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.
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.
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.