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 in Copley Square, home to several of America’s most significant buildings...
bounded by Clarendon, St. James, Boylston, and Dartmouth streets
Copley Square, named for the Colonial portraitist John Singleton Copley, was created following the 1858 filling in of most of the Back Bay Fens. A bronze statue of Copley, by sculptor Lewis Cohen, graces the northern side of the square.
east side of Copley Square at 206 Clarendon Street
Dedicated in 1877, Trinity Church was voted by architects as the most important building in America in 1885. Trinity Church made the reputation of its architect, New Orleans-born Henry Hobson Richardson. On display are hallmarks of the brawny style that came to be known as “Richardsonian Romanesque” such as polychromatic rough stone, heavy arches that are often grouped in three, towers, polished columns and gables. On the inside are sculptures by Daniel Chester French of Lincoln Memorial fame and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the leading sculptor of the Gilded Age. More than 125 years later Trinity Church rests comfortably on the American Institute of Architect’s current list of the “Ten Most Significant Buildings in the United States.” It is the only church in the United States and the only building in Boston on that list.
John Hancock Tower
southeast corner of Copley Square at 200 Clarendon Street
This is the tallest building in New England, a 60-story, 790-foot tower of reflective blue mirror glass tower is Boston’s tallest, designed by Henry N. Cobb in 1976. Engineers weren’t quite ready for the demands of the plans - quarter-ton glass panels crashed to the street and during construction all the panes were replaced. The building originally swayed so badly in the wind that occupants n the upper floor suffered from motion sickness.
Copley Plaza Hotel
south side of Copley Square at 138 St. James Street
The anticipation for the Copley Plaza was so great that opening night rooms were booked 16 months in advance of its 1912 opening. Working with a $5.5 million budget, architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh crafted a Beaux Arts hotel in limestone and buff brick that rests on pilings driven 70 feet below the level of the Square. John F. Fitzgerald, mayor of Boston and grandfather of John F. Kennedy, presided over a reception of 1,000 invited celebrities and power-brokers.
Boston Public Library
west side of Copley Square at 700 Boylston Street
Charles Follen McKim designed the Boston Public Library, the first large city library for general public use in America. And large it is. With 15 million volumes Boston’s public library it is the largest city library in the country and the third largest library of any kind. McKim tapped the Italian Renaissance for the book depository in 1888 which was hailed when it opened in 1895 as “a palace for the people.” McKim gave each of the three main facades monumental inscriptions in the style of ancient Roman basilicas.
Old South Church
northwest corner of Copley Square at 645 Boylston Street
The congregation here traces its roots back to 1669 and has included the likes of Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin. This Venetian Gothic meetinghouse was designed around its landmark 246-foot high campanile by Charles Amos Cummings and Willard T. Sears in the 1870s. The composition is assembled with bands of brown, pink and grey stone and walls of Roxbury puddingstone.
WALK EAST ON BOYLSTON STREET TOWARDS PUBLIC GARDEN.
Museum of Natural History
Boylston Street at 234 Berkeley Street
The Boston Society of Natural History organized in 1830 and the collection moved into this William Gibbons Preston-designed home in 1864, infused with French elements gleaned from the architect’s time studying in Paris. In 1951 the society became the Museum of Science and skipped across the Charles River.
Warren Chambers Building
419 Boylston Street
Architects William H. Dabney and Henry B. Ball were leading cheerleaders of the Colonial Revival style at the turn of the 19th century. This six-story office building of brick and marble from 1896 was where the town’s best doctors kept offices; patients entered through a triumphal coffered arch off Boylston Street.
The Berkeley Building
420 Boylston Street
French architect Constant-Désiré Despradelle came to Boston in 1893 to take a job as Professor of Design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, espousing the Beaux-Arts style of architecture that would dominate American architecture in the early 1900s. This commercial structure from 1906 with its lively terra-cotta facade is centered around a six-story atrium; it is the most important building remaining in Boston from Despradelle.
TURN LEFT ON ARLINGTON STREET.
Arlington Street Church
northwest corner of Arlington and Boylston streets
This was the first public building erected in Back Bay, in 1861. Architects Arthur Gilman and Gridley James Fox Bryant took their inspiration for this brownstone church from St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields church on London’s Traflagar Square. It required 999 pilings sunk into the Back Bay fill to provide support for the 190-foot bell tower.
