A History of Back Bay: Fall '17
By David Snyder
The name “Back Bay” is quite literal, for before 1820, where modern-day Back Bay rests was a small saltwater bay on the shore of the Shawmut Peninsula and the Boston Neck, between Boston and Cambridge, the Charles River entering from the west. Boston had always been a hub for shipping and mercantile trading, but after the United States separated from the United Kingdom, trading and shipping rose, leaving Boston’s ports and harbors overcrowded. To alleviate these stresses, government officials began looking towards Boston’s Back Bay, to see if a new hub could be constructed.
These efforts were well under way by 1814, when the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation were tasked with building a milldam in Back Bay that would connect Boston to Watertown, circumventing the Boston Neck. The milldam was completed and opened in 1820, running across the Back Bay from the Public Garden to Brookline, drawing power for the mills all the while. The Bottom and Roxbury Mill Corporation, in addition to several other companies, built railroad lines across the Back Bay, removing the basin’s ability to flush out debris and toxic waste from the City of Boston.
However, although the milldam and railroad projects had completed in time and were proving moderately successful, they were, on the whole, economic misfires. All of the projects went over budget and were hardly recouping the construction costs. Because of these financial woes, it was then decided that the entirety of Back Bay ought to be filled.
In 1856, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to fill in the Back Bay, constructing a new neighborhood and commercial hub atop what was once saltwater. The earth used to fill in the bay was brought in from Needham, about 25-miles outside of Boston. Advances in steam power allowed for such a massive earth-moving project, one of the first of its kind in the United States. After nearly 25 years of construction, the entire Back Bay was filled in, from the Public Garden to Kenmore Square.
Today’s Back Bay was filled by 1882. The project reached existing land at what is now Kenmore Square in 1890, and landfill was completed in the Fens in 1900. Underneath all of that land rests much of what was once the sprawling milldam system built in the first decades of the 1800s. All in all, the original Shawmut Peninsula was doubled in size.
The new Back Bay neighborhood quickly developed into one of Boston’s finest neighborhoods, offering some of the city’s best in the way of premier arts, culture, and commerce. Copley Square housed the original Museum of Fine Arts and the original campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Boston Public Library, the nation’s first branch library, was completed in 1895.
In 1910, the old milldam’s spiritual successor, the Charles River Dam, converted the former Charles estuary into a freshwater basin. Soon thereafter, the Charles River Esplanade was constructed to capitalize on the river's newly enhanced recreational value.
The Back Bay of today is home to some of Boston’s finest shopping locales and restaurants. The neighborhood was constructed to mirror Paris-post reconstruction, with wide main roads flanked by trees and greenery. The architectural planning was undertaken by Arthur Gillman, a student of Parisian architecture. The resulting layout resembled nothing else in Boston, Manhattan, or London.
Back Bay is well-known for its rows of Victorian brownstones, which are a product of setback—how far a building must be from a road, body of water, etc.—legislation written into the deeds of the houses newly built after the completion of the landfill. The brownstones remain to this day, many now commercially used, and remain one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the country.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, the “High Spine” concept was undertaken: to raise the profile of Boston’s commercial buildings while retaining Boston’s colonial and Victorian charm. In Back Bay, the Prudential Tower was quite literally the peak of the High Spine. Finished in 1964 and opened the following year, the Prudential Center was the tallest building in the entire city at that point. The Tower was later joined by the Prudential Center, Back Bay’s shopping hub. Just south of the Prudential Tower stands 111 Huntington Avenue. The eighth-tallest building in Boston opened to much fanfare, receiving a prize in the 2002 Emporis Skyscraper Awards. 111 Huntington Avenue features an open-dome frame, an enclosed Wintergarden, and a fully landscaped South Garden.
Of course, Copley Square remains a destination spot for tourists and locals alike, featuring Trinity Church, the Boston Public Library, the John Hancock Tower, and the Old South Church. Along with the Public Library, Back Bay is home to numerous other educational and cultural institutions, such as the Berklee School of Music, the Boston Conservatory, the Boston Architectural College, the Goethe Institute, and the Alliance Française,
“Back Bay History.” Back Bay History | NABB Online, www.nabbonline.com/about_us/back_bay_history.
“Back Bay.” Boston.gov, 11 Oct. 2017, www.boston.gov/neighborhood/back-bay.
“The History of Back Bay.” Back Bay Association, www.bostonbackbay.com/about-back-bay/history/.