Back Bay, Boston, Massachusetts

From Academic Kids

This article is about the neighborhood of Back Bay. For the Amtrak and MBTA station called "Back Bay", see the article Back Bay (MBTA station).

Back Bay is an officially recognized neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts.

This parcel of land was created by filling the tidewater flats of the Charles River. This massive project was begun in 1857. The filling of present-day Back Bay was completed by 1882; filling reached Kenmore Square in 1890, and finished in the Fens in 1900. The project was the largest of a number of landfill projects, beginning in 1820, which over the course of time more than doubled the size of the original Boston peninsula. It is frequently observed that this would have been impossible under modern environmental regulations.

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Effect of landfill on size of Boston

William Dean Howells, writing of memories of his first visit to Boston, recalled "There are the narrow streets, stretching saltworks to the docks, which I haunted for their quaintness... There is Beacon Street, with the Hancock House where it is incredibly no more, and there are the beginnings of Commonwealth Avenue, and the other streets of the Back Bay, laid out with their basements left hollowed in the made land, which the gravel trains were yet making out of the westward hills."

Back Bay's development was planned by architect Arthur Gilman. Strict regulations produced a uniform and well-integrated architecture, consisting mostly of dignified three- and four-story residential (or once-residential) brownstones.

Back Bay has been fashionable since its inception. To the W. C. Fields character, con artist Cuthbert W. Twillie, it came as naturally as breathing to feign that he was "one of the Back Bay Twillies." However, there was a subtle social distinction between the Back Bay neighborhood and the older Beacon Hill district. A 1921 novel characterizes one Bostonian by saying

"William Montague Pepperill was a very intense young person, twenty-six years old, out of Boston by Harvard College.... There had been an aloof serenity about his life within the bulging front of the paternal residence with its ancient glass window panes—faintly tinged with blue, just as the blood in the Pepperill veins was also faintly tinged with the same color. For W.M.P. the only real Americans lived on Beacon Hill, though a few perhaps might be found accidentally across Charles Street upon the made land of the Back Bay. A real American must necessarily also be a graduate of Harvard, a Unitarian, an allopath, belong to the Somerset Club and date back ancestrally at least to King Philip's War."
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Main streets of Back Bay

The boundaries of the Back Bay, as defined by the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay, are "the Charles River on the North; Arlington Street to Park Square on the East; Columbus Avenue to the New York New Haven and Hartford right-of-way (South of Stuart Street and Copley Place), Huntington Avenue, Dalton Street, and the Mass. Turnpike on the South; and Charlesgate East on the West."

The main thoroughfares of Back Bay run approximately east and west and include Beacon Street, Marlborough Street, Commonwealth Avenue, Newbury Street, and Boylston Street.

Commonwealth Avenue is a 200-wide expanse with a wide median strip, laid out in imitation of the French boulevards constructed by Baron Haussmann in Paris.

The north-south cross streets are named alphabetically, and a 1903 guidebook notes an alternation of trisyllabic and bisyllabic names: Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, and Hereford. (This same set of street names is used for the long East-West main streets in the center of Gladstone, Oregon, but the origin of this connection is unknown).

Copley Square, bounded by Clarendon, Boylston, Dartmouth, and St. James streets, includes Trinity Church, the John Hancock Tower, and the Boston Public Library.

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Trinity Church c. 1903

Trinity Church was the crowning work of architect H. H. Richardson and a masterpiece of the Richardsonian Romanesque style. In 1893, Baedeker's United States called it "deservