Boston Back Bay History

Back Bay History

The Back Bay was used for little more than milling operations until the mid-19th century, when the bay’s tidal flats were filled in a process that lasted until the late 1880s and resulted in the creation of more than 450 acres of usable land.

The Back Bay was planned as a fashionable residential district, and was laid out as such by the architect Arthur Gilman in 1856. Having travelled to Paris, Gilman was familiar with Baron Haussmann’s plan for the new layout of that city and this inspiration reflected a growing American interest in French architecture and city planning.

As the tidal flats were slowly filled in, beginning at edge of the Public Garden and extending westward, residential construction followed.  Because the land filling efforts proceeded slowly, construction advanced concurrently on filled-in lots as they became available.  As a result, most blocks in the Back Bay date from approximately the same era and, when viewed in sequence, illustrate the changing tastes in and stylistic evolution of American architecture over the course of the mid- to late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Commercial buildings were erected alongside these residential structures, primarily on Newbury and Boylston Streets. Commercial development began on Boylston Street around 1880 and on Newbury Street in the early 20th century. While new structures were built for some of these commercial ventures, others adapted existing row houses for their purposes.  This early example of adaptive reuse helped to maintain the Back Bay’s uniform appearance.

The Back Bay has been home to a number of important artists, writers, and philosophers. Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Santayana, John Singer Sargent, and William Morris Hunt are among the many notable figures that lived in the Back Bay. As the site of the original Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Natural History, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Back Bay has been an important center for American culture.

Noted architects whose work is represented in the Back Bay include H.H. Richardson, McKim, Mead, and White, Peabody and Stearns, and Richard Morris Hunt, among others. A number of architectural styles are represented in the Back Bay, including Italianate, Gothic, Ruskinian Gothic (also known as High Victorian Gothic), French Academic, Queen Anne, and Panel Brick, along with many of the revival styles, including Italian Renaissance, German Renaissance, Beaux Arts, Chateauesque, Georgian, Federal, and Adamesque.


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