Taj Boston/Ritz-Carlton Hotel
15 Arlington Street
Paris, France hotelier César Ritz began opening Ritz-Carlton hotels in North America in 1912, setting the standard for luxurious accommodations. Boston’s, run by Edward N. Wyner, came along in 1927, a place where dress codes were strictly enforced and your blood better run blue when checking in. When the Depression hit and business slacked off Wyner insisted that the lights burn in every room at night, lest common folk might think his Ritz-Carlton was anything but fully booked. By 1940, however, all the Ritz-Carltons were closed, save for Boston’s, from which the brand would re-emerge in the 1980s.
TURN LEFT ON NEWBURY STREET.
15 Newbury Street
This Episcopalian congregation organized in 1860 and the cornerstone for this meetinghouse was in the ground the following year. The towerless church began as a simple Gothic chapel. The Leslie Lindsey Memorial Chapel came along in 1924 and ranks among the town’s architectural treasures. .
Church of the Covenant
67 Newbury Street
Benjamin Edward Bates, who made his money in banking and railroads in the middle of the 19th century, used his fortune to fund Bates College in Maine and the Church of the Covenant building, constructed of Roxbury puddingstone in 1867. America’s leading cheerleader for the Gothic Revival style, Richard M. Upjohn, drew up the plans that included a 240-foot steeple that made this Boston’s tallest building for a half-century. Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “one steeple in Boston that to my eyes seems absolutely perfect.”
Trinity Church Rectory
Newbury Street at 233 Clarendon Street
Henry Hobson Richardson designed the rectory for his Trinity Church in 1879. The entrance facade is balanced but asymmetrical, organized in thirds. His trademark Romanesque arch is created with light and dark stone voissoirs.
109 Newbury Street
Designed by the prominent architect Charles A. Cummings as his own residence in 1871, this design attempts to stuff as many medieval forms as is possible into a modest 25-foot corner lot. It remained in the Cummings family until 1922 when wife Margaret Cummings died. The store windows were then added as the building was converted to retail space.
TURN RIGHT ON CLARENDON STREET. TURN LEFT ON COMMONWEALTH AVENUE.
First Baptist Church
110 Commonwealth Avenue
This was Henry Hobson Richardson’s first important commission, received in 1872 from the Unitarian congregation of the Brattle Street Church, whose meetinghouse had been demolished that year. The sanctuary, formed in the Romanesque style with ashlar blocks of Roxbury puddingstone, was completed in 1875 but the Brattle Quare congregation disbanded the following year and the property was sold in 1882 to First Baptist, one of America’s oldest Baptist churches with roots on Noodle’s island in th eBoston Harbor in 1665. The square tower stands 176 feet high and the frieze at the top was designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, famous for the Statue of Liberty.
152 Commonwealth Avenue
The city’s most exclusive women’s club, the Chilton Club, was founded in 1910 by women who wanted a club where alcohol flowed freely and men could join the dinner, things that weren’t on the menu at the town’s reigning women’s club, the puritanical Mayflower Club. Mary Chilton, the club’s namesake, was the only Mayflower passenger to leave Plymouth and settle in Boston. When the Chilton was granted a liquor license in 1911, Reverend Cortland Myers was moved to snort, “Drinking and smoking cigarettes by women is the most disgusting influence in this city.”
TURN LEFT ON DARTMOUTH STREET AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO NEWBURY STREET.
Boston Art Club
270 Dartmouth Street at Newbury Street, southwest corner
Conceived by a group of artists, the Boston Art Club held its first meeting on New Year’s Day, 1855. After staging exhibitions around town for a quarter-century enough funds were accumulated to stage a national design contest for a permanent clubhouse. William Ralph Emerson, nephew of Ralph Waldo Emerson known for his work on country houses, emerged as the winner. his ornamental design pulsed with terra-cotta decoration laid onto red brick walls trimmed in quarry-faced brownstone.
275 Dartmouth Street at Newbury Street, southeast corner
Architect John Faxon drew upon Moorish influences to create this exuberant castle-like guest house in 1886 with deep red terra-cotta. Only a few different types of ornamentation were used so only a few molds were required, keeping the costs down on the project.
J.P. Putnam House
277 Dartmouth Street at Newbury Street, northeast corner
J. Pickering Putnam, who was known for his early apartment buildings, designed this corner house for himself in 1878. He picked a medieval style gleaned from his training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France, fashioning a picturesque roof with projecting gable, towers and a fetching corner bartizan perched on a column.
RETURN TO COMMONWEALTH AVENUE AND TURN LEFT.
160 Commonwealth Avenue
For many years after it greeted its first guests in 1871, the Hotel Vendome reigned as Boston’s premier hotel. And with a price tag of $1 million (at a time when a good working wage was about a dollar a day), it should have been. Architect William Preston used the generous building fund to outfit his French Second Empire creation in gray Italian and Tuckahoe marble. In 1882 guest enjoyed the town’s first electric lights in the Hotel Vendome. In the 1960s, its time passed, the hotel dodged the wrecking ball and won a restoration but before the job could be finished a fire destroyed the southeast chunk of the building. After the fire was out, a wall collapsed and killed nine firefighters in the worst fire-related disaster in Boston history. The building today houses apartments, offices and stores.
176-178 Commonwealth Avenue
This splash of Flemish Revival architecture was added to the Back Bay streetscape in 1883 by architect Charles Atwood. The client was J.B. Bell, a celebrated physician.
TURN LEFT ON EXETER STREET.
Newbury Street at Exeter Street
This former grammar school from 1875 was designed by George A. Clough, city architect for ten years. He employed brick with brownstone trim for the building that has done duty as luxury living space since the 1980s after the school was retired.
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.
RETURN TO COMMONWEALTH AVENUE AND TURN LEFT.
270 Commonwealth Avenue
No expense was spared for this six-story residential hotel in 1896; architect Charles B. Dunham prepared the Renaissance Revival plans.
303 Commonwealth Avenue
America’s foremost Gilded Age architectural firm, Charles McKim, William Mead, and Stanford White of New York City, contributed several designs in Back Bay - this is the last of them, built in arestrained classical manner in 1895 for G.A. Nickerson.
John F. Andrew Mansion
Commonwealth Avenue at 32 Hereford Street
McKim, Mead, and White introduced Italian Renaissance styling to the Back Bay with this mansion for lawyer John F. Andrew in 1888. It was a big year for Andrew - that year he was elected to the first of two terms in the United States Congress. He lost a bid for a third term and resumed his former life as an attorney but died in 1895 when he was only 44 years old.
Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery
Commonwealth Avenue at 40 Hereford Street
Miss Fannie Merritt Farmer, who published the first cookbook to include exact measurements in 1896, started Miss Farmer’s School of Cookery here in 1902. Teaching the connection between good food and good health became the driving force of Farmer’s work. She herself overcame childhood polio and, later in life, two strokes. This building was designed by George Russell Shaw and Henry S. Hunnewell and raised in 1886.
314 Commonwealth Avenue
The Back Bay was not especially welcoming to a chateau from the French countryside as architect Charles Brigham discovered when he designed this arresting mansion for industrialist Albert Cameron Burrage in 1899. The exterior has nearly 50 dragons and gargoyles, 30 cherubs, 300 bibliophiles, and lion, eagle, and human heads carved into the elaborate stonework. Disparaging comments about the ornate confection reverberated around Commonwealth Avenue. Burrage began his career as a lawyer and became a gas company president. When this house was built Burrage had substantial positions in Amalgamated Copper and Standard Oil and if the whispers about his house bothered him he could always hang out on his 256-foot yacht. The Burrage family lived here until 1947; the last time the place went on the market the price tag was $5 million.
TURN LEFT ON HEREFORD STREET. TURN RIGHT ON BOYLSTON STREET.
Engine and Hose House Number 33
941 Boylston Street
City architect Arthur Vinal designed this building in 1887 to do duty as the first combined fire and police station in Boston. The turret tower was used for drying fire hoses and the central bay led to the stables - the town’s first ladder truck, pulled by a three-horse team, belonged to Engine Company 33 and Ladder Company 15, which is still active. In 1976 the police station was renovated into galleries for the Institute of Contemporary Art.
955 Boylston Street
There are two buildings bearing the address 955 Boylston Street. Both of them were originally the home of the Boston Police Department’s former Division 16. Since Division 16 was consolidated in 1976, this Romanesque-inspired public building has always been a bar, club, or restaurant.
TURN AROUND AND WALK EAST ON BOYLSTON AVENUE.
Tennis and Racquet Club
939 Boylston Street
What we know today as tennis is actually “lawn tennis.” Real tennis as it was invented is court tennis and there are fewer than 50 courts worldwide and one of them is here. Architects J. Harleston Parker and Douglas H. Thomas designed the social and athletic style in the Classical Revival style in 1902.
CONTINUE ON BOYLSTON STREET TO COPLEY SQUARE AND THE TOUR STARTING POINT.