Back Bay

National Historic District

Note: a separate walking tour covers the area of the Back Bay between the Public Garden and Copley Square.

Filling the Back Bay tidal flats became inevitable in the 1850s, when the Cross Dam (along modern Massachusetts Avenue) and Mill Dam (along Beacon Street) were unsuccessful as sites for mills, and the captured stagnant water at the foot of Beacon Hill gave off a stench so offensive it could not be ignored. The gigantic landfill operation took thirty years; at the peak, trains arrived every forty-five minutes from West Needham, delivering 2,500 cubic yards of gravel - enough to fill two house lots - each day. By 1870 there was land as far as Dartmouth Street. Not until the late 1880s had filling reached the Fens.

Among the many architects offering plans for the new land, Arthur Gilman, an admirer of French architecture, was selected. His highly structured, symmetrical street pattern allows the richness of the architecture to dominate. The focal open space is the wide boulevard down the center of Commonwealth Avenue, whose length compares with the promenade vistas of grand French chateaux.

Given this growing expanse of new land, outstanding architects of the late nineteenth century designed Back Bay houses that spared no effort and no expense. As one progresses from Arlington through the alphabetically arranged cross-streets to Hereford and on to the Fens, the glorious parade of architectural styles reveals the history of Victorian taste through the second half of the nineteenth century. Despite the variety of Victorian styles and elements, controls on height, setbacks, and materials created a harmonious streetscape. Each house contributes to and benefits from the cumulative effect.

Back Bay de-gentrified after the Great Depression. Many families were forced to sell their homes, which were too grand and too expensive to maintain. Developers converted some into apartments; others became schools or dormitories. Often this process destroyed grand old interiors, with plaster and wood ornamentation and palatial staircases, but most exteriors retained their original architectural character, though often in a somewhat shabby state.

Starting with the condominium craze of the 1970s, developers once again hit the neighborhood, further compromising the incomparable interior architecture of many buildings as well as the French mansard roofscape. Again the façades survived, and the large-scale design of the district has been strong enough to carry it into the 21st century as one of the largest surviving examples of Victorian architecture in the United States, and one of Boston's most desirable places to live.

www.backbayhouses.org provides an encyclopedic resource for those interested in learning more about Back Bay, in particular the detailed genealogy of individual buildings. Images from that site are included here with their generous permission, and many more can be found on their site.

Cover image: Commonwealth Avenue, ©Bruce T Martin. All Other Rights Reserved.