Commonwealth of Massachusetts Lands in the Back Bay

In 1852, the Massachusetts legislature (Chapter 79, Resolves of 1852) established the Commissioners on Boston Harbor and the Back Bay “to determine and settle, by agreement, arbitration or process of law,” the disputed claims to the tidal lands of the Back Bay and to “devise or adopt a plan for changing the use of the said lands and flats, or any part thereof, from mill purposes to land purposes, and for filling up and improving the same, for building lots.”

On June 9, 1854, the Commonwealth entered into an indenture with the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation, owners of the Mill Dam and Cross Dam, under which the corporation received the tidal lands two hundred feet north of the Mill Dam (now the land on the north side of Beacon Street). The corporation already had built a sea wall about 200 feet north of the dam, west to a point at about what is today Clarendon Street, and had filled the land between the dam and the sea wall. Under the agreement, the corporation agreed to extend the sea wall to what is now Kenmore Square and to fill the land, to release its claims to land south of the Mill Dam, and to forego its right to collect tolls on the Mill Dam Road (now Beacon Street) after May 1, 1863.

Also on June 9, 1854, the Commonwealth entered into an indenture with the Boston Water Power Company (a subsidiary of the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation) under which the company received the tidal lands bounded on the north by the Mill Dam (including the south side of Beacon Street), on the west by the Cross Dam (which connected with the Mill Dam at a point about 210 feet of what is today Hereford Street and ran southwest at approximately a 45 degree angle), on the east by the Commonwealth’s lands by a line about 95 feet east of what is now Fairfield Street, and on the south by a line running west down the middle of what is now Commonwealth Avenue by land owned by the David Sears family to a point about 135 feet west of Hereford and then running southwest at approximately a 45 degree angle by a line parallel with and about 533 feet east of the Cross Dam. It also received additional land south of what is today Providence Street and east of Exeter Street. In exchange, the company released its right to flow water over the flats (thereby making it possible for the land to be filled) and agreed to fill its land and construct streets and sewers in accordance with a schedule and plan developed by the Commonwealth.

Approximate area of land granted to the City of Boston under the Tripartite agreement; shown on 2015 block map

On December 11, 1856, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, City of Boston, and Boston Water Power Company entered into an indenture, known as the Tripartite Agreement, to resolves issues regarding the sewer system to be constructed across the Back Bay). As part of the agreement, Boston received about 2-3/4 acres for addition to the Public Garden. The eastern boundary of the Commonwealth’s lands originally ran at an angle from Beacon Street at a point about at Brimmer Street, southwesterly to Providence Street. The land granted to Boston was a triangular lot that ran west on Beacon from Brimmer Street to a new street – Arlington – to be perpendicular to Beacon and immediately west of the Public Garden.

In a separate agreement on December 27, 1856, the Commonwealth and Boston Water Power Company agreed to expand the width of Commonwealth Avenue from 120 feet to 200 feet, with a mall in the center. In exchange, the company received the Commonwealth’s lands to the west of the Cross Dam.

The Commonwealth retained about 108 acres composed of land bounded on the north by the south side of Beacon, on the south by Providence Street extending west to become the alley south of Boylston, on the west by an irregular line between Exeter and Fairfield Streets bordering the Boston Water Power Company’s lands and on the Sears family lands, and on the east by a line running from about Brimmer Street southwest to Providence Street and Arlington Street.

The map below illustrates the lands owned by the Commonwealth, the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation, the Boston Water Power Company, and the David Sears family, drawn on the block plan for the residential portion of the neighborhood in 2015.

Original owners of Back Bay, shown on 2015 block map

The filling, management, and sale of the Commonwealth’s land was under the authority of the three Commissioners on the Boston Harbor and Back Bay (renamed the Commissioners on the Back Bay in 1855; Chapter 388, Acts of 1855). In 1861, their authority was expanded to include the former responsibilities of the state land office, which was abolished, and their title was changed to Commissioners on Public Lands (Chapter 85, Acts of 1861). In 1879, the Commissioners responsibilities were merged with the responsibilities of the state harbor commissioners and their title was again changed, to Harbor and Land Commissioners (Chapter 263, Acts of 1879).

