In 1857 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts began to fill in the tidal flats west of the city center. The fill began at the Public Garden and spread westward, eventually taking 25 years to complete the project. From the beginning, Back Bay was designed to be a residential community; over the next 60 years more than 1,500 houses and apartments were built here.
Back Bay represented one of the country’s first concerted efforts to create a homogeneous urban environment on a grand scale. The wide streets and large building lots attracted wealthy Bostonians from Beacon Hill from the beginning. America’s top architects from the Gilded Age are represented throughout the neighborhood. World War I and the Depression led to the dissolution of many of these magnificent single-family mansions and the infiltration of retail establishments.
This walking tour of the Back Bay will begin on Arlington Street, fronting the Public Garden, where you would have gotten your feet wet back in 1857...
1-3 Arlington Street
Gridley James Fox Bryant was one of Boston’s busiest Victorian architects, especially after the Great Fire of 1872 destroyed most of the downtown business area. Some 152 of those buildings had been designed by Bryant and he was summoned to rebuild 110 of the commissions. Bryant designed this grouping of three townhomes was to look like one big French Second Empire structure; he gave each story a different window treatment. The money man on the project was John L. Simmons, a clothing manufacturer who used his profits to invest in real estate.
8-11 Arlington Street
east side of Copley Square at 206 Clarendon Street
Here is another block of four houses knitted to form a single symmetrical composition, with the two middle houses set slightly further back from the street than the two end houses. No. 8 Arlington was built in 1870 for Deming Jarves who was the founder of the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company, later the Cape Cod Glass Works. It and No. 9 were the home of the Atlantic Monthly from the 1920s until 1980. The literary and cultural commentary magazine was founded in 1857 by Boston’s leading literary stars.
John B. Bates House
12 Arlington Street
John B. Bates was a Boston merchant, prosperous enough to bankroll this grand five-story mansion in 1860. Architect Arthur Gilman tapped elements of the French and Italian Renaissances, executed in sandstone shipped from Nova Scotia. Bates, however, did not enjoy his new home for long, he died on a European trip in 1863.
TURN RIGHT ON COMMONWEALTH AVENUE.
5 Commonwealth Avenue
Cotton merchant Abbott Lawrence was the first to build on this lot, back in 1861. That Italianate house disappeared under a French-inspired makeover executed by another textile merchant, Walter Baylies, in 1906. In the 1940s the Boston Center for Adult Education purchased the property and operated it as the Gamble Mansion, today it does duty as event space.
25-27 Commonwealth Avenue
Samuel Hooper was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1808 and made his money in importing and the iron business before entering politics and winding up in the United States Congress. He bought this property in 1861 and built a house for himself and his wife, Anne, at #27 and his son William Sturgis Hooper next door at #25. There was enough room left over for a rare large corner yard in Back Bay.
29 Commonwealth Avenue
The deed restrictions when Back Bay was filled in called for all buildings to be constructed at least three stories high. But no maximum height was specified, which proved not to be an issue until W.H.H. Newman came along in 1894 and proposed an 11-story apartment tower, designed by J. Pickering Putnam. Haddon Hall pushed right up to the citywide height limit of 125 feet and Back Bay residents immediately sprung into action to make sure no such monstrosity appeared again. In 1896 a limit of 70 feet was imposed on Commonwealth Avenue, which would later be reduced further to 65 feet. In about 1928, Haddon Hall was converted from apartments into an office building.
TURN RIGHT ON BERKELEY STREET.
First Unitarian Church
62 Marlborough Street, southwest corner of Berkeley Street
First Church is the oldest church in Boston. When John Winthrop and his party stepped off the Arabella in what is now Charlestown their first action in the new world was to draw up and sign a Covenant for a Church, on July 30, 1630. The congregation moved to Back Bay in 1867 into a church designed by prolific Victorian architect William Robert Ware and Henry Van Brunt, one of the first commissions for the celebrated team. The current building was constructed after a fire in 1868; architect Paul Rudolph incorporated its historic facade into his building.
French Library Cultural Center
53 Marlborough Street
John Hubbard Sturgis and Charles Brigham designed this French Second Empire confection under a mansard roof for Edward Wainwright Codman in 1867. Today it serves as the French Library, founded in 1945 by Americans to provide an authentic French cultural and social experience for the purpose of personal enrichment and greater understanding of the diverse peoples of the French-speaking world. The library houses the second largest private collection of French books in the United States.
RETURN TO COMMONWEALTH AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT.
43 Commonwealth Avenue
The first building activity on this lot produced four contiguous houses for lumber merchant, real estate investor, and banker Elijah Chesley Drew in 1869. Ashton Rollins Willard, an art expert who wrote several books on Italian art, bought the property in 1902 and tore down the house here. In its place architect Julius A. Schweinfurth, who worked in town for a half century after arriving in Boston from Auburn, New York in 1879, built one of the first steel-framed buildings in the city.
