At just under 25 acres, Bay Village is one of the smallest neighborhoods of Boston; only the Leather District is smaller, with just 13 acres.
The picturesque neighborhood consists of a few narrow, gaslamp-lit streets – a mix of Federal brick rowhouses and Art Deco warehouses converted to lofts. It is often described as a smaller-scale version of Beacon Hill. Part of the neighborhood's appeal is that it feels like a quiet enclave within walking distance of the excellent restaurants, cultural events and shows in Downtown Crossing and the South End. That said, there are some restaurants and retails along Stuart Street and Charles Street South.
Built on infilled marshes. Bay Village is one of many Boston neighborhoods that is not built on the original topography of the city, but on infilled marshes and wetlands. The area came to be called Bay Village, evoking the neighborhood's watery origin.
Sunken gardens with a curious back story. When Boston was expanding its land mass by infilling marshes, wetlands, bays and even parts of the Charles River for new buildable land, it caused problems for some of the older existing neighborhoods. By the 1860s, the infilling for the Back Bay and South End caused a sewer disaster for Bay Village – the sea-level neighborhood could no longer drain its sewers because of the now higher surrounding areas. As a result, residents' basements began to fill with sewage. Beginning in 1865, the city raised streets, 457 houses and 24 stores on pilings, elevating them 18' above sea level and using gravel to fill the space beneath them. However, the backyards were only raised 12', so they give the appearance of sunken gardens sitting 6' below street level. A few houses opted out of the elevating process, and their ground-floor windows are now below the street level.
Birthplace of Edgar Allan Poe. The author was born here in 1809, at 62 Carver Street (since demolished). Poe's parents were both well-known actors who worked with Boston's first theater, moved on to other cities within a year. While Poe later returned to Boston, his writing did not receive a warm reception here (Emerson referred to Poe as "the jingle man"), and he referred to many of Boston's leading literary figures as "Frogpondians" – while they thought they were lions roaring at the edge of an ocean, they were more like frogs croaking at the edge of a pond. Poe Square was recently named in his honor, with a statue honoring him.
Bay Village is often described as a more compact version of Beacon Hill. The narrow streets are lit by gaslamps, and have brick sidewalks and some cobblestone streets. The architecture is a mix of Federal and Greek Revival rowhouses with Art Deco warehouses converted to lofts.
The similarity to Beacon Hill is no coincidence. Many of the carpenters and craftsmen who built the grand houses in Beacon Hill settled here and built smaller, simpler versions for themselves. They share virtually the same facades and layouts, but lack some of Beacon Hill’s more intricate details, like ironwork and decorative molding.
Most of the neighborhood is within a historic district. The Bay Village Architectural Conservation District protects the area bounded by Cortes, Isabella, Piedmont, and Tremont streets. The Bay Village Architectural Commission protects the facades of the buildings within the district. In addition, the Bay Village Neighborhood Association is active in addressing architectural and quality of life issues for residents.
Federal houses on Fayette Street. Bay Village is full of picturesque Federal rowhouses, a mix of single-family homes and apartment conversions.
Greek Revival townhouses on Melrose Street. Grander, five-story residences.
Art Deco on Winchester and Piedmont streets. At one point, Boston had a thriving film industry, and the Art Deco warehouses along Piedmont and Winchester streets were the equivalent of Hollywood back lots. The building at 45 Church Street, for instance, was once Columbia Pictures' distribution center in Boston. These have since been converted to residential lofts.
The Armory, built in the 1890s at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Arlington Street for the First Corps of Cadets, a private military organization founded in 1741 to guard the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor. John Hancock commanded the Corps in 1776. Members served in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War I. In 1940, the Corps became a National Guard Unit, and finally stopped using the building in the late 1960s. Surely the Armory must be one of Boston's most unusual buildings. Built from rusticated granite blocks, this late Victorian building faithfully emulates medieval design with its 6-story crenelated tower complete with slit windows for arrows, a drawbridge, and corbel towers.
While there are no subway stops within Bay Village, the neighborhood is surrounded by nearby options. To the north are two Green Line stops (at Arlington and Boylston streets), to the south is the Commuter Rail and Orange Line stop (Back Bay station), and to the east is another Orange Line stop (Tufts Medical Center).
Just south of the Public Garden, Bay Village is tucked in between the Back Bay, South End, Chinatown, and the Theatre District.
Bay Village is loosely bounded by Stuart Street to the north, the Mass Turnpike to the south, Berkeley Street to the west, and Tremont Street to the east.
Like so many Boston neighborhoods, Bay Village was built on infilled land made by filling in a shallow bay. In the 1820s, the aptly-named developer Ephraim Marsh, with Francis Cabot Lowell (an investor and visionary behind the industrial city of Lowell) transformed the mud flats of the South Bay into buildable land. The original shoreline was around Arlington Street. By 1825, he laid out the streets and began erecting some of the neighborhood's characteristic houses. He chose to live in the neighborhood he was building, and his house at 1 Fayette Street was one of the area's finest. However, it has since been demolished. All together, Marsh developed 300 buildings in Boston, including many on Broad Street and in Beacon Hill.
Bay Village’s original inhabitants, on the whole, were crafters of all sorts. According to the American Society of Architects Guide to Boston, carpenters, painters, ink makers, rope makers, blacksmiths, sailmakers, salt merchants, tin workers, toll gatemen, cabinetmakers, and instrument makers all took up residence in the neighborhood. At this time, the neighborhood was still known as the Church Street District. Over the years, Bay Village has also been known as South Cove and Kerry Village.
Upper class in background but democratic in outlook, the Brahmin carried their genteel views throughout the country, through public lectures at the 3,000 lyceums (centers for public lectures) and in the pages of two influential Boston magazines, the Atlantic and the North American Review. The Brahmin writers and poets combined American and European traditions and sought to create a shared cross-Atlantic culture. These scholar-poets attempted to educate and elevate the general populace by introducing a European dimension to American literature. However, according to the George Welling of the University of Groningen, "[Although] well-meaning men, their conservative backgrounds blinded them to the daring innovations of Thoreau, Whitman (whom they refused to meet socially), and Edgar Allan Poe (whom even Emerson regarded as the "jingle man"). Partly because of their benign but bland influence, it was almost 100 years before the distinctive American genius of Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, and Poe was generally recognized in the United States."
During the unfortunate period of Prohibition, when the sale of liquor was banned in the 1920s and early 1930s, the neighborhood was home to many illegal bars known as speakeasies.
Cocoanut Grove fire. In 1942, a fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub on Piedmont Street killed 492 people. A busboy who was trying to screw in a lightbulb lit a match in order to see better, but flames engulfed the paper decorations inside the club. The club was a former speakeasy, and still had many windows and exits bricked over. This created a stampede for the revolving doors. This tragic incident led to the revision of fire codes across the United States, in the hope of averting similar tragedies.