History of Back Bay
By Max Winter
Long ago, the Boston neighborhood of Back Bay did not exist. The reason why it would not be settled until the 19th Century was because it was an actual body of water. As a result, the name “Back Bay” did not come from nowhere. Like many other areas of Boston, it was a neighborhood built on landfill, and Back Bay in particular was the largest project.
According to Prof. Jeffery Howe of Boston College, the first part of development on the Back Bay, was the Mill Dam, which began construction in 1814. The project finished construction on July 2nd, 1821.
The Mill Dam served a few purposes. It was built to manage the current of the Charles River as it flowed into Back Bay. Further, it was intended to generate power, although in this respect, it was unsuccessful.
It also served as a toll road, allowing people easier access from the northwest corner of Boston Common, to the mainland on Brookline. Today, that road is an extension of the already existing Beacon Street, but in the early to mid nineteenth century, it became a favorite walkway. However, closing off the bay caused it to become fetid, starting during the first year of construction.
Eventually, by the 1850s, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts determined that the solution to that problem would be to fill the bay. Previously, the Boston Public Gardens, which would become the eastern border of Back Bay, had been completed in 1837, built on landfill made out of waste.
John Souther headed the project to fill Back Bay, which began in 1857. Souther, who created a type of steam shovel, built a railroad to Needham, Massachusetts, where hills were strip-mined to fill the Back Bay. Needham was used because Boston did not have any accessible hills to use for fill, and certainly not enough for the over 700 acre Back Bay.
The amount of fill brought in from Needham was staggering. Anthony Mitchell Sammarco described the process, saying, “For over three decades, the soil, sand, and rock fill was sent the 9 miles to Boston’s Back Bay by open gondola cars every forty-five minutes, twenty-four hours a day, six days a week.” The process was completed in 1894.
The street grid for the new neighborhood was developed by Arthur Gilman in 1856. According to Joseph Cornish, Gilman, an architect, had been influenced by the street grid of Paris, when creating the layout of Back Bay. The townhouses that comprise Back Bay to this day, are representative of the styles of architecture throughout the time they were constructed. While almost all of these townhouses are no longer single family homes due to their impressive size, they have still survived and are being preserved.
Bainbridge Bunting wrote of the preservation:
With a precision almost unique in American history, the buildings of the Back Bay chart the course of architectural development for more than half a century. Here, one can follow, year by year, changes in architectural style, and building technology during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
One of the most notable areas in Back Bay is Copley Square. The square was renamed from Art Square to honor artist John Singleton Copley in 1883. It is home to numerous famous landmarks, including the 200 Clarendon Street (formerly known as the John Hancock Tower), Trinity Church, and the McKim Building of the Boston Public Library. The Museum of Fine Arts was located in Copley Square from 1877 to 1907.
North of Copley Square are the main retail streets of Back Bay, Boylston Street and Newbury Street. Businesses started opening on the former circa 1880, while Newbury Street gained a commercial presence in the early 1900s, some of which were operated out of Back Bay’s famous townhouses. Boylston Street was not a sought after area, until the opening of the more modern Prudential Center in the 1960s.
Throughout its history, Back Bay has been a hub for culture and has attracted wealthy intellectuals. According to backbayhouses.org, "In 1973, the neighborhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places, providing additional recognition of the historic and architectural importance of the neighborhood." Today, Back Bay is one of Boston's most famous neighborhoods.
“Back Bay Development: 1910-2015.” Back Bay Houses, 23 Apr. 2017, backbayhouses.org/back-bay-development-1910-2015/. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
Bunting, Bainbridge. “Introduction.” Houses of Boston's Back Bay: an Architectural History, 1840- 1917, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967, pp. 1–7.
Cornish, Joseph. “Back Bay Architectural District.” Boston.gov, City of Boston, 31 Mar. 2017, www.boston.gov/historic-district/back-bay-architectural-district. Accessed 17 Apr. 2017.
Howe, Jeffrey. “Boston: History of the Landfills.” FA 267, Boston College, 1996, www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/bos_fill3.html. Accessed 17 Apr. 2017.
Sammarco, Anthony Mitchell. Boston's Back Bay. Dover, NH, Arcadia, 1997.