Plan of Commonwealth lands, 5Dec1856 (Suffolk Co. Deed Registry, Book 743, end of book)

The Commonwealth sold its land starting in 1857. The earliest transactions were by private sales negotiated by the Commissioners. In 1860, the legislature required that sales be made by public auctions (Chapter 200, Acts of 1860) and thereafter the land was sold in that manner. The last negotiated sale was on May 2, 1860, and the first auction was held on October 24, 1860. The auctions continued until March of 1872, when they were suspended due to depressed real estate values. In 1879, the legislature authorized the sale of lots with frontages of up to 100 feet by private sale (Chapter 199, Acts of 1879). The land sales resumed in May of 1879 and the last of the remaining land was sold in 1886.

The earlier transactions occurred before or while the land was being filled, and the deeds frequently included language with respect to the filling of the land and the provision of streets, alleys, and sewers.

In some cases, single lots were purchased by individuals planning to build their homes on the land. In other cases, multiple lots or entire blocks were purchased by investors, real estate dealers, or building contractors who then subdivided the land for resale or built houses for speculative sale.

All of the deeds for Commonwealth land included deed restrictions governing the buildings that would be constructed on the land that were binding on those who bought the land and on their successors. The specifics of the restrictions evolved over the years, but usually included limitations on how buildings could be used (prohibiting certain commercial uses), specified the number of feet that houses were to be set back from the arterial (north-south) streets, and required a minimum height (limiting the maximum height was not a concern in this pre-elevator era).  Click here for further information on Back Bay Deed Restrictions.

First Land Sales: 1857-1860

Between 1857 and mid-1860, the land in the eastern portion of the Back Bay was sold through eighteen privately negotiated transactions, the first on August 1, 1857, and the last on May 2, 1860. Through these transactions, the Commonwealth sold all of its land between Arlington and Berkeley, all of its land on the south side of Beacon between Berkeley and Clarendon, and portions of its land at the east end of Marlborough between Berkeley and Clarendon.

Commonwealth land sales 1857-1860

Much of this land was sold in large parcels, purchased by investors who subsequently subdivided the land and resold it to others, who ultimately built houses on it. These sales included the entire south side of Beacon between Arlington and Berkeley (purchased in August of 1857 by William Warren Goddard and T. Bigelow Lawrence), and the central and western portions of both the north and south side of Commonwealth between Arlington and Berkeley (purchased in May of 1860 by Samuel Hooper).

Individual purchasers also acquired land for their own homes, including Oliver Brewster at 9 Arlington, Dr. John Homans at 11 Arlington, John D. Bates at 12 Arlington, Dr. William W. Morland at 15 Arlington, Samuel G. Ward at 1 Commonwealth, Benjamin S. Rotch at 3 Commonwealth, Abbott Lawrence at 5 Commonwealth; Frank Andrews at 6 Marlborough, and William Thomas at 10 Marlborough. Samuel Hooper, who had acquired extensive holdings on Commonwealth, retained the northwest corner of Commonwealth and Berkeley where he built homes for himself and his son, William Sturgis Hooper, at 25-27 Commonwealth.

Also during this period, the Commonwealth conveyed several parcels of land to Norman Carmine Munson and George Goss, with whom the Commonwealth had contracted to fill its land. These transactions included all of the land on the north side of Marlborough between Arlington and Berkeley, and all of the land on the south side of Beacon between Berkeley and Clarendon. In all cases, they sold the land almost immediately after acquiring it.

In their Boston’s Back Bay, which studies the filling of the Back Bay in detail, William A. Newman and Wilfred F. Holton indicate that Munson and Goss received land from both the Commonwealth and the Boston Water Power Company as partial compensation for their filling work on behalf of the two entities. The details of their arrangements with the Commonwealth are not set forth in the deeds, but it appears that they were conveyed the land at an agreed-upon value by the Commonwealth and then sold it at a higher price to buyers who already had been identified. After the last of the transactions, a May 3, 1860, article in the Boston Daily Advertiser reported that the conveyances made at that time, together with those made previously, compensated the contractors for “the full sum of $305,000 embraced in the contract of 1858” for filling the land.

The partnership between Norman Munson and George Goss ended in 1860 and George Goss moved to California. Norman Munson assumed responsibility for completing their contracts to fill the Back Bay lands. In the early 1860s, he was a successful bidder for lots offered at several of the Commonwealth’s auctions.

In July of 1859, the Commonwealth conveyed two parcels of land to the City of Boston as partial settlement of the City’s dispute with the Commonwealth over rights to lands in the Back Bay. These included a parcel at the northeast corner of Newbury and Berkeley, with a frontage of 150 feet on Newbury, and a parcel at the southwest corner of Marlborough and Berkeley, with a frontage of 250 feet on Marlborough.

Public Auctions: 1860-1872

In 1860, the legislature (Chapter 200, Acts of 1860) directed that all future sales of public land be by public auctions. The legislation stipulated terms under which purchasers could pay for the land over several years, with interest (at 5 percent per year) charged on any deferred amount. It authorized the Commissioners to issue agreements (deed bonds) under which purchasers were assured of receiving title to the land after the full amount (including interest) had been received by the Commonwealth.

Between 1860 and 1872, the Commonwealth’s land in the Back Bay was sold at twenty-three public auctions conducted by N. A. Thompson & Co., the first on October 24, 1860, and the last on March 2, 1872.

The land sold at public auction was offered in individual lots, usually with a frontage of 24 or 25 feet on Beacon and Marlborough (where the lots were 112 feet deep), and a frontage of 26 or 28 feet on Commonwealth (where the lots were 124.5 feet deep). Corner lots had wider frontages.

Through these auctions, the Commonwealth sold most of its land in the residential portion of the neighborhood, with the only land remaining unsold being at the western edge of its holdings, in the blocks between Exeter and Fairfield on Beacon, Marlborough and Commonwealth, and in the blocks between Dartmouth and Fairfield on the north side of Newbury.

The successful bidders and prices paid at the auctions were identified in contemporary news reports, often with the specific lots they purchased identified and sometimes only identified by the street on which they purchased land. They included individuals seeking to purchase land for their own homes, investors, building contractors, real estate dealers, and attorneys, and it appears that in a number of cases the bidders were acting as agents for others.

As provided by the legislation, successful bidders could pay for the land immediately and receive a deed for the land, or could pay a portion and the balance over several years, receiving a bond obligating the Commonwealth to convey the land to them upon their payment of the amount they bid (plus any interest due on any deferred amount). Most bidders opted for the latter and deeds conveying the land usually were recorded by the Commonwealth several years after the land was sold at auction.

The deed bonds were transferable and could be bought and sold. A successful bidder could sell the deed bond to someone else (and, in fact, may have been bidding on that person’s behalf) and that purchaser could resell the the bond again. As a result, the person to whom the land ultimately was conveyed by the Commonwealth’s deed might not be the original purchaser at the auction. In some cases, successful bidders might sell portions of land they acquired so that the purchaser could assemble larger or more buildable lots. Consequently, the size of a lot conveyed by the Commonwealth might be different from the size of the lot originally sold at the auction.

Commonwealth land sales 1857-1872

These transfers of the deed bonds generally were not recorded and were only occasionally referenced in deeds or other documents. As a result, it is difficult to trace fully their ownership. Although not recorded, each deed bonds nevertheless represented an enforceable legal right to the specific land purchased at the auction and, as such, allowed the holder of the bond to enter into party wall agreements and other obligations before actually taking title to the property. The agreements often were recorded and give some insight into how the deed bond market functioned.

The map to the right illustrates the years when property was sold either by private agreement (through May of 1860) or at public auction (from October of 1860 through March of 1872).

