Beacon Street Width and Setbacks

Beacon Street west of Arlington Street was originally constructed by the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation as a toll road on top of the dam it had built from the corner of Charles and Beacon Streets in the east to Sewall’s Point in the west (at what is today Kenmore Square). The road, known as the Mill Dam Road, was opened for travel in 1821, and connected with the existing Beacon Street further east.

Mill Dam Road, looking west from the Boston State House, attributed to Southworth & Hawes (ca. 1858); courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum

In 1854, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts entered into an agreement with the corporation under which the corporation received title to the tidal flats running two hundred feet north of the dam and, in exchange, it agreed to release its claims to tidal lands south of the dam, including the toll road. The corporation subsequently filled the land north of dam and sold the lots for housing. The tidal lands on the south side of the Mill Dam Road were owned by the Commonwealth (from Arlington to point about 95 east of what is now Fairfield Street) and the Boston Water Power Corporation (west of the Commonwealth’s land). They also filled their land and sold it for housing.

The road on top of the dam continued to be known as the Mill Dam Road or as Western Avenue, then as the Beacon Street Extension, and ultimately was accepted by the City of Boston and laid out as a public way, 70 feet wide, as a continuation of Beacon Street, in December of 1868.

Click here for additional information on the overall development of the Back Bay, and click here for information on the development of the land on the north side of Beacon Street.

The Commonwealth, the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation, and the Boston Water Power Company agreed that, on the south side of Beacon, houses would be set back 22 feet from the street (the same distance as required on Marlborough and Newbury), and on the north side, the houses would be set back 19 feet in the first block and 20 feet on the blocks further west. Bay windows, porticos, and other structures were allowed to project into the setback area, subject to specific limitations.

Those setback requirements were included in the original land deeds or in subsequent deeds conveying the land before it was developed. They were binding on the original land purchasers and subsequent owners.

Click here for more information on the restrictions contained in the deeds of Back Bay land.

In May of 1894, the Boston Street Commissioners initiated a proceeding to consider establishing a uniform “building line” on both sides of Beacon between Arlington and Massachusetts Avenue. A May 14, 1894, Boston Globe article on the proposal commented that the line would correspond to “existing buildings.” After public hearings, the new building lines were adopted in January of 1895, specifying a setback from the street of 20 feet on both sides of Beacon.

The new building lines were established after almost all of the houses had been constructed between Arlington and Massachusetts Avenue. The houses on the south side of the street had been built to comply with the 22 foot setback required by the deeds, yet the building line adopted by the Street Commissioners specified a 20 foot setback which conformed with the existing fronts of the buildings. Press accounts at the time did not note this discrepancy nor explain why, as stated in a December 11, 1894, Boston Globe article, the Street Commissioners deemed “that the public necessity and convenience” required the building lines to be adopted.

The impetus for the action appears to have been an anomaly in the calculation of the location of the northern boundaries of the lots on the south side of Beacon which could have called into question whether the houses already built were in conformance with the 22 foot setback requirement contained in the deeds.

As explained two years later, in a November 5, 1897, Boston Herald article, the original surveys of the Back Bay were conducted by John B. Henck, engineer for the Commonwealth, who established the north boundary of Beacon Street as being at the top of the Mill Dam. His measurements were used to determine the original plan for the Back Bay and, based on his measurements, Beacon was established as a 70 foot wide street and his line used as its northern boundary and a line 70 feet to the south as the southern boundary. Subsequently, Stephen P. Fuller, engineer and surveyor, was retained to lay out the streets and lots, and he measured the north side of Beacon Street from the bottom of the wall, which was 1.77 feet south of the baseline used by John Henck. Fuller then laid out the lots, the passageways, and the streets working from Boylston north to the Charles River. As a result, the northern boundary of the lots on the south side of Beacon were 71.77 feet (rather than 70 feet) south of the southern boundaries of the lots on the north side of the street.

Comparison of setbacks based on 70′ and 71.77′ width of Beacon Street

It’s unclear what happened next, but it appears that when the first houses were built on the south side of Beacon, John Henck’s baseline was used to determine the north side of Beacon, to which a distance of 70 feet was added for the presumed street width and then 22 feet for the setback from the street. The houses were built with the assumption that they were set back 22 feet, as required by the land deeds. The discrepancy went undiscovered, subsequent houses were built to conform with the earlier ones, and in December of 1868, Beacon Street was accepted as a public way with the northern boundary based on the baseline established by John Henck’s surveys, and the southern boundary set at 70 feet south of that line.

In fact, the southern boundary of the street was 1.77 feet further south and, as a result, the houses were set back only about 20 feet and would not comply with the 22 foot setback.

The building line set by the Street Commissioners in January of 1895 established a setback of 20 feet, not the 22 feet specified in the deeds. This conformed with what had been built and eliminated any question that the existing buildings were not in conformance.

The discrepancy between the calculation of the 22 foot setback used to build the houses and 20 foot “as built” setback appears to have remained uncommented upon and unexplained in the press until two years later.

One of the few remaining vacant lots on Beacon between Arlington and Massachusetts was at the southeast corner of Beacon and Massachusetts Avenue. Immediately east of the lot were three four-unit apartment houses at 479-481-483 Beacon that had been built in 1891.

In June of 1892, Washington B. Thomas, a major real estate investor, purchased 479-481 Beacon, and in April and May of 1896, he purchased 483 Beacon and the vacant lot at the corner. He retained architect Willard T. Sears to prepare plans for an apartment building that would have extended from the corner of Beacon and Massachusetts Avenue east for 112.5 feet, comprising the vacant lot at the corner and 479-481-483 Beacon, which would have been razed.

Comparison of building lines based on 70’ and 71.77’ width of Beacon Street

In late 1897, Washington B. Thomas advised the Street Commission that his surveyors, Hyde & Sherry, had noted the boundary discrepancy and argued that the location of the 20 foot building line should be measured from the southern boundary adopted by the City in 1868 (which remained the official boundary), not from the southern boundary of the street as it actually existed, 1.77 feet further south. As the Boston Globe observed on November 13, 1897, he proposed “to take advantage of all of his rights,” and as the Boston Herald’s more extensive November 5, 1897, article noted, if his position was adopted, “it will be possible, so far as the restrictions are concerned, for Mr. Thomas to build about 21 inches beyond or north of the line of the other houses.”

In December of 1897, the Street Commissioners adopted relocated street boundaries establishing Beacon as 71.77 feet wide from Arlington to Massachusetts Avenue.

Washington B. Thomas subsequently built a smaller apartment house, the Hotel Cambridge, utilizing the vacant corner lot and the lot at 483 Beacon (which he razed), and retaining 479-481 Beacon as separate buildings operated in conjunction with the new building.