Frequently asked (or should be asked) questions
- What is BackBayHouses.org?
- What territory is covered?
- Who is included?
- What about buildings that have been demolished?
- What about buildings that have been combined?
- How current is the information on how buildings are being used?
- What information is included?
- How are dates handled?
- What about architectural changes?
- What are your sources?
- Where did you get your photographs and images?
- Where did you get the architectural drawings?
- What if I see a mistake, have more information to provide, or want more information?
- What if I want to alter a Back Bay building?
- What if I have a question about the Back Bay neighborhood in general?
What is BackBayHouses.org? BackBayHouses.org, launched in 2014, is designed to provide comprehensive information on the historic buildings in the residential portion of the Back Bay, including who lived in the houses and how the buildings have been used over the past 150-plus years.
The site is intended for use by preservationists, local historians, architects, genealogists, realtors, residents and building owners, and anyone interested in the history of the Back Bay neighborhood. It is entirely non-commercial and has no advertising, nor does it accept grants.
The site received a 2014 Preservation Achievement Award from the Boston Preservation Alliance, a 2015 Preservation Award from the Victorian Society of New England, and a 2018 Citizen Preservation Award from the Boston Landmarks Commission.
What territory is covered? There are many definitions of the Back Bay. For realtors, the neighborhood is huge and includes many areas that most others would consider Bay Village, the South End, the Fenway, or the Symphony districts. For historians, it is a much smaller area but still imprecise.
The Back Bay Architectural Commission‘s jurisdiction is probably the best definition of the historical Back Bay neighborhood: The Charles River to the north, Arlington Street to the east, the northern side of Boylston to the south, and Charlesgate East to the west. Within this area, the Commission has defined the area north of the alleys between Newbury and Commonwealth as residential, and the area to the south as commercial.
This website includes the buildings within this residential portion of the Back Bay: Beacon, Marlborough, and Commonwealth Avenue from Arlington to Charlesgate East, and the north-south streets (Arlington through Charlesgate East) from the Charles River to Newbury. Buildings on Newbury Street and further south are not included.
Although the Back Bay Architectural Commission’s definition of the residential portion of the neighborhood sets the southern boundary at the Public Alleys between Commonwealth and Newbury, this website includes the buildings between those Public Alleys and Newbury Street (15 Arlington, 247-249 Berkeley, 230-236 Clarendon, 277-283 Dartmouth; 26 Exeter; 31-38 Fairfield, 29-36 Gloucester; and 45-53 Hereford).
Who is included? With a few exceptions, most Back Bay buildings were built as single family dwellings. Over time, and largely after World War I, many were transformed into multiple dwellings – lodging houses, dormitories, fraternities, or apartments – or were used for various institutional purposes, such as schools or medical offices. Later still, many buildings were converted into condominiums – probably the single most important innovation that allowed the original structures to continue to be used for residential purposes and saved many buildings from destruction.
The focus of this website is on the people who lived in the buildings when they were primarily single-family residences. As they were transmogrified into other uses, less information is provided but an effort is made to identify what those new uses were and when the changes occurred. In a few cases, where the information has been available and is of special interest, more detail is provided, for example if a well-known person was a resident of a Back Bay apartment building or lodging house.
The houses of the Back Bay were largely intended as winter residences, and many (if not most) of the early inhabitants had second homes (and sometimes multiple homes) for other seasons. If they were traveling or living at one of their other residences. they might lease or lend their homes to others for the winter season. In those cases, the temporary residents often were listed in the Boston Blue Books at the Back Bay address. In some cases, the same people would move from house to house, spending their winters at different Back Bay homes over a series of seasons. Where possible, these temporary residents have been included.
In general (and with some exceptions), information on the residents who lived in Back Bay homes after about 1990 is not included, even if the house was still a single-family dwelling. Although this information is available from public or published sources (as is all of the information in this website). it has been omitted so as not to trespass on personal privacy.
What about buildings that have been demolished? In some cases, the original buildings have been replaced by later buildings. In those cases, information on the residents of the now-gone buildings is included under the information for the subsequent structure.
What about buildings that have been combined? In some cases. two or more houses have been combined into one building. In some cases, these are listed under their individual addresses; in others, they are listed under the new, combined address. If you don’t find it in one place, look in the other.
How current is the Information on how buildings are being used? This information has been assembled over a ten year period and is generally current through 2015. In some cases, it may be more recent. However, the information on building uses should be assumed to be current through 2015. and no later unless a later date is given.
Earlier versions of this information on some of the houses was contributed by the author of this website to Bosarchitecture.com in the 2008-2010 period. The information in those summaries has been significantly updated and augmented in this website.
What information is included? In genealogy, it’s very easy to get carried away and include too much information, especially when one is working on a topic like the residents of the Back Bay, where so many interesting people have lived and (fortunately) so much information is available.