Suspension of Land Sales: 1872-1879

On March 2,1872, the Commissioners sold 28 lots at public auction. The Boston Herald report on the sale described it as “one of the most successful ever had by the Commissioners, the prices being considerably in advance of those for similar lots at the last sale.” However, the combination of the Panic of 1872 and successive economic downturns and the Great Boston Fire in November of 1872 created a prolonged depression in real estate values. As a result, the Commissioners suspended all further sales. In their 1875 Annual Report, they noted that had “received occasional applications for single lots at former minimum prices, but without any promise to bid on the lots if offered at public sale.” They urged that the law be changed to once again permit privately negotiated sales.

The Commissioners did sell one parcel of land after the March 2, 1872, auction: the lot at the northwest corner of Newbury and Exeter, with a frontage of 205 feet on Newbury, which was purchased by the City of Boston on May 10, 1873, and subsequently became the site of the Prince School. The sale was made pursuant to legislation passed in 1873 (Chapter 207, Acts of 1873).

Final Land Sales: 1879-1886

In 1879, the legislature adopted the change recommended by the Commissioners several years earlier and authorized the sale of lots with frontages of up to 100 feet by private sale (Chapter 199, Acts of 1879). The legislation specified that the sales were to be sold “on the same conditions and by the same form of deed” as prior sales, including (by implication) utilizing transferable deed bonds to secure the purchasers’ right to the land and allowing them to pay for the land over several years, receiving the deed after they had paid the full amount.

The land sales resumed in May of 1879. The Commissioners sold ten lots on the north side of Commonwealth by public auction conducted by Wheatland & Bird on May 20, 1879, but sold the remaining land through privately negotiated sales. The last of the remaining land was sold in 1886, and the last deeds for Commonwealth land were dated October 19, 1888.

In their report for 1886, the Harbor and Land Commissioners summarized the disposition of the Commonwealth’s land. Of the Commonwealth’s total acreage of 4,723,856 sf (108.44 acres), about 43 percent (2,027,083 sf) was devoted to public streets and avenues and about 8 percent (379,976 sf) was donated to various entities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Boston Society of Natural History, the State Board of Education (for the Normal Art School), Trinity Church, and the City of Boston. The remaining 49 percent (2,316,796 sf) was sold for building lots.

Unlike the earlier sales made by public auction between 1860 and 1872, there was little press coverage of the transactions in 1879 and later, and the identity of the original purchasers usually was not reported. There continued to be a delay of several years between the date of sale and the date when the Commonwealth conveyed the land by deed, and it appears likely that, as before, there were changes in both the purchasers and the lot sizes between the time the land was sold and the time it was conveyed by the Commonwealth.

The Harbor and Land Commissioners included a summary in each annual report between 1879 and 1886 indicating the total amount of land sold on each street and the amount remaining unsold. Detail on the location and date of sales in 1879 were included on a map accompanying the report, but information on the specific lots sold and their location was not included in the 1880-1886 reports.

As of 1880, there remained unsold land in the residential portion of the Back Bay on the north and south sides of Marlborough and Commonwealth at the western end of the Commonwealth’s land, between Exeter and the boundary with land owned by the Boston Water Power Company, and on the north side of Newbury between Dartmouth and the boundary with the Boston Water Power Company.

In 1880, the Commissioners sold all of the remaining land on the land on the south side of Marlborough and the north side of Commonwealth. They also sold three of the remaining five lots on the south side of Commonwealth. They sold the last two lots in 1881 and 1884.

Also in 1880, the Commissioners sold one lot on the north side of Marlborough between Exeter and the boundary with the Boston Water Power Company. They sold the remaining seven lots in 1881, 1882, 1883, 1884, and 1886.

In 1880-1881, the Commissioners sold the two remaining lots on the north side of Newbury between Exeter and Fairfield (between the land sold to the City of Boston for Prince School and the boundary with the Boston Water and Power Company). In 1880, 1881, and 1883 they sold the remainder of the land on the north side of Newbury between Dartmouth and Exeter.

The maps below illustrate the years when property was sold either by private agreement or at public auction, the years in which the property was conveyed by deed by the Commonwealth, and the years in which buildings were first constructed on the land.

Year of Commonwealth land sales: 1857-1886

Year of deeds conveying Commonwealth lands: 1857-1888

Year of first construction on Commonwealth lands: 1860-1906