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, in Boston’s Back Bay by William A. Newman and Wilfred E. Holton, which is devoted exclusively to the filling of the Back Bay, and in Karl Haglund’s Inventing the Charles River, which examines the evolution of the Charles River, including the Esplanade.  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 Sewall’s Point in the west (at that time in Brookline; what is today Kenmore Square in Boston), separating about 430 acres of tidal lands from the Charles River.  A Cross Dam was built connecting with the Mill Dam at a point about 210 feet west of what is today Hereford and running southwest at approximately a 45 degree angle to Gravelly Point (at about what is today the intersection of Commonwealth and Massachusetts Avenues).  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 located along the Cross Dam.  A toll road 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. At the same time, Boston’s population was growing and more land was needed to accommodate that growth. As Nancy S. Seasholes’s Gaining Ground discusses in detail, the city had historically grown by filling land, and the Back Bay presented an opportunity to eliminate a health hazard while meeting an economic need.

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

In 1850, the Massachusetts Legislature appointed three Commissioners to investigate the ownership of the tidal flats in the Back Bay and “consider what measures can be taken for the improvement of the said flats of land, so as to make them most valuable to all parties interested therein” (Chapter 111, Resolves of 1850 and Chapter 80, Resolves of 1851).  The Commissioners presented their report in March of 1852, recommending that the Commonwealth should “authorize the parties of interest to change the use of the receiving basin from mill purposes to land purposes, and fill up the same,” and suggested specific steps that the Commonwealth should take towards that end.

That same month, the legislature (Chapter 79, Resolves of 1852) established a permanent three member board of commissioners to implement the previous commissioners’ recommendations.  The Commissioners on Boston Harbor and the Back Bay (renamed the Commissioners on the Back Bay in 1855; Chapter 388, Acts of 1855) were charged with the authority “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.” In 1861, the Commissioners’ 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).

Ownership of Tidal Lands. The Commissioners first needed to address the complex and contentious question of ownership of the tidal lands to be filled. That effort resulted in a two of indentures (agreements).

On June 9, 1854, the Commonwealth entered into an indenture with the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation under which the corporation received the tidal lands two hundred feet north of the Mill Dam (now the north side of Beacon Street). The corporation 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 what is now Kenmore Square, to fill the land, to release its claims to tidal lands south of the Mill Dam, and to forego its right to collect tolls on the Mill Dam Road (Beacon Street) after May 1, 1863 (between May of 1863 and December of 1868, the Commissioners on Public Lands continued to collect tolls for the benefit of the Commonwealth; in December of 1868, Beacon Street was accepted by the City of Boston as a public way and all tolls ceased).

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), which operated the Mill Dam and Cross Dam. Under the agreement, the company received the tidal lands bounded on the east by the Commonwealth’s lands by a line about 95 feet east of what is now Fairfield Street, on the north by the Mill Dam (including the south side of Beacon Street), on the west by the Cross Dam, 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. The company 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 (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.

These indentures established ownership of most of the tidal land. The map to the right indicates the ownership of the tidelands when they were first offered for sale, drawn on the block plan for the residential portion of the neighborhood in 2015. Also shown are the approximate municipal boundaries of Roxbury and Boston before and after 1859, when the boundary was moved further west. This is based on the Fuller and Whitney maps for 1851 and 1861, and the map of Commonwealth-owned lands issued by the Commission in 1871.

There remained many significant issues to resolve, including claims by the City of Boston for land, the extent of the City of Roxbury’s jurisdiction over the land, the logistics and responsibilities associated with filling the land and providing sewers and drainage, and the overall street plan for the neighborhood.

To address these issues, in June of 1856 (Chapter 76, Resolves of 1856) the Legislature created a joint House-Senate Committee on Lands in the Back Bay, with the three Commissioners on the Back Bay as ex-officio members, to oversee commencement of the sale of the Commonwealth’s lands and to “devise plans for the improvement of said territory.”

The Joint Committee’s work resulted in a series of additional agreements.

