Back Bay, Boston

"Back Bay" redirects here. For the rail station in the neighborhood, see Back Bay (MBTA station). For other uses, see Back Bay (disambiguation).
Back Bay Historic District

Back Bay and Charles River
Location Boston, Massachusetts
Architect Multiple
Architectural style Mid 19th Century Revival, Late 19th And 20th Century Revivals, Late Victorian
NRHP Reference # 73001948[1]
Added to NRHP August 14, 1973

Back Bay is an officially recognized neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts.[2] It is most famous for its rows of Victorian brownstone homes — considered one of the best preserved examples of 19th-century urban design in the United States — as well as numerous architecturally significant individual buildings, and cultural institutions such as the Boston Public Library. It is also a fashionable shopping destination (especially Newbury and Boylston Streets, and the adjacent Prudential Center and Copley Place malls) and home to some of Boston's tallest office buildings, the Hynes Convention Center, and numerous major hotels.

The Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay considers the neighborhood's bounds to be "Charles River on the North; Arlington Street to Park Square on the East; Columbus Avenue to the New York New Haven and Hartford right-of-way (South of Stuart Street and Copley Place), Huntington Avenue, Dalton Street, and the Massachusetts Turnpike on the South; Charlesgate East on the West."[3][4]

Prior to a colossal 19th-century filling project, Back Bay was a literal bay. Today, along with neighboring Beacon Hill, it is one of Boston's two most expensive residential neighborhoods.


View (1858) from State House dome westward along the Mill Dam (now Beacon Street), which separated Back Bay (left) from Charles River and which, with companion Cross Dam (in distance, in modern Massachusetts AvenueKenmore Square region, with mills barely visible near juncture with Mill Dam), represented attempt to derive mill power from river tides. Trees along north-south waterline represent western boundary (now Arlington Street) of Boston Public Garden.[5]

Before its transformation into buildable land by a 19th-century filling project, the Back Bay was literally a bay, west of the Shawmut Peninsula (on the far side from Boston Harbor) between Boston and Cambridge, the Charles River entering from the west. This bay was tidal: the water rose and fell several feet over the course of each day, and at low tide much of the bay's bed was exposed as a marshy flat. As early as 5,200 years before present, Native Americans built fish weirs here, evidence of which was discovered during subway construction in 1913 (see Ancient Fishweir Project and Boylston Street Fishweir).

In 1814, the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation was chartered to construct a milldam, which would also serve as a toll road connecting Boston to Watertown, bypassing Boston Neck. However, the project was an economic failure, and in 1857 a massive project was begun to "make land" by filling the area enclosed by the dam.[6]

The firm of Goss and Munson built additional railroad trackage extending to quarries in Needham, Massachusetts, 9 miles (14 km) away. Twenty-five 35-car trains arrived every 24 hours carrying gravel and other fill, at a rate in the daytime of one every 45 minutes.[7] (William Dean Howells recalled "the beginnings of Commonwealth Avenue, and the other streets of the Back Bay, laid out with their basements left hollowed in the made land, which the gravel trains were yet making out of the westward hills.")[8] Present-day Back Bay itself was filled by 1882; the project reached existing land at what is now Kenmore Square in 1890, and finished in the Fens in 1900.[9] Much of the old mill dam remains buried under present-day Beacon Street.[10] The project was the largest of a number of land reclamation projects which, beginning in 1820, more than doubled the size of the original Shawmut Peninsula.

Completion of the Charles River Dam in 1910 converted the former Charles estuary into a freshwater basin; the Charles River Esplanade was constructed to capitalize on the river's newly enhanced recreational value.[11] The Esplanade has since undergone several changes, including the construction of Storrow Drive.[12]


Principal streets of Back Bay.

The Back Bay is traversed by five east-west corridors: Beacon Street, Marlborough Street, Commonwealth Avenue, Newbury Street and Boylston Street. These are interrupted at regular intervals by running from north to south streets: Arlington (along the western border of the Boston Public Garden), Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester and Hereford Streets. All of the west-east streets, except Commonwealth Avenue, are one-way streets.

In the 1960s, the "High Spine" design plan, in conjunction with development plans, gave way to the construction of high-rise buildings along the Massachusetts Turnpike, which in turn allowed the development of major projects in the area.


Aerial view of the "High Spine" of skyscrapers in the Back Bay, including the Prudential Center and John Hancock Tower.

Building guidelines

The plan of Back Bay, by Arthur Gilman of the firm Gridley James Fox Bryant, was greatly influenced by Haussmann's renovation of Paris, with wide, parallel, tree-lined avenues unlike anything seen in other Boston neighborhoods. Five east-west corridors -- Beacon Street (closest to the Charles), Marlborough Street, Commonwealth Avenue (actually two one-way thoroughfares flanking the tree-lined pedestrian Commonwealth Avenue Mall), Newbury Street and Boylston Streetare intersected at regular intervals by north-south cross streets: Arlington (along the western edge of the Public Garden), Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, and Hereford. A 1874 guidebook[13] noted the trisyllabic-disyllabic alternation attending aforesaid alphabetic appellations, and the series continues in the adjacent Fenway neighborhood with Ipswich, Jersey, and Kilmarnock Streets. West of Hereford are Massachusetts Avenue (a regional thoroughfare crossing the Harvard Bridge to Cambridge and far beyond) and Charlesgate, which forms the Back Bay's western boundary.

