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Back Bay, Boston, Massachusetts

Back Bay is an officially recognized neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. It is an upscale residential, retail, and commercial office district.

Back Bay and neighboring Beacon Hill are considered Boston's most expensive neighborhoods, with townhouses regularly selling for millions of dollars. Popular upmarket shopping destinations include Newbury and Boylston Streets as well as the Prudential Center and Copley Place malls.

Architecturally the neighborhood is dominated by Victorian brownstone buildings in its northern, more residential portion; the southern part of the neighborhood is far more commercial and is home to some of Boston's tallest skyscrapers.

Definition of Back Bay

The boundaries of the Back Bay, as defined by the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay, are "the Charles River on the North; Arlington Street to Park Square on the East; Columbus Avenue to the 'New York, New Haven, & Hartford' right-of-way (south of Stuart Street and Copley Place), Huntington Avenue, Dalton Street, and the Massachusetts Turnpike on the South; and Charlesgate East on the West." The block between Charlesgate and Kenmore Square is often included as it retains Commonwealth Avenue's central park and pedestrial mall.

The Back Bay Architectural District, which is much smaller, was established by state law in 1966, and 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".


The neighborhood gained its name because the area was, in fact, before it was filled in, literally the "Back Bay" for Boston. To the west of the Shawmut Peninsula, on the far side from Boston Harbor, a wide bay opened between Boston and Cambridge, with the Charles River entering at the west side. As with all of the New England coast, the bay was tidal, with water rising and falling several feet over the course of the day. At low water, part of the bottom of the bay was exposed.

In 1814, the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation was chartered to construct a mill dam, which would also serve as a toll road connecting Boston to Watertown, bypassing Boston Neck. The dam was later buried under present-day Beacon Street.

The Back Bay neighborhood was created when a parcel of land was created by filling the tidewater flats of the Charles River. This massive project was begun in 1857. The filling of present-day Back Bay was completed by 1882; filling reached Kenmore Square in 1890, and finished in the Fens in 1900. The project was the largest of a number of land reclamation projects, beginning in 1820, which, over the course of time, more than doubled the size of the original Boston peninsula. It is frequently observed that this would have been impossible under modern environmental regulations.

Back Bay's development was planned by architect Arthur Gilman with Gridley James Fox Bryant. Strict regulations produced a uniform and well-integrated architecture, consisting mostly of dignified three- and four-story residential (or once-residential) brownstones.

Greatly influenced by Haussmann's renovation of Paris in the mid-to-late 19th century, the main thoroughfares of Back Bay emphasize order, with wide, parallel, tree-lined avenues and more homogenous architectural styles. Five east and west corridors run the length of the Back Bay: Beacon Street (closest to the Charles River), Marlborough Street, Commonwealth Avenue, Newbury Street, and Boylston Street. With the exception of Commonwealth Avenue, the wide central thoroughfare, these streets are one-way and intersect with north-south cross streets at regular intervals. The north-south cross streets, also one-way, are named alphabetically starting at the Public Garden, and a 1903 guidebook notes an alternation of trisyllabic and bisyllabic names: Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, and Hereford. (This same set of street names is used for the long East-West main streets in the center of Gladstone, Oregon, but the origin of this connection is unknown).

Perspectives on Back Bay

William Dean Howells, writing of memories of his first visit to Boston, recalled, "There are the narrow streets, stretching saltworks to the docks, which I haunted for their quaintness... There is Beacon Street, with the Hancock House where it is incredibly no more, and there are 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."

To the W. C. Fields character, con artist Cuthbert W. Twillie, it came as naturally as breathing to feign that he was "one of the Back Bay Twillies." However, there was a subtle social distinction between the Back Bay neighborhood and the older Beacon Hill district. A 1921 novel, By Advice of Counsel, characterizes one Bostonian by saying:

"William Montague Pepperill was a very intense young person, twenty-six years old, out of Boston by Harvard College. ... There had been an aloof serenity about his life within the bulging front of the paternal residence with its ancient glass window panes—faintly tinged with blue, just as the blood in the Pepperill veins was also faintly tinged with the same color... For W.M.P. the only real Americans lived on Beacon Hill, though a few perhaps might be found accidentally across Charles Street upon the made land of the Back Bay. A real American must necessarily also be a graduate of Harvard, a Unitarian, an allopath, belong to the Somerset Club and date back ancestrally at least to King Philip's War."

By 1900, most of the building up of Back Bay was done, as noted by the architectural historian 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."

Back Bay today

Culturally speaking, the Back Bay is known for being the home of the wealthy and the upper middle class. It is best-known for its expensive housing and shopping areas. Most stores are located on Newbury and Boylston Streets, with the ends closer to the Boston Public Garden traditionally more expensive. The Back Bay is dense with luxury hotels that include the Colonnade Hotel, Westin Copley Place, Fairmont Copley Plaza, and the largest hotel in the city, the Marriott Copley. The new Mandarin Oriental, Boston is due to open in June 2008, with an arcade area housing a number of upscale designer boutiques and restaurants.

