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Back Bay

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The Back Bay was so named because it was originally a large bay in the Charles River estuary, west or back of the Shawmut Peninsula, that extended south from the Cambridge shore (originally farther north) to the area of Washington Street in the South End. This marshy domain of more than seven hundred acres extended west to Sewalls Point in the area of Kenmore Square (WB1) and was interrupted by the diamond-shaped peninsula called Gravelly Point along the line of Massachusetts Avenue. Filling of this district began in the late 1790s with the creation of land for ropewalks along the west edge of the Common and continued into the early twentieth century in its most western reaches. Between 1818 and 1821, the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation constructed a fifty-foot-wide milldam along the line of Beacon Street to create two basins—one filling, one receiving—for tidal mills. That operation, which quickly proved unsuccessful, was interrupted in the 1830s by the construction of two railroad lines (one from Worcester to the west and the second from Providence to the south) through the district, crossing near the current location of Back Bay Station (BB41). After repeated fires at the ropewalks, the city purchased that land and extended the filling, leasing the new property in 1837 to Horace Gray to create a horticultural park where the Public Garden (BB1) was later developed. Public concern over the noxious aromas from the contained basins and failed industries became more intense in the 1840s as immigration caused increased pressure for new areas of residential development. In 1856, the mill corporation, the Boston Water Power Company, and the Commonwealth reached an agreement for the filling of the Back Bay. Filling began in earnest the following year, and the first buildings in the new district were under construction by 1859.

The street plan for developing the landfill area is credited to Arthur Gilman, a Boston architect who had traveled to London and Paris in 1853. Gilman's plan, as well as several of the first houses erected on the new streets, betrays a strong influence of the rebuilding of Paris under Napoleon III. Unlike Boston's earlier residential developments in which houses lined irregular streets or small semiprivate squares, the Back Bay was laid out with wide streets on axis with the Public Garden. The central thoroughfare, Commonwealth Avenue, featured a broad mall of green space down the middle, with the cross streets laid out at regular intervals and given names in alphabetical order, beginning with Arlington. With the Public Garden on the east, the Charles River on the north, and the Boston & Albany Railroad on the south, the Back Bay was immediately recognizable as a neighborhood with easily definable boundaries, encouraging its development as an exclusive area for Boston's wealthiest citizens. Because of the widened milldam, Beacon Street developed quickly. Otherwise, one can easily watch the evolution of domestic architecture from the late 1850s through the early twentieth century by walking east to west through the Back Bay. A state commitment to public institutions provided a new cultural district at Copley Square; churches also followed their congregations into this new district, especially after the Great Boston Fire of 1872 destroyed many of their former buildings in the central city.

Writing Credits

Keith N. Morgan

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