Level of Fill. On July 11, 1856, the Commonwealth and the Boston Water Power Company entered into an indenture clarifying that the land for streets was to be filled to the same height as the Mill Dam but that all other land was to be filled to a level five feet below the Mill Dam (thereby not filling land that would then have to be excavated for house cellars). The agreement also dealt with the timing and coordination of street construction, and various financial issues.

Construction of Sewers. On December 11, 1856, the Commonwealth executed a tripartite agreement with City of Boston and the Boston Water Power Company to resolve issues regarding the construction and operation of the sewers to serve the new area, issues which the Joint Committee called “by far the most perplexing and most important operations to be settled.” The agreement set forth a series of rights and obligations to provide for the coordinated construction of sewers in the filled land, including ensuring that the City, which previously had discharged its sewers into the Back Bay, could have access to the sewers in the newly-filled land and drain them into the Charles River.

Back Bay Development - Public GardenPublic Garden. Under the tripartite agreement, the Commonwealth also conveyed to the City about 2-3/4 acres for addition to the western side of the Public Garden and the parties agreed to create an 80 foot wide street (later named Arlington) in front of the Public Garden, running between Beacon and Boylston. 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, thereby allowing the new street to be perpendicular to Beacon and Boylston. 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, drawn on the current street plan.

Street Plan. The Joint Committee also adopted the final street plan for the filled land, noting in its January 6, 1857, report, that “it is obviously a matter of the utmost importance” that “a good system of streets, avenues, and public squares, shall be adopted, in order to make the territory as attractive as possible, and induce persons about to build houses to select lots in this locality.”

In addressing the issue, the Joint Committee built on a series of earlier plans.

Detail from map included with the June 9, 1854 indenture with the Boston Water Power Company; courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

The June 9, 1854, indenture with the Boston Water Power Company had included a general street plan for the area to be filled. The plan envisioned three east-west streets in what would later become the residential portion of the Back Bay: an extension of Beacon Street over the Mill Dam, a central avenue (shown as Avenue V on the map accompanying the agreement), and an extension of Boylston (shown as Avenue II). It also included three north-south streets – one slightly west of where Arlington later would be located (Avenue I), one at the western boundary of Commonwealth’s lands, about where Fairfield later would be located (Avenue IV), and one slightly west of where Gloucester later would be located (Avenue VI).

Detail from map included with the Third Annual Report of the Commissioners on Boston Harbor and Back Bay, 16Feb1855; courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

In October of 1854, the Commissioners had proposed a more detailed plan for consideration by the City of Boston, and had included the plan in its third annual report, dated February 16, 1855. This plan included two additional east-west streets, one south of Beacon (later named Marlborough) and one north of Boylston (later named Newbury). The two additional streets and Boylston would be 80 feet wide, and the central avenue would be 120 feet wide. The Commissioners’ plan also included four north-south streets within the Commonwealth’s lands located about where Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, and Exeter later would be laid out. Two (Berkeley and Exeter) were shown as 80 feet wide and the other two (Clarendon and Dartmouth) as 60 feet wide.

The Commissioners subsequently submitted a revised plan to the Legislature which reduced the width of the streets that would become Marlborough and Newbury to 60 feet, added a fifth north-south street at the western boundary of the Public Garden (which, at that time, still ran southwest at an angle), and specified that the central avenue would be divided into three 40 foot spaces with the central space reserved for a walk with shade trees and shrubbery. This revised plan also added 16 foot wide passageways in the rear of the lots and proposed that houses on Beacon should be set back 30 feet from the street and houses on the other east-west street should be set back 25 feet.

Street plan of Back Bay lands; Report of the Joint Committee on Lands in the Back Bay, 6Jan1857 (Senate Document 17, 1857)

The final plan adopted by the Joint Committee in 1856 incorporated the transfer of land to Boston for the Public Garden and the creation of the 80 foot wide street (later Arlington) running at right angles to Beacon and Boylston and parallel with the other north-south streets. It maintained the widths of the north-south streets as previously proposed by the Commissioners (Berkeley and Exeter at 80 feet and Clarendon and Dartmouth at 60 feet) and also retained the Commissioners’ proposal for 16 foot wide passageways between each of the east-west streets. However, the Joint Committee increased the width of the central avenue from 120 to 200 feet, and noted that “it is proposed to throw the whole of the increased width … into the middle portion, appropriated to trees, shrubbery, and other ornamental purposes” (implying an increase in the width of the mall to 120 feet). It also required that houses be set back from the avenue 20 feet, thereby creating a width of 240 feet between the fronts of the houses. The plan established the width of Beacon at 70 feet and the widths of Marlborough and Newbury at 60 feet, with a 22 foot setbacks on each (the setback on the north side of Beacon, on land owned by the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation, was 19 feet for the first block and 20 feet further west). The map accompanying the approved plan identified Beacon, Marlborough, Newbury, and Boylston Streets by name, but did not assign names to the central avenue nor to the north-south streets.

To implement the plan, on December 27,1856, the Commonwealth and the Boston Water Power Company entered into an indenture under which the company agreed to the expanded 200 foot width of the central avenue, with “not less than forty-four feet in width from each side” to be used for open streets and sidewalks, and the remainder, “not exceeding one hundred and twelve feet in width” to be used for “a walk, the planting of trees, shrubbery and grass, and otherwise ornamented so as to exclude carriages, horses and other vehicles and animals…”. In exchange, for relinquishing additional land to widen the avenue from 120 feet to 200 feet, the company received the Commonwealth’s lands west of the Cross Dam (about 12 acres, the value of which the Joint Committee noted “was so small as to be scarcely worth regarding”).

In reaching its final plan, the Joint Committee had “listened with attention to the suggestions of several gentlemen of taste and judgment who appeared before us.” As noted in a December 12, 1856, Weekly Messenger’s report on the Joint Committee’s deliberations, “the credit of originating the characteristic features of the plan” belonged to architect Arthur Gilman, who submitted a plan to the Committee on November 5, 1856. His submittal included the two most significant changes from the Commissioners’ previous plan: creation of a street running perpendicular to Beacon at the western edge the Public Garden (later Arlington) and significant expansion (and consequent reduction in saleable lands) of the width of the central avenue (later Commonwealth), attributes which he argued would create an avenue “similar in its effect to that of the Champs Elysees in Paris or of the Unter den Linden in Berlin.” The Weekly Messenger also noted that architect George Snell “afterwards made a beautiful draught of a plan which very nearly accords in its details with that which is likely to be carried out, and he is accordingly entitled to honorable mention.” In a footnote to its final report, dated January 6, 1857, the Committee also noted the “useful and valuable suggestions” it received from Arthur Gilman and George Snell, and from landscape gardeners Copeland & Cleveland.

Arlington Street. Not long after the street plan was adopted, the Boston City Council considered a proposal to subdivide a strip of land on the east side of Arlington into house lots, using a portion of the triangular lot the Commonwealth had transferred to the City as part of the December 11, 1856, Tripartite Agreement. Arthur Gilman strongly protested the proposal.  In his letter to Mayor Frederic W. Lincoln, Jr., reprinted on June 5, 1858, in the Boston Journal, he argued that building houses on the east side of Arlington would have the effect of “leaving only the central avenue open to the Garden, but cutting off permanently the magnificent improvements of the Commonwealth from any connection with the Common … and interposing a barrier of brick between them which, it must be seen, some future city government would gladly pay millions to remove…”.

The City subsequently agreed not to build on the land in exchange for receiving parcels of Commonwealth land to compensate for the City’s lost revenue from its potential sales on Arlington.  The agreement was set forth in state law (Chapter 210, Sec. 3-7, Acts of 1859), which provided that “no building shall hereinafter be erected between Arlington and Charles Streets, except such as are expedient for horticultural purposes,” and was ratified by Boston voters on April 25, 1859.  On July 7, 1859 (Suffolk Co. Deed Registry, Book 760, p. 272), the Commonwealth conveyed to the City a 150 foot parcel at the northeast corner of Berkeley and Newbury (where 247-249 Berkeley and 33-39 Newbury would be built) and a 250 foot parcel at the southwest corner of Berkeley and Marlborough (where the First Church and 66-68-70 Marlborough would be built).

City of Roxbury. An additional issue to be resolved was the municipal jurisdiction over the lands to be filled. In 1854, almost all of the Back Bay tidelands were within the political jurisdiction of the City of Roxbury, whose border extended almost to what is now Arlington Street.  In 1856, the Commissioners 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 (Chapter 210, Sec. 1-2, Acts of 1859) 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.

Land Fill. The filling of the Back Bay lands began in the fall of 1857, much of it by Norman C. Munson and George Goss, who contracted with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and with the Boston Water Power Company to undertake the work, using fill excavated in Needham and brought by a special railroad line built for that purpose. The filling of the residential portion of the Back Bay 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 debate about how the newly filled land would be used 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 both the land filling operations and the on-going controversies.

Street Names. The street plan adopted by the Joint Committee in 1856 did not assign a name to the central avenue.  In its December 10, 1856, article the Weekly Messenger had commented that “several names have been suggested for this broad artery, connecting the city and country. That which seems to us most appropriate is ‘Commonwealth Avenue.’” By 1860, “Commonwealth Avenue” was in common usage, but on July 30, 1860, the Boston Evening Transcript commented that “no name has as yet, we believe, been definitely given. That of ‘Commonwealth Avenue’ has been suggested, but never, we believe, formally adopted.  We sincerely hope it never may be, as it seems long, uneuphonious, and not at all pleasing or appropriate.”  The article recommended “Longwood Avenue” as more appropriate.  However, by October 24, 1860, when the Commonwealth conducted its first public auction of land, “Commonwealth Avenue” was the official name.

Marlborough (often spelled Marlboro) and Newbury both appeared on the 1856 street plan. They both previously had been the names of other Boston streets that were made part of Washington Street in 1824.

The 1856 street plan did not name the north-south streets, and no definite record has been found as to when the Commonwealth or the City of Boston decided to name them alphabetically nor why names associated with British nobility were selected. The names of Arlington, Berkeley (sometimes spelled Berkley), and Clarendon had been established by 1860, and in its July 30, 1860, article on street names, the Boston Evening Transcript noted their approval and offered historical rationales for each, suggesting that “if the good taste of the commissioners, proceeding still in alphabetical order, should affix the names of Dartmouth, Exeter, Faneuil, and Gloucester to the remainder of the plan, we think that the un-outraged ears of posterity will have abundant cause to be thankful for their selection.”

Until 1866, Dartmouth was called Dedham, and Exeter was called Everett. Fairfield, Gloucester, and Hereford were provisionally identified as Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Streets on early land plans, before they were given their lasting names. Massachusetts Avenue was called West Chester Park, an extension of Chester Park in the South End, until March of 1894 (the original Massachusetts Avenue ran from Brighton Avenue to the entrance of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir and was renamed to become part Commonwealth Avenue in March of 1887). Charlesgate East was known as Ipswich until December of 1887.

Street Plan Changes. The 1856 plan had specified the width of Commonwealth Avenue as 200 feet, with the width of the mall implied to be 120 feet in the Joint Committee’s report and up to 112 feet in the Commonwealth’s December 27, 1856, agreement with the Boston Water Power Company. As laid out, however, the mall was 100 feet wide, the width that Arthur Gilman had originally proposed.

Detail of park on Exeter from plans recorded in Suffolk Co. Deed Registry, Book 743, end of book, and again in Book 788, p. 160

The 1856 plan had indicated that Dartmouth would be 60 feet wide and Exeter would be 80 feet wide, and that there would be a public park on the eastern side of Exeter between Beacon and Marlborough, with a frontage on Exeter of 240 feet and a frontage on the east-west streets of 137 feet plus a 4 foot wide passageway. On December 31, 1864, the Commonwealth, City of Boston, and Boston Water Power Company agreed that the width of Dartmouth would be increased to 100 feet. Presumably to compensate the Commonwealth for the loss of salable land on Dartmouth, it also was agreed that the width of Exeter would be decreased to 60 feet and the park on Exeter eliminated so that the Commonwealth could sell the land for house lots.