Setback requirements and other restrictions, written into the lot deeds of the newly filled Back Bay, produced harmonious rows of dignified three- and four-story residential brownstones (though most along Newbury Street are now in commercial use). The Back Bay is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is considered one of the best-preserved examples of 19th-century urban architecture in the United States.[14] In 1966, the Massachusetts Legislature, "to safeguard the heritage of the city of Boston by preventing the despoliation" of the Back Bay, created the Back Bay Architectural Commission to regulate exterior changes to Back Bay buildings.[4][15]

Since the 1960s, the concept of a High Spine has influenced large-project development in Boston, reinforced by zoning rules permitting high-rise construction along the axis of the Massachusetts Turnpike, including air rights siting of buildings.[16]

Buildings around Copley Square

Trinity Church c. 1903

Copley Square features Trinity Church, the Boston Public Library, the John Hancock Tower, and numerous other notable buildings.

Original home of the Museum of Fine Arts
Back Bay in Boston at night as seen from the South End

Other prominent Back Bay buildings

Cultural and educational institutions

Prominent cultural and educational institutions in the Back Bay include:



Back Bay is served by the Green Line's Arlington, Copley, Hynes Convention Center, and Prudential stations, and the Orange Line's Back Bay station (which is also an MBTA Commuter Rail and Amtrak station).

See also

Notes and references


  1. National Park Service (2007-01-23). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  3. "About NABB". Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. Archived from the original on 16 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-25. While the city of Boston does officially recognize various neighborhoods within its confines, it does not assign precise boundaries.
  4. 1 2 The Back Bay Architectural District, somewhat smaller than "Back Bay" as defined by the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, is bounded by "the centerlines of Back Street on the north, Embankment Road and Arlington Street on the east, Boylston Street on the south, and Charlesgate East on the west."
  5. Mapping Boston (1999), Alex Krieger (editor), David Cobb (editor), Amy Turner (editor), Norman B. Leventhal (Foreword by) MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-11244-2, p. 126
  6. Newman, William A.; Holton, Wilfred E. (2006). Boston's Back Bay: The Story of America's Greatest Nineteenth-century Landfill Project (illustrated ed.). UPNE. ISBN 978-1555536510. Retrieved 2015-02-25.
  7. Whitehill, Walter Muir (1968). Boston: A Topographical History (Second ed.). pp. 152–154.
  8. Antony, Mark; Howe, DeWolfe (1903). Boston: The Place and the People. New York: MacMillan. p. 359.
  9. However, the Kenmore and Fenway land was not all built up immediately, as explained by Bainbridge Bunting in 1967: By 1900 the Back Bay residential area had almost ceased to grow. After 1910 only thirty new houses were constructed, after 1917 none at all. Instead of paying high prices for filled land on which to erect a home within walking distance of his office, the potential home builder escaped to the suburbs on the electric trolley or in his automobile. This flight from the city left empty much of the area west of Kenmore Square and adjacent to Fenway Park, and only later was it occupied by non-descript and closely-built apartments.
  10. Back Bay History Accessed 2009-02-25
  11. "100 years of celebrating the Fourth of July at Esplanade". The Boston Globe. 2010-07-04. Archived from the original on 9 July 2010. Retrieved 2010-08-11.
  12. Campbell, Robert (March 4, 2012). "To make a better Esplanade, harness citizens' passion". Boston Globe. Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  13. Nason, Elias (1874). A Gazetteer of the State of Massachusetts. B. B. Russell. p. 95.
  14. Jolly, Joanna (27 October 2014). "How Boston is rethinking its relationship with the sea". BBC Magazine. Retrieved 2 March 2015.
  15. ,
  16. Frug, Gerald E.; Barron, David J. (2013). City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0801458224. Retrieved 2014-04-17.
  17. Baedeker's United States, 1893
  18. 1 2 Lyndon, Donlyn (1982). The City Observed: Boston. Vintage. ISBN 0-394-74894-8.: the Hancock "may be nihilistic, overbearing, even elegantly rude, but it's not dull;" the Prudential is "an energetically ugly, square shaft that offends the Boston skyline more than any other structure."
  19. "Case Studies" -- Urban Land Institute
  21. "Church of the Covenant:Tiffany Windows"
  22. Mark Jarzombek, Designing MIT: Bosworth's New Tech (Northeastern University Press, 2004)


  • Bacon, Edwin M. (1903) Boston: A Guide Book. Ginn and Company, Boston, 1903.
  • Bunting, Bainbridge (1967) "Houses of Boston's Back Bay", Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-40901-9
  • Fields, W.C.: "My Little Chickadee" (1940), in which the Fields character calls himself "one of the Back Bay Twillies."
  • Jarzombek, Mark, Designing MIT: Bosworth's New Tech. Northeastern University Press, 2004. ISBN 1555536190.
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Back Bay Boston: The City as a Work of Art. With Essays by Lewis Mumford & Walter Muir Whitehill (Boston, 1969).
  • Shand-Tucci, Douglass, Built in Boston: City and Suburb, 1800-2000.Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. ISBN 1558492011.
  • Train, Arthur (1921), "The Kid and the Camel," from By Advice of Counsel. ("William Montague Pepperill was a very intense young person...")
  • Howells, William Dean, Literary Friends and Acquaintance: My First Visit to New England

Further reading

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Back Bay, Boston.
Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Back Bay.

Coordinates: 42°21′4.66″N 71°4′49.28″W / 42.3512944°N 71.0803556°W / 42.3512944; -71.0803556 (Back Bay, Boston)

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