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A Glance at Back Bay Neighborhood Architecture and Building History

Prior to the 1820s, the Back Bay was literally a saltwater bay that was used for mill operations. However, due to intense overcrowding in Boston as the city became a popular manufacturing and shipping hub, developers saw Back Bay as an area with a lot of potential for urban renewal. By the 1880s, after large-scale landfilling in the bay, there was more than 450 acres available to be built upon. Architect Arthur Gilman was largely responsible for the redevelopment of the Back Bay. In fact, Gilman used the ideas from the Paris urban renewal in the mid-19th century which is why we see the wide streets with tree-lined avenues, most notably on Commonwealth Avenue. 

The Vendome Building – 1871 French Second Empire Style

Early on, the Back Bay was planned to be a swanky residential district. When examining Back Bay block-by-block, we notice the changing tastes and styles of American architecture over the course of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Commercial development began on Boylston Street around 1880, and on Newbury Street in the early 20th century.  Over time, some of the buildings shifted to include retail and restaurant occupancy. When walking around the Back Bay, there is a certain “look” that has been maintained over the years with the elegant brownstone homes and storefronts. Some of the prominent architectural styles spotted are French Second Empire, Victorian and Edwardian styles of the late 19th century. 

Architect: Peabody and Stearns (built in 1871 – 64 Comm Ave)

The original architecture is largely intact due to the Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC). Any proposed exterior work in the Back Bay must be reviewed by the BBAC through a Design Approval Application. Today, we still admire the stylistic choices of the late 19th century and appreciate how the Back Bay’s unique architecture has been preserved. 

Marlborough Street

If you want to learn more, Boston By Foot Tours offers tours of Back Bay's architectural landscape:

Hooper Mansion 1860 – French Second Empire Style – Arthur Gilman

(Blog collaborated on by Suzanne Conway and one of our Summer interns, Matty Reardon)




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