Overview: Development of the Back Bay

Overview – 1855-18591860-18641865-18691870-18741875-18791880-18841885-18891890-18991900-19091910-2015

The Back Bay neighborhood of Boston is built almost entirely on filled (or “made”) land, replacing what originally was a relatively shallow bay and tide lands. Transforming this area to land which could be used for building purposes took several decades and represented one of the largest landfill operations in the 19th Century.

A number of excellent books and articles have been written on the filling of the Back Bay.  Walter Muir Whitehill’s Boston, A Topographical History and Bainbridge Bunting’s Houses of Boston’s Back Bay provide overviews.  More comprehensive information is included in Nancy S. Seasholes’s Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston, which discusses the Back Bay project in the context of Boston’s overall land fill development, and in Boston’s Back Bay by William A. Newman and Wilfred E. Holton, which is devoted exclusively to the filling of the Back Bay.  These books contain excellent maps showing the progress of the filling operations, many based on the early blueprint maps prepared in 1881 by Fuller and Whitney, civil engineers associated with the project, in their A Set of Plans Showing the Back Bay 1814-1881.

The development of the Back Bay began as a water power project. In 1814, the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation was authorized by the Massachusetts legislature to build a dam from the corner of Charles and Beacon Streets in the east to Gravelly Point in Brookline in the west, separating about 430 acres of tidal lands from the Charles River. A “cross dam” was then built connecting the mill dam with Gravelly Point, running (related to today’s street plan) from Beacon Street at a point about 375 feet east of Massachusetts Avenue southwest at about a 55 degree angle to the southwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Commonwealth.

The cross dam divided the tidal lands into two basins. A western basin (about where the Fenway neighborhood is today), called the Full Basin, and an eastern basin (about where the Back Bay neighborhood is today), called the Receiving Basin. Water was allowed to flow into the Full Basin from the river at high tide, then into the Receiving Basin and then back into the river at low tide. The tidal flows were used to power mills. A roadway was built on top of the dam and is today’s Beacon Street. The project was completed in 1821 and was not highly successful.

Detail from an 1853 map of Boston by George W, Boynton, courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Detail from an 1853 map of the City of Boston by George W, Boynton, courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

In 1834, the legislature permitted construction of two railroad causeways that formed an “x” across the Receiving Basin. These impeded the tidal flows and made the mill operations even less productive. In addition, sewage was allowed to flow freely into the basins and, over time, the area became odiferous and unhealthy. The concept of filling the land for housing gained traction in the 1840s and early 1850s, and in 1852, the legislature established the Commissioners on Boston Harbor and the Back Bay (which became the Commissioners on the Back Bay in 1855, the Commissioners on Public Lands in 1861, and the Harbor and Land Commission in 1879).

The map at the right, detail from an 1853 map by George W. Boynton, shows the Back Bay as it existed in 1853, with the extension of Beacon Street along the mill dam referred to as Western Avenue.

The photograph below shows this area in a panoramic view taken from the Massachusetts State House ca. 1858.  The Mill Dam appears on the right, running west towards Brookline, with the Cross Dam running south to Gravelly Point.  The Boston and Worcester Railroad and Boston and Providence Railroad lines cross at the center of the Receiving Basin.

Photograph looking west and southwest from the Boston State House, attributed to Southworth & Hawes (ca. 1858); courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum

Photograph looking west and southwest from the Boston State House, attributed to Southworth & Hawes (ca. 1858); courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum

The Commission first needed to address the complex and contentious question of ownership of lands to be filled.

On June 9, 1854, the Commonwealth entered into an indenture with the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation under which the company received the tidal flats two hundred feet north of the Mill Dam (what is now the water side of Beacon Street). The Company had already built a sea wall about that distance 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 company agreed to extend the sea wall to Brookline (to what is now Kenmore Square) and 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 (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 it received the lands south of the Mill Dam, and bounded on the east by an irregular line between what are now Exeter and Fairfield Streets, on the south by what is now Commonwealth Avenue, and on the west by the Cross Dam. It also received additional lands 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 so that the land could be filled, and agreed to fill its land and construct streets and sewers in accordance with a schedule and plan developed by the state.

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

These indentures established ownership of most of the land and allowed the land fill operations to begin, and were augmented by a series of additional agreements relating to the schedule, depth of fill, and similar issues.

Back Bay Development - Public GardenThe City of Boston continued to press its claims for lands and other rights in the area. These were largely resolved by the December 11, 1856, Tripartite Agreement between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, City of Boston, and Boston Water Power Company. Under the agreement (which largely focused on the sewer system to be constructed across the Back Bay) 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.  The map to the left illustrates (in black outline) the approximate area of the triangle of land granted by the Commonwealth to the City of Boston under the Tripartite Agreement, drawn on the current street plan.

In a separate agreement in December of 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.

There remained open issues with several private land holders – notably David Sears – who held large parcels of tidelands in various parts of the Back Bay. These were resolved over the coming years.

When the Commission was formed, almost all of the Back Bay lands were within the political jurisdiction of the City of Roxbury, whose border extended almost to what is now Arlington Street. In 1856, the Commission recommended that the border be moved westward so that much of the new neighborhood would be within Boston’s jurisdiction, largely to facilitate water and sewer services. The City of Roxbury objected and the matter was litigated for several years. In 1859, the Legislature approved a law moving the boundary west, to between what are now Gloucester and Hereford Streets, placing all of the lands owned by the Commonwealth within Boston rather than Roxbury. Roxbury was annexed to Boston in January of 1868.

The map at the right illustrates the approximate borders of the City of Roxbury and the City of Boston before and after 1859, along with 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 as it exists in 2015.

The filling of the Back Bay lands began in the fall of 1857 using fill brought from Needham by a special railroad line built for that purpose. The filling was done roughly east to west, with the area north of Commonwealth Avenue proceeding more rapidly than the area south of Commonwealth Avenue. By 1881, the land to Massachusetts Avenue (then West Chester Park) had been filled, and the final blocks to the west filled in the early 1880s in conjunction with the development of the park at the Back Bay Fens.

The street plan for the Back Bay was a matter of significant public debate, with architect Arthur Gilman credited with designing the overall plan that prevailed.

Bunting notes that “from the first it was clear that the main roadways would run east-west, and Commonwealth Avenue was planned as a dominant axis as early as 1853. In December of 1856 a system of alleyways was incorporated into the plan, Commonwealth Avenue was increased to its present width of two hundred feet, and setback lines of twenty or twenty-two feet were imposed on all property facing a main street.”

The debate continued as the landfill progressed, including various proposals as to where parks and public buildings should be located. The reference books cited above provide excellent discussions of this controversy, including numerous plans and maps of alternative visions of the Back Bay.

Even the naming of the streets was contentious. For example, a May 25, 1860, article in the Boston Transcript extolling the progress made in the start of construction of new homes in the Back Bay commented on the near-completion of 12 Arlington, referring to it as “the large house at the corner of Arlington street and the central avenue (we hope the Commissioners will have the good taste to give it a better name than the proposed no name of ‘Commonwealth avenue’).”   A map of lands to be sold at public auction on March 15, 1866, referred to Exeter Street as “Everett,” and as late as 1870, Dartmouth Street was referred to as Dedham Street on a map published by the Commissioners on the Back Bay.

Map dated February 1, 1872, showing Parker Street above the Cross Dam, drawn by Fuller & Whitney (Suffolk County Deed Registry, Book 1095, p. 3).

Map dated February 1, 1872, showing Parker Street above the Cross Dam, drawn by Fuller & Whitney (Suffolk County Deed Registry, Book 1095, p. 3).

The street pattern also remained imprecise.  As late as the mid-1870s, plans included “Parker Street” on top of the Cross Dam, running between Beacon and Commonwealth at a southwest angle.  The land for the street ultimately was sold for development in the late 1870s.

As the lots were filled, they were sold for development and houses were constructed. Most of the land deeds included restrictions to limit non-residential uses, ensure buildings were not built of wood, specify the distance which buildings were to be set back from the arterial (east-west) streets (no setback requirements were mandated for the north-south streets), and require a minimum height (limiting the maximum height was not a concern in this pre-elevator era).  These restrictions were binding on those who bought the land and on their successors. The deeds from the Commonwealth included the most comprehensive restrictions, but the deeds from the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation and the Boston Water Power Company included similar language.  When the original deeds did not include building restrictions (notably land sold by the Sears family), those who bought the land frequently would adopt them through agreements.  As a result, the pattern of building generally followed a uniform standard. Click here for more details on the Back Bay deed destrictions and on party wall agreements and stipulations.

All of the buildings were supported by wooden piles driven through the fill to bedrock. Those original piles continue today to be the basis for the foundations. As long as they are covered by groundwater, they remain strong supports. However, if the groundwater is allowed to decline and piles dry out, they will crumble and the foundations will fail – a threat that requires constant vigilance and is monitored by the Groundwater Trust both in the Back Bay and other areas of Boston built on filled land.

Map of the Back Bay showing current streets, the 1630 shoreline, and the mill dam and cross dam; provided by MapWorks, as appeared in Boston’s Back Bay by William A. Newman and Wilfred E. Holton, p. viii (map copyright MapWorks 2005).

Map of the Back Bay showing current streets, the 1630 shoreline, the Mill Dam and Cross Dam, and the Full Basin and Receiving Basin; provided by MapWorks, as published in Boston’s Back Bay by William A. Newman and Wilfred E. Holton, p. viii (map copyright MapWorks 2005).

By the early 1900s, buildings had been built on almost all of the original lots. By 1910, only thirteen vacant lots remained, all but two of which had been constructed upon by 1925. The last single-family dwelling built on an original lot was 530 Beacon built in 1908.

The map at the left illustrates the completed Back Bay district, showing the original 1630 shoreline, and the former locations of the Mill Dam and Cross Dam, and the Full Basin and Receiving Basin.

The following links provide more details on the development of the residential portion of the Back Bay, provide maps showing the incremental development of the district, and list buildings constructed during each period: 1855-1859, 1860-1864, 1865-1869, 1870-1874, 1875-1879, 1880-1884, 1885-1889, 1890-1899, 1900-1909, and 1910-2015.

In the sections below are two maps indicating the dates when the houses in the residential portion of the Back Bay were constructed. The first shows the progression of construction in the Back Bay, and the second shows when the buildings in existence as of 2015 were built.

Original Construction in the Back Bay

A total of 1,156 buildings were constructed on the originally vacant lots in the residential portion of the Back Bay as defined for purposes of this website.   Of these, as of 2015, 99 have been demolished and replaced with 61 newer buildings or, in two cases, with a playground and a parking lot.

The graph at the right illustrates when buildings were first constructed on the original vacant lots through 1929. By that point, only two vacant lots remained: 388 Commonwealth, on the south side of Commonwealth between Massachusetts Avenue and Charlesgate East, where a building was built in the mid-1980s, and 428 Beacon, at the northeast corner of Beacon and Hereford, which remains vacant as of 2015.

The dates used for this graph and for the maps that follow are based on original permit applications or similar documentation, when available. When no such documentation is available, the dates provided in Bainbridge Bunting’s Houses of Boston’s Back Bay are used.

The map below reflects this same information for buildings within the residential portion of the Back Bay, plus buildings on the north side of Newbury. If an original building was replaced or rebuilt, the year of original building (not the replacement) is shown. If a replacement building occupied both a vacant lot and the site of a previous building (e.g., 314 Commonwealth at the southwest corner of Hereford), the vacant lot is shown with the date of the replacement building and the previously occupied lot is shown with the date when the original house was built.

Original construction through 2015

Click here for a link to maps showing the progress of construction since 1855, in slideshow format.

Back Bay Houses Existing as of 2015

As noted above, 99 of the original buildings in the residential portion of the Back Bay have been demolished and replaced by 61 buildings, a playground, and a parking lot. The map below illustrates when a building that exists in 2015 was constructed within the residential portion of the Back Bay, plus buildings on the north side of Newbury. If an earlier building has been replaced, the year of construction of the newer building existing in 2015 is shown. Buildings which have been significantly remodeled (for example, with new façades or floor systems) are given their original date of construction, not the later date of remodeling. Additions at 287 Dartmouth and 00 Marlborough, which have their own addresses, are shown with the date of those additions.  In two cases, buildings have been demolished but not replaced: at 260 Clarendon, location of the Clarendon Street Playground, and at 278 Dartmouth, location of a public parking lot. In these cases, the year shown reflects the year when the current use was established.

Buildings Existing in 2015, When Built

Click here for a link to compare the maps showing when buildings were first constructed on the originally vacant lots and when the buildings in existence in 2015 were built, in slideshow format.