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.
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).
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:
By 1900, most of the building up of Back Bay was done, as noted by the architectural historian Bainbridge Bunting in 1967:
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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 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.