The width of Berkeley was established as 80 feet on the 1856 plan. However, the purchasers of lots on both sides of the street used a strip of land ten feet deep for gardens and entrances to their houses, reducing the actual width of the street to 60 feet. In 1866, when the Commonwealth first sought to transfer the land for the street to the City of Boston, a prolonged controversy ensued as to how wide a parcel should be conveyed. On June 30, 1873, the Commonwealth transferred an 80 foot wide parcel with the stipulation that the abutters on both sides of the street could continue to use a strip of land 10 feet deep for gardens and entrances until given ninety days notice to the contrary by the City (Suffolk Co. Deed Registry, Book 1173, p. 191). Berkeley was laid out and graded as a 60 foot street, but the City’s right to reclaim the additional ten feet on each side continued to be referenced in certain deeds as late as the 1940s.

The 1856 plan also envisioned that Commonwealth Avenue would, as described in the Joint Committee’s report, be “laid out one and a half miles long, in a straight line parallel with the mill-dam, two hundred feet wide, beginning at the new street to be constructed on the western limit of the public garden [Arlington], and ending at the ‘Punch Bowl Road,’ so called, which extends from the mill-dam to Brookline and Roxbury [Brookline Avenue].” As the land was filled and sold, however, it was determined that, west of Massachusetts Avenue (West Chester Park), Commonwealth should be laid out at an angle, running northwest in parallel with the Boston and Albany Railroad tracks, rather than in a straight line which would have required it to cross the tracks before reaching the planned Back Bay Park (Back Bay Fens). In December of 1879 the Boston Board of Aldermen approved the new “deflected line” for the avenue.

The width of Beacon Street was originally established as 70 feet.  However, after almost all of the buildings on Beacon had been constructed, it was determined that two different surveying methodologies had been used to calculate the width of the street between Arlington and Massachusetts Avenue, and the street was actually 71.77 wide when measured from the southern boundary of the lots on the north side of the street to northern boundaries of the lots on the south side of the street.  As a result, although built with the intention of conforming with the 22 foot setback requirement contained in most of the land deeds, the houses on the south side of Beacon actually were set back about 20 feet.  In January of 1895, the Boston Board of Street Commissioners adopted a 20 foot building line for Beacon, conforming with the existing condition, and in December of 1897 it adopted relocated boundaries for the street, increasing the width to 71.77 feet between Arlington and Massachusetts Avenue.  Click here for more information on the width and setback requirements for Beacon Street.

Detail from plan showing Parker Street (above the Cross Dam), by Fuller & Whitney, 1Feb1872 (Suffolk County Deed Registry, Book 1095, p. 3)

Parker Street. Towards the western end of the neighborhood, the grid street plan was interrupted by Parker Street, a 60 foot wide street built on top of the Cross Dam. It connected with Beacon Street between what are now Hereford and Massachusetts Avenue (at a point about 210 feet west of Hereford, about at the middle of where 451 Beacon later would be built), and ran southwest at approximately a 45 degree angle, intersecting Marlborough, Commonwealth, Newbury, and Boylston, and then continuing to Centre Street. Various manufacturing and industrial businesses had been located on the street to utilize the tidal power provided by the dam before its operation had been terminated.

As part of its agreements regarding the Back Bay lands, the Commonwealth received ownership of Parker Street. The road was entirely within the City of Boston and the land on either side and below the roadway was owned by the Boston Water Power Company.  In 1874, the legislature (Chapter 286, Acts of 1874) delegated to the Commissioners on Public Lands the authority to discontinue use of the street as a public thoroughfare and to convey the Commonwealth’s interest to the City and to the abutting landowners “as contemplated by the plan accompanying the tripartite indenture” of December 31, 1864, between the Commonwealth, the Boston Water Power Company, and the City.  In 1877, the Commissioners discontinued the portion of Parker Street between Beacon and Boylston. The Commonwealth subsequently conveyed its interest in the roadway to the abutting land owners and the Boston Water Power Company conveyed its interest in the underlying land to them. The land was then filled and new houses constructed on it, consistent with the grid street plan. Also in 1877, the Commissioners conveyed to the City its interest Parker Street south of Boylston (in March of 1898, the portion of the street between Boylston and Huntington was renamed Hemenway Street).

Land Sales. The lots in the residential portion of the neighborhood were sold while the land was being filled, and often land was sold before the filling was complete, with the sale contingent on its completion to a specified level. The deeds frequently specified details regarding the filling of land for alleys and streets and the construction of sewers. The deeds also usually included building restrictions (discussed below) and secured the owners’ right to cultivate trees in the sidewalk area in front of their homes.

The Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation and the Boston Water Power Company sold their land through private sales.  In the beginning, the Commonwealth also sold its land through private sales, but from 1860 to 1872 it sold exclusively through public auctions. It suspended all sales between 1872 and 1879 due to the depressed real estate values.  It resumed its sales in 1879, with one public auction in May of 1879 and privately negotiated sales thereafter. At the public auctions, the successful bidder would receive a bond from the Commonwealth securing his or her right to purchase the land. In some cases, the purchaser paid for the land immediately and the deed was recorded soon after the sale. In other cases, however, there was a hiatus between the date of the auction and the date the land was actually transferred, either because the successful bidder was not prepared to close the sale for financial or other reasons, or because he or she resold the right to purchase the land to someone else, who then acquired it from the Commonwealth.

The purchasers of the land were included both individuals who bought lots on which to build their homes, and investors and developers who acquired multiple lots and parcels of land. The investors and developers subdivided the land for resale or built houses for speculative sale. In the case of the Boston Water Power Company, all its land in the residential portion of the neighborhood was sold in large parcels to individual investors or real estate investment trusts.

The David Sears family sold all of its land in the Back Bay to Nathan Matthews, a real estate investor and developer who served as president of the Boston Water Power Company from 1860 to 1870.  He subdivided the land into large parcels which he sold to others who developed them.

Click here for more information on the sale of land in the Back Bay by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation, the Boston Water Power Company, and the David Sears family.

Original land purchases, based on the date of the deeds

The map to the right illustrates when the original land owners (the Commonwealth, the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation, the Boston Water Power Company, and the Sears family) entered into deeds to sell land in the residential portion of the Back Bay and on the north side of Newbury Street. As noted above, most of the Commonwealth’s land was sold at public auctions somewhat earlier than the date the land was conveyed by deed. Click on the map to enlarge it for details on the date of the deed, the name of the purchaser, and the Suffolk County Deed Registry book and page reference.

Deed Restrictions. The Back Bay was developed before the existence of any comprehensive municipal planning or zoning laws.  The Commonwealth sought to ensure that the neighborhood would attract purchasers who would pay a premium price for their land. To achieve this objective – and absent local zoning laws — it used deed 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 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, and also permitted nearby land owners to enforce the provisions if a violation occurred. The deeds from the Commonwealth provided a model for deeds from the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation and Boston Water Power Company, which included similar language.  When the original deeds did not include building restrictions (notably land sold by the Sears family and land west of Parker Street sold by the Boston Water Power Company), 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 restrictions and on party wall agreements and stipulations.

Construction. 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 Boston Groundwater Trust both in the Back Bay and other areas of Boston built on filled land.

The Esplanade. The area north of Back Street, beyond the sea wall separating the land from Charles River, was the subject of numerous proposals for park and recreation lands, additional housing, and railroad, subway, and highway use.  The area grew on three occasions: in 1906-1908 with the creation of the 100 foot wide Charles River Embankment, in 1931-1935 with the addition of about 150 feet in width to create the Storrow Memorial Embankment, and in 1950-1951 with the construction of Storrow Drive, when additional land was filled to offset park land taken for the roadway.

Click here for additional information on the evolution of the Storrow Memorial Embankment on The Esplanade.

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).

Progress of Development. By the early 1900s, buildings had been built on almost all of the original lots in the residential portion of the Back Bay. 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

Back Bay Development – Graph Original Houses to 1929

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.

The map below illustrates the streets and alleys in the residential portion of the Back Bay, indicating the length and width of each block and the width of each street and alley.

Back Bay residential streets and alleys in 2015, showing length and width