Boston is a city built on water and Back Bay is the bridge that connects downtown to Dorchester and Brighton to Brookline.
A spine of skyscrapers runs from Mass Ave. at the southern end through the center of a historic tidal marsh up into Downtown and the Finical District. Designed in the early 60’s a high spine of buildings like the Hancock Tower, now called 200 Clarendon (790′), and the Prudential Center (750′), were built on a narrow path so as not to disrupt pre-existing historical communities.
The long process of transforming the bay began in 1814. The Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation was authorized by the state legislature to build a dam from the foot of Beacon Hill at the corner of Charles and Beacon Streets in the east, to Sewall’s point in Brookline in the west, now Kenmore Square.
The Mill Dam separated close to 600 acres of tidal lands from the Charles River, turning a tidal marsh into mill ponds. Construction on the mile and a half long, 50 foot wide stone dam began in 1818 and finished in 1821. The Mill Dam was a popular promenade despite the smell from the stagnant mill ponds, and ultimately became the foundation of Beacon Street.
By the mid 1830s, the area behind the dam was further subdivided by newly constructed railroad beds which crisscrossed the bay. The filling of the mill ponds began in earnest in the fall of 1857. With most of the city’s hills already leveled for other land reclamation projects, some parts of Back Bay were filled with trash, mud from the flats of the South Bay (modern South End and South Boston), and sand and gravel brought in by railroad from Needham. The whole area wasn’t completely filled in until the 1890s in conjunction with the development of the park at the Back Bay Fens.
Today, Back Bay is one of the city’s most well preserved historic neighborhoods. Inspired by Parisien avenues, the tree-lined Comm. Ave. boasts one of the largest examples of intact Victorian and Edwardian residential architecture in the United States. Built as one of Boston’s premier neighborhoods, it fell into decline for decades but was saved by a group of dedicated residents and architectural preservationists. It’s architecture has been protected by law and the oversight of the Back Bay Architectural Commission since 1966.
Getting to Back Bay
The Green line’s C train cuts through the Southern edge of modern Back Bay with stops at Kenmore, Hynes, Copley, and Arlington while the D train separates at Copley with stops at Prudential, Symphony, and Northeastern. All of these stops were under water before Back Bay was filled!
With the original grid street-pattern still prominent, navigating Back Bay, while time consuming, is easier than most neighborhoods. Beacon, Marlborough, Comm. Ave., Newbury, and Boylston St. along with smaller public alleyways run east-west. The streets running north-south follow an alphabetic pattern as well as a more peculiar trisyllabic-disyllabic pattern. Beginning at the Public Garden in Back Bay East and moving west we have: Arlington, Berkleley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, and Hereford Streets.
Storrow Drive separates the Back Bay neighborhood from the Esplanade. The picture below from 1929 shows cars of the era speeding down the newly constructed thoroughfare. While most likely limited to 15 mph, based on our modern experience most the cars depicted below were traveling about 30 over the speed limit.
Things to do in Back Bay
Back Bay includes many prominent landmarks, such as the Boston Public Library, Trinity Church, Boston Marathon finish line, Christian Science Center, Copley Square, Newbury Street, and New England’s two tallest buildings: the John Hancock Tower and the Prudential Center.
Take a stroll through the Boston Public Garden and then follow the tree lined Comm. Ave. down to Kenmore Square and Fenway Park.
You’ll find some of the lesser known attractions such as the Christian Science Center Mapparium along with the a statue depicting Cy Young and the original location of the pitchers mound and home plate of the old Huntington Polo Grounds, the location of the 1st World Series!
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