In compiling the summaries for each house, the objective was to identify who lived in (and, if possible, who owned) each property: their names (including wives’ unmarried names) and a very high-level summary of what they did in the world (employment, significant accomplishments, etc.). This meant working first from directories, insurance maps, permit records, deeds, and US Census entries, and then fleshing out the information from biographical sketches, vital records, news articles, genealogies, and other sources (see the separate discussion of sources, below).
In some cases, the search yields a huge amount of information – more than could possibly be included. That information has been distilled down and, inevitably, much has been omitted. For example, many Back Bay residents were distinguished by their good works: their donations to public charities, educational and religious institutions, and the like. With a few exceptions, this information been omitted, largely because it is usually easily available on-line from other sources.
In a few cases – usually folks who have especially colorful or atypical careers – more information has been included. But in most, it has been pared down for the website.
In some cases, try as one might, it simply wasn’t possible to determine who a particular person was or to learn much about them. This was especially true in the case of short-term and seasonal residents of the Back Bay homes.
In many cases, the same people lived in several different Back Bay homes. In those cases, the same biographical information has been repeated for each house so that the each house summary is a stand-alone document and need not be referenced to a different one.
How are dates handled? Information on when a particular person or family occupied a residence is usually based on their being listed in the City Directory or the Blue Book, being enumerated in the US Census, or being named in a deed or permit application or other Building Department document.
All of these sources are imprecise. For example, if someone is listed in the 1888 Blue Book, it usually means that they were in residence during the 1887-1888 winter season, but they may actually have lived there for only part of that period. Similarly, the fact that a name appears on a deed or permit application doesn’t necessarily mean that they have taken up residence. In fact, often their residency may not be for many months after they take ownership of a property.
For these reasons, the dates of residence are usually phrased as being “by,” “during,” or “until” a certain year. These entries should be understood as meaning a general period rather than a specific starting or ending date.
Similarly, most other dates (with the exception of deeds, original building permit applications, and final building inspection reports) are stated in terms of the month and year, but not the specific day. For example, although the specific date of a particular building permit application is known, that date will be different from the date the permit was granted and even further different from when the actual work is done. Therefore, permits are usually phrased as “in [month] of [year] [owner] applied for (and subsequently received) permission to…”.
This approach has been adopted even in the case of marriage and death dates inasmuch as the information is sometimes from sources such as City Directories or published genealogies, which can be inaccurate especially as to the precise day of marriage or death. Because this website is not intended as a definitive genealogy of individuals, the month and year is given but not the exact date, to reduce the likelihood of republishing data that hasn’t been verified from primary sources, such as marriage or death registers.
What about architectural changes? The focus of this website is on occupancy and use of the Back Bay residential buildings, not their specific architecture (about which there are ample expert sources of information). However, in many cases, architectural features have been noted and architectural drawings have been included. In addition, when the data has been found, the dates of significant changes – the lowering of front entrances, major additions, etc. – have been included.
What are your sources? The starting point for any research on the houses of the Back Bay, including this website, is Bainbridge Bunting’s Houses of Boston’s Back Bay: An Architectural History, 1840-1917 (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge; 1967). This is required reading for anyone interested in Back Bay houses and architecture, and fortunately it is still in print (as of 2015) and readily available.
Bunting’s primary focus is on the architecture of the houses. The initial sources of determining who owned and/or lived in them were the property deeds, assessment lists, Boston Blue Books (published from 1877 through 1937), which list the residents by address, Boston City Directories, US Censuses, owners shown on the Hopkins (1874) and Bromley (1883-1938) insurance maps, and permit and other documents Building Department documents from the Boston Inspectional Services Division.
With this as a starting point, it was possible to do more in-depth genealogical research. Major sources included:
- The Massachusetts birth, marriage, and death registers available through the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) and Ancestry.com, which often also included the specific addresses of the individuals.
- The Register of the NEHGS, and especially the Necrologies and Memoirs of NEHGS members.
- The Class Reports published periodically for most Harvard classes.
- The wealth of documents available on Ancestry.com, and notably passport applications, passenger lists, and wills and probate records.
- News articles, obituaries, marriage announcements, and reports of real estate transactions from the archives of the Boston Globe and, less frequently, from the New York Times and, when available on-line, the Boston Evening Transcript.
- Biographical sketches published while the subjects were still living or only recently deceased, most notably Who’s Who in New England (A. N. Marquis &Co., Chicago), first (1909) and second (1916) editions; Woman’s Who’s Who in America: 1914-1915 (The American Commonwealth Company, NY); the multi-volume Genealogical and Personal Memoirs for Boston and Eastern Massachusetts (1908) and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs for Massachusetts (1910), edited by William Richard Cutter (Lewis Historical Publishing Co., NY); the multi-volume Biographical History of Massachusetts (1908 to 1917), edited by Samuel Atkins Eliot (Massachusetts Biographical Society, Boston); Boston of To-Day (1892), edited by Richard Herndon (Post Publishing Company, Boston); Men of Massachusetts (the Boston Press Club, 1903); and similar publications.
