-110 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson.
181 Commonwealth Ave. was remodeled by architect Ralph Adams Cram of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson.
199 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by noted architects McKim, Mead, and White.
217 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by noted architects McKim, Mead, and White.
257 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by noted architects McKim, Mead, and White.
303 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by noted architects McKim, Mead, and White.
413 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by noted architects McKim, Mead, and White.
415 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by noted architects McKim, Mead, and White.
464 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by Blackall, Clapp, and Whittemore. Clarence Blackall designed several notable theaters, including the Metropolitan (now the Wang Theater).
490 Commonwealth Ave. was designed by Blackall, Clapp, and Whittemore.
32 Hereford St. was designed by noted architects McKim, Mead, and White.
164 Marlborough St. was designed by noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson.
35 Newbury St. former residence of poet Margaret Deland (1857-1945).
Newbury Street. Until the infilling of the mid-1800s, the two-mile long stretch of Newbury Street was once part of Boston Harbor. It was originally a residential neighborhood, but it became more viable for commercial ventures, as the proximity to the noise and pollution of the railroad made it less desirable residentially than the avenues further north. Today, Newbury Street has an architectural character that is like few other retail corridors – it is an elegant visual mix of former rowhouses and stables adapted to commercial and retail uses, as well as some buildings purpose built for these uses. The first retail shop opened in 1905 – much later than Boylston Street – and gradually extended from the bottom of the street to the top, at Massachusetts Avenue. Today, it is one of the city's tourist destinations as well as a lively mix of dining and shopping.
Boylston Street. Commercial development began on Boylston Street around 1880 and on Newbury Street in the early 20th century. However, while the zoning on Boylston Street resulted in larger buildings, it lacks the charm and human scale of Newbury Street.
Strong university presence, including the Berklee College of Music, Boston Conservatory, Boston Architectural College, and the New England College of Optometry. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away on Beacon Hill are Emerson College and Suffolk University.
The Back Bay is well served by transit, with five stops on the Green Line (including Arlington and Hynes Convention Center), two stops on the Orange Line, and two Commuter Rail stops.
The Back Bay is on the Shawmut peninsula, with the Charles River to the north (and opposite the /Area 2 district of Cambridge), the South End to the south, Fenway-Kenmore to the west, and Beacon Hill to the northeast, and Bay Village and the Theatre District to the southeast.
The neighborhood's name hints that it was built upon – not next to – an actual bay. Indeed, the Back Bay project was one of the largest land reclamation efforts ever undertaken in America. During the late 1800s, approximately 430 acres of marshes and tidal flats were infilled for the creation of new buildable land. This was one of many such projects which more than doubled the size of the Shawmut Peninsula, changing the very shape of the coastline and creating or expanding many neighborhoods built on infilled land.
As an aside, much of the landfill for the Back Bay was excavated from the nearby town of Needham. As of early 2017, the average residential price in Needham was $353/sq.ft. while in the Back Bay, it was $1,501/sq.ft. - on a purely real estate basis, considerable value was created simply by moving the dirt from one place to another. However, on an environmental resilience basis, we're only recently beginning to understand that this kind of infilling can reduce an area's resistance to flooding and storm surges due to climate change.
The Back Bay was originally tidal flats, wetlands with a strong tidal change in water levels. In 1913, the excavation for the subway revealed evidence of Native American fish weirs (fence-like structures used in tidal areas to passively trap fish) here dating back over 5,200 years. The Boylston Street Fishweir consisted of over 65,000 wooden stakes spanning almost five acres.
The tidal surges also powered small milling operations until the mid 1800s. In 1814, investors chartered the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation to construct a milldam, which would have created a larger source of power for mills. In addition, the stonework for the milldam would serve double duty as a toll road connecting Boston to Watertown. For context, the two mile stretch of land which would become Newbury Street was underwater in Boston Harbor until the mid-1800s. However, by 1857, the milldam project failed and a new idea was considered: to fill in the 430 acres of land cut off from the Charles River by the millwork. The stonework of the dam became the basis of today's Beacon Street from Beacon Hill to Kenmore Square. The tidal flats were slowly filled, beginning at the Public Garden and moving west. Today's Back Bay neighborhood was filled by 1882, and Kenmore Square by 1890, and the Fens by 1900. Unfortunately, this project was a failure. In addition to not producing the expected power for the number of mills predicted (only 3 were ever in operation at one time; 81 were predicted!), the damming of Back Bay prevented the flushing of sewage and trash out to sea. This marshy dumping ground became the Public Gardens.
The creation of the Public Gardens in 1837 spurred development. The land which became the Public Gardens began as a mud flat which was used as a trash dump, as Bostonians would dump sewage and trash directly into the harbor, and the tides would disperse it into the ocean. (This seems to be a recurring theme, as it happened again in Quincy in the 20th century, where the dumping of raw sewage into Boston Harbor killed the fishing industry for decades). The dam project stopped the tidal flushing, and the water became stagnant and foul. As a solution, the city began filling in that portion of the mud flats in 1804, and extending it to Beacon Hill's riverfront – the 'Flat of the Hill' part of the neighborhood – in 1837. The Public Gardens were also created that year, and anchored the development of the Back Bay neighborhood the way that Boston Common did for Beacon Hill. The 430 acres of land infilled on the Back Bay was positioned to become a fashionable residential district, supplanting Beacon Hill.
As the tidal flats were slowly filled in, beginning at edge of the Public Garden and extending westward, residential construction followed. Because the land filling efforts proceeded slowly, construction advanced concurrently on filled-in lots as they became available. As a result, most blocks in the Back Bay date from approximately the same era and, when viewed in sequence, illustrate the changing tastes in and stylistic evolution of American architecture over the course of the mid- to late 19th and early 20th centuries. As architectural historian Bainbridge Bunting wrote, "With a precision almost unique in American history, the buildings of the Back Bay chart the course of architectural development for more than half a century."
The design of the Back Bay was inspired by Paris. Architect Arthur Gilman's 1856 plan for the development of the new Back Bay neighborhood reflected American interest in French architecture and urban planning. His plan both ensured cohesiveness and encouraged expression by limiting certain features - a number of farsighted zoning and building restrictions, including mandatory building setbacks, limits on building height, and the confining of building materials to masonry and brick. The plan was a success. Back Bay is still considered one of the finest zones of Victorian houses in America and has the residential appeal it did when it was first developed.
A cultural center. The Back Bay also established Boston as a center of world culture. As the site of the original Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Natural History, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Back Bay has been an important center for American culture.
The Back Bay became a center for cultural institutions as well as fashionable residences. Copley Square was developed in the 1870s, first with Richardson's Trinity Church, and followed by the New Old South Church, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Boston Public Library, constructed by McKim Mead and White, beginning in 1888. Adjacent to Trinity Church and the Public Library was the original building for the Museum of Fine Arts, erected in 1877 by the architects William Ware and Henry van Brunt. Constructed in a vibrant Victorian Gothic style, the building lasted only a little over 30 years before it was replaced. The site is now occupied by the Copley Plaza Hotel.
In 1907, the Museum of Fine Arts migrated further west on Huntington Street, to a new building in the Fenway area. This new building reflected the triumph of academic classicism in Boston. Following the success of the Public Library, classical architecture dominated in Boston, and replaced the spiky, irregular Victorian Gothic architecture.