121 Commonwealth Avenue
Architects Charles Amos Cummings and Willard T. Sears gave Commonwealth Street one of its most exuberant houses in 1872, blending brick, cream-colored stone, wood, polychromatic tile, multi-colored slate, and wrought iron into a High Victorian Gothic composition. the client was Charles Greenleaf Wood, a dry goods merchant and, later, treasurer of the John Hancock Life Insurance Company.
TURN RIGHT ON DARTMOUTH STREET.
Frederick L. Ames House
Commonwealth Avenue at 306 Dartmouth Street
Oakes Ames parlayed a shovel business into railroads, banking, the breeding of Guernsey cows and a seat in the United States House of Representatives. This house was built for the “King of Spades” by John Hubbard Sturgis who converted an 1872 townhouse into a showplace that one Boston paper gushed was “not surpassed by anything in the country.”
164 Marlborough Street
Benjamin W. Crowninshield was born into one of Boston’s oldest seafaring families in 1837. At Harvard College one of his classmates was Henry Hobson Richardson who would go on to become the most influential American architect in the post-Civil War era. Richardson designed this house for his old friend who came to Back Bay as a dry goods merchant in 1868. The house is often cited as one of Richardson’s less arresting works, however.
Hollis Hunnewell Mansion
Marlborough Street at 315 Dartmouth Street
Horatio Hollis Hunnewell was a powerful banker and financial backers of railroads who as an amateur botanist was one of the America’s most prominent 19th century horticulturists. Hunnewell is said to have been the first person to cultivate and popularize rhododendrons in domestic gardens. Architects John Hubbard Sturgis and Charles Brigham piled mansard-roofed towers at different heights on the Hunnewell mansion, firs tin 1870 and more after an 1881 fire.
165 Marlborough Street
Thomas Forbes Cushing, who padded the substantial family fortune in the China trade, had this home constructed in 1871. This designers were Englishman George Snell and his partner James Gregerson, who is a cipher to architectural history.
RETURN TO COMMONWEALTH AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT.
191 Commonwealth Avenue
This six-story hotel building was raised by members of the family of famed Harvard natural history professor Louis Agassiz in 1872. His son Alexander made a fortune in copper mines on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula which paid the bills here. Each of the floors featured only a single apartment but when it went condo in 1973 fifteen units were created.
195 Commonwealth Avenue
John Pickering Putnam was one of the pioneers of the modern apartment building with projects in Back Bay; he did this brick house trimmed in terra-cotta and dominated by an octagonal corner tower for F.C. Haven in 1881.
St. Botolph Club
199 Commonwealth Avenue
The leading architectural firm of the Gilded Age, Charles Follen McKim, William Rutherford Mead and Stanford White, came up from New York City to contribute this roomy Colonial Revival manor house to the Back Bay streetscape in 1890. It became the clubhouse for the St. Botolph Club, a gentlemen’s social club that was founded in 1880 and named after the patron saint of Boston.
211 Commonwealth Avenue
Architects Arthur Rotch and George Thomas Tilden designed some of the most elegant buildings in Boston between 1880 and 1895, including this one for W.P. Mason. The restrained exterior hides one of the town’s fanciest interiors. When this house with its 11 bedrooms, 14 bathrooms, elevators and five-car garage came on the market in 2012 it was listed for $17.9 million.
217 Commonwealth Avenue
In 1886, by a special act of the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Algonquin Club of Boston was incorporated with 50 founding members. By the next year the Algonquins had the finest clubhouse in town, an interpretation of an Italian Renaissance palazzo rendered in white limestone by Stanford White of the fabled New York shop of McKim, Mead, and White.
Commonwealth Avenue at 21 Fairfield Street
William Whitney Lewis designed 19 buildings that still stand in Back Bay; this one from 1880 was created for G.P. King. Lewis was also a tinkerer who invented a contraption called the “Joy-0 Irrigator Flower Pot” which kept window box gardens watered.
247 Commonwealth Avenue
By the turn of the 20th century pioneering Back Bay homes were being pulled down in favor of more contemporary mansions, such as this 1905 Neoclassical replacement designed by William Rantoul for Emily Mandell.
Charles Francis Adams House
Commonwealth Avenue at 20 Gloucester Street
This multi-gabled 1886 confection was the home of Charles Francis Adams, grandson of the 6th President of the United States and great-grandson of the second, who was in charge of the Union Pacific Railroad at the time. It was designed by Boston architects Robert Swain Peabody and John Goddard Stearns, Jr. at the height of their popularity.
H.M. Sears Mansion
287 Commonwealth Avenue
The Sears family reverberated around the business and political community in Boston since the days of the Revolution and Beacon Hill and Back Bay are sprinkled with family mansions. This limestone house that stretches out along Commonwealth Avenue was constructed for H.M. Sears in 1892. Arthur Rotch and George Thomas Tilden provided the Neoclassical design.
Exeter Street Theatre
Newbury Street at Exeter Street
This building began life with the founding of the First Spiritual Temple in 1883 but Back Bay socialites turned it into a movie palace in 1914. Noted theater architect Clarence Blackall engineered the transformation into the Exeter Theatre, which operated until 1974.
355 Commonwealth Avenue
Oakes Ames made a fortune selling shovels and other tools to the developing railroads and the Union Army and parlayed his success into the United States House of Representatives. Ames was one of the primary movers in completing the Union Pacific part of the transcontinental railroad but his career ended in scandal over alleged improper sale of stock. His son Oliver made good on the obligations and there was enough left over to build the largest house in Back Bay here in 1882. Architect Carl Fehmer created one of the town’s first French-influenced Chateauesque castles on this corner. Supposedly spurred by the desire to clear his father’s reputation and entered politics, winding up as the 35th Governor of Massachusetts in 1887. In 1926 the building was sold to the National Casket Company who used it to display caskets.
TURN RIGHT ON MASSACHUSETTS AVENUE.
416 Marlborough Street
With his partner, Charles Amos Cummings, Willard Thomas Sears decorated Back Bay with 21 single-family residences and this elegant apartment house in 1895. It stated as 32 units and became 73 condos when it was converted in 1989.
TURN RIGHT ON BEACON STREET.
483 Beacon Street
With the success of the Marlbourough, architects Willard Thomas Sears and Charles Amos Cummings were back in the residential hotel game in 1898 with the Hotel Cambridge. The classically-flavored facade climbs to meet a whimsical mansard roof.
448 Beacon Street
Architects Robert Day Andrews and Herbert Jacques dispensed with the typical Back Bay brownstone and dark brick in favor of red sandstone and contrasting yellow bricks for this 1889 mansion with a prominent corner turret for R.C. Hooper. Andrews, Jacques and Augustus Neal Rantoul would cap their careers by adding wings to the Massachusetts State Capitol in 1913.
New England College of Optometry
422-426 Beacon Street
This building was designed by Julius Schweinfurth who duplicated French styles he saw in a European tour. It was built in 1904 for Ralph Williams and is now part of the New England College of Optometry, the oldest continually operating eye college in the country. Dr. August Andreas Klein tarted his Klein School of Optics in 1894 and entered a peripatetic existence before the school landed here.
266 Beacon Street
This early splash of the Italian Renaissance from 1886 comes from the pens of George Russell Shaw and Henry S. Hunnewell; the client was Elizabeth Skinner. Hunnewell was a relative of railroad and iron mogul Horatio Hollis Hunnewell and picked up many commissions near his family’s Michigan iron mines
242 Beacon Street
This building was designed by John Hubbard Sturgis and Charles Brigham and built in 1880 for Thomas Danforth Boardman, from a family of pewterers that reached back five generations. Later it was owned by the Cabot family, one of th
241 Beacon Street
This is what a speculative Back Bay house looked like, investor Henry S. Whitwell commissioned it in 1868. One buyer, in 1881, was Julia Ward Howe, one-time abolition leader and author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
170 Beacon Street
This Italian Renaissance in light sandstone has seen many prominent owners, including Charles Sumner, who was president and treasurer of his family’s firm, the Dennison Manufacturing Company, makers of boxes, tags, stationers’ supplies, and paper specialties. It is now owned by the German government.
165 Beacon Street
This brownstone is one of only four Gothic residences in Back Bay; you can find the others at 76 Commonwealth, 80 Commonwealth and 117 Marlborough. It was constructed in 1869 for John Haldane Flagler who founded the National Tube Company but the Flaglers never moved in.
150 Beacon Street
Isabella Stewart Gardner’s father built her a house here in 1861 and bought a connector to his own house. She assembled the finest private art collection in Boston while living here. Both were demolished in 1904 and E.S. Draper built this double-wide Italian Renaissance home for Alvan Fuller, founder of Fuller Cadillac Company.
Gibson House Museum
137 Beacon Street
This slender townhouse with a central oriel window was built for Catherine Gibson in 1859 after her husband, sugar merchant John Gardiner Gibson, had died. It was designed by Edward C. Cabot as a pair of side-by-side homes, a nephew, Samuel Hammond Russell, lived in the other. It is open to the public today as a house museum.
118 Beacon Avenue
The grand bowfronts of Beacon Hill seldom made the trip down to the Back Bay generations later but architects Arthur Little and Herbert W. C. Brown put one of their Colonial Revival creation in 1907 for boiler and elevator manufacturer Henry Parsons King.
CONTINUE ON BEACON STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT PUBLIC GARDEN.