When these sources failed, others, such as printed family genealogies and on-line genealogical tables from Ancestry.com and RootsWeb were consulted. Wherever possible, however, the information in these sources was subsequently crossed-checked against other sources.
Sources for information on the physical evolution of the houses — major remodelings over the decades — include architectural plans, historic photographs, permits and other building department documents, and the Sanborn insurance maps (which, unlike the Bromley maps, do not include the names of owners but do include information on the physical characteristics of each house).
Where did you get the photographs and images? Unless otherwise noted, the recent photographs were taken by the website administrator. Historic photographs come from a number of archives, libraries, and private collections, all of which are identified (to the extent the image-holder wishes) in the captions.
Public and non-profit organizations that have provided images include the Boston Athenaeum, Boston City Archives, Boston Public Library’s Arts Department and Print Department, Historic New England, Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Revolutionary Spaces (formerly the Bostonian Society), and the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The site also includes a number of photographs taken by Bainbridge Bunting, author of Houses of Boston’s Back Bay, and provided by The Gleason Partnership, architects, and the Boston Athenaeum. Most were taken in the early 1940s, although a few are from the 1950s and early 1960s. Some of these images are less than ideal in exposure and composition, and, where possible, have been corrected and improved. Even when less than optimal, these images have been included so as to provide as comprehensive as possible a record of how the houses appeared in the 1940s.
Where did you get the architectural drawings? The architectural plans and drawings included on the site come from a number of sources, each of which is identified on the webpage where it appears. In some cases, these drawings are in relative poor condition and have been digitally enhanced to eliminate tears, stains, and other damage.
Major sources of original drawings have been the Peabody and Stearns Collection maintained by the Boston Public Library Arts Department, and drawings in the collections of Historic New England.
In addition, the City of Boston Blueprints Collection includes plans submitted to Boston‘s Building Department between 1879 to 1969. This collection contains only a few plans for the original buildings in the residential district of the Back Bay, but does include extensive material submitted with permits for remodeling or replacing buildings in the neighborhood. When these involved new buildings or significant exterior changes, they have been referenced on the relevant webpages and, when possible, scans of the plans have been included.
This collection originally was located in the Boston Public Library’s Arts Department, but was relocated in 2019 to the Boston City Archives. There are many plans for Back Bay buildings in this collection which are not referenced on BackBayHouses.org but which may be of interest to homeowners. Click here for further information on how to access the collection, including how to locate the “bin number” (the file number) needed by the City Archive to access the plans (if the plans are referenced on BackBayHouses.org, the bin number also is cited).
What if I see a mistake, have more information to provide, or want to have more information? This is an evolving work and undoubtedly has mistakes, omissions, typographical errors, and other problems that need to be corrected. Please use the form under the contact tab to provide any information and the corrections/additions will be made.
Also, if you have any historic photographs of these houses that you would like to see included, please provide them for consideration.
As discussed above, in many cases, there is more information on the people mentioned in this website, including more specific dates, source data, etc. If you are researching someone in particular, don’t hesitate to use the form under the contact tab to ask if more information is available.
What if I want to alter a Back Bay building? The beauty and historic nature of the Back Bay is one of Boston’s treasures. This asset was seriously endangered in the mid-20th Century and, to ensure its preservation, in 1966 the Massachusetts legislature created the Back Bay Architectural Commission with jurisdiction over changes to the exterior of buildings in the historic portion of the neighborhood (Chapter 625, Acts of 1966). Over time, the Commission’s role has evolved. It currently has jurisdiction over all buildings between Arlington and Charlesgate East (east to west) and between the Back Street and the north side of Boylston (north to south). The area north of the alleys between Newbury and Commonwealth is considered the residential portion of the district, and the area south of these alleys is considered the commercial portion of the district.
Click here for a copy of the legislation establishing the Commission, as amended over time.
Any change to the exterior of a building in the historic district of the Back Bay, including the front, back, roof, and landscaping, must be approved by the Back Bay Architectural Commission. The Commission has established separate guidelines for changes to buildings in the residential and commercial portions of the district.
Click here for a copy of the Commission’s guidelines relating to buildings in the residential portion of the district, and click here for a copy of the Commission’s guidelines relative to buildings in the commercial portion of the district.
If you are planning to purchase a home in the Back Bay or planning to make any changes in any building in the area under the Commission’s jurisdiction, you should contact the Commission to determine the applicable guidelines and the process for securing approval.
Back Bay Architectural Commission
Boston City Hall
1 City Hall Square, room 709
Boston MA 02201
What if I have a question about the Back Bay neighborhood in general? The Back Bay is fortunate to have a number of volunteer and non-profit organizations dedicated to preserving and improving the neighborhood. The best place to start is with the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB). Since its formation in 1955, it has provided sustained leadership for the preservation and improvement of the Back Bay.
Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay
160 Commonwealth, L-8
Boston MA 02116