The Copley Square area is close to the Back Bay railroad terminal, and is the eastern nexus of a system of hotels and shopping centers connected by a set of glassed-in pedestrian overpasses.

The large Copley Place mall includes the first Neiman Marcus opened in the New England area. The system of overpasses extends over half a mile to the Prudential Center and the shops surrounding it. The 52-story Prudential Tower, thought a marvel in 1964, is now considered ugly by some. However, the Prudential Skywalk observatory offers wonderful views of Back Bay, Boston, and surrounding areas.

Architecture of Back Bay

The residential streets of Back Bay are some of the best preserved examples of late 19th century urban architecture in the US. Copley Square, bounded by Clarendon, Boylston, Dartmouth, and St. James streets, includes Trinity Church, the Boston Public Library, the John Hancock Tower, and other notable examples of architecture.

The "Back Bay Historic District" was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on August 14, 1973.

The Prudential Center was awarded the Urban Land Institute's Award for Best Mixed use Property in 2006.

MIT and the Natural History Museum

Prior to 1900, the Back Bay was the site of some of Boston's leading institutions. The first to make its home there was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), founded in 1861. By 1900, MIT had expanded into many buildings around Copley Square. MIT’s original building, one of the first monumental structures in Back Bay, was named the Rogers Building after its founder, William Barton Rogers. It was located on Boylston Street not too far from Copley Square and was designed by William G. Preston together with a building for the Natural History Society. In 1916, MIT moved to its new and more capacious location across the Charles River in Cambridge.

The MIT building no longer survives, having been torn down in 1921 for the New England Life Building (also called: Stephen L. Brown Building). The Natural History Society building does survive and now houses the upscale clothier Louis Boston.

Copley Square

The first monumental building on the square was the Museum of Fine Arts building. Begun in 1870, it opened in 1876, with a large portion of its collection taken from the Boston Athenaeum Art Gallery. Its red Gothic Revival style building was torn down and rebuilt as the Copley Plaza Hotel (1912) which still exists today.

This is one of Richardson's masterpieces. In 1893, Baedeker's United States called it "deservedly regarded as one of the finest buildings in America."

It is a leading example of the Beaux-Arts style in the US. Sited across Copley Square from Trinity Church, it was intended to be "a palace for the people." Baedeker's 1893 guide terms it "dignified and imposing, simple and scholarly," and "a worthy mate... to Trinity Church." At that time, its 600,000 volumes made it the largest free public library in the world.

  • The Old South Church, also called the New Old South Church (645 Boylston Street on Copley Square), 1872-1875.

Located across the street from the Boston Public Library, it was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Cummings and Sears in the Venetian Gothic style. The style follows the precepts of the British cultural theorist and architectural critic John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) as outlined in his treatise The Stones of Venice. Old South Church remains a significant example of Ruskin's influence on architecture in the US. Charles Amos Cummings and Willard T. Sears also designed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

It is a 60 story high dark blue glass tower with a plan in the form of a narrow parallelogram. Admirers assert that it does not diminish the impact of Trinity Church, although its construction did damage the church's foundations. The architect Donlyn Lyndon, who served as head the Department of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the late 1960s and early 1970s, noted that an early Hancock press release had "the gall to pronounce that 'the building will reflect the architectural character of the neighborhood.'" Lyndon opines that it "may be nihilistic, overbearing, even elegantly rude, but it's not dull."

Other Back Bay buildings

It was the first church to be built in the newly-filled Back Bay. Today it serves the Unitarian Universalist congregation. The building's design was inspired by the eighteenth century London church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The architect was Arthur Gilman, who had designed the Back Bay street plan.

  • Berkeley Building (420 Boylston St.) , 1905.

An example of the Beaux-Arts style, it was by the firm of Codman and Despradelle. Constant-Désiré Despradelle was a professor at MIT from 1893 until his untimely death in 1912. The building features a white terra cotta exterior on a steel frame. In 1988 the building was restored by architects Notter Finegold + Alexander.

It is the first of the three Hancock buildings.

  • The Old John Hancock Building (200 Berkeley Street), 1947.

The second of the three Hancock buildings, it was designed by Cram and Ferguson. From 1947 until 1964 it was the tallest building in Back Bay and second-tallest building in the city, one foot shorter than the Custom House Tower. It is also known now as the Berkeley Building, but is not to be confused with the real Berkeley Building: see above.

The Colonnade Hotel with its row of columns was built in 1971 by a local developer, Bertram Druker. The luxury hotel joined the first Ritz Carlton Boston to anchor the other side of the Back Bay and ushered in the renaissance of the neighborhood.

111 Huntington Avenue is a ., 36-story tower, developed on the southern side of the Prudential Center over the existing sub-surface parking garage and adjacent to an active MBTA subway station. The building is Boston's eighth-tallest building and features a frame dome and crown, a prominent lobby in the Prudential Center, and access to a glass "Wintergarden" and a fully-landscaped park called the South Garden. In 2002, it won the Emporis Skyscraper Award.

A Roman Catholic church designed by Ralph Adams Cram.

See also



  • 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)
  • 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).
  • 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

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