The Fenway was the first Boston neighborhood developed with a large park at its center. Frederick Law Olmsted's first project for the Boston Park Commission was to address this area where the sewage-filled Muddy River met the tidal Charles River basin. With the sanitary and drainage problems solved by 1895, Olmsted designed the "Fens" around the resulting tidal salt marsh. 15 years later, the marsh was all freshwater, as a result of the Charles River dam.
Construction began to surround the Back Bay Fens in the 1890s amid great enthusiasm. The huge New Riding Club brought prominent Bostonians to the bucolic area. Within a decade of the opening of the club, a wave of construction was under way for Boston’s major cultural institutions, initially on Boylston Street and Huntington Avenue, newly extended beyond Massachusetts Avenue. Land was cheap and available in large lots for the many institutions that relocated here. The Historical Society, Symphony Hall, and the Opera House were soon joined by the Museum of Fine Arts. Boston Latin School, Harvard Medical School and related hospitals, music conservatories, and the Wentworth Institute arrived along with colleges including Simmons, Emmanuel, and Boston State.
While Mrs. Jack Gardner built her sumptuous palace on the southwest side of the park, others did not join her. Because Bay State Road was developing at the same time and filling up with gracious Back Bay–style homes, residential construction lagged in the Fens and provided a different housing type. Rather than individually designed showy homes, rows of identical practical houses and four-story walk-up flats were built on the short side streets. Though largely red brick, a group of yellow brick houses was built on Edgerly Road. Innovation is evident also in the tile façades on affordable apartment buildings that introduced a new style to the city. It was picked up as trim even on brick row houses. When Northeastern University arrived, it built its entire campus in light gray brick, echoing the neighborhood’s white tile and distinguishing it from the many local red brick colleges.
A major environmental restoration in 2016 focused on returning the Muddy River to its natural state, removing culverts, excavating riverbanks, and replanting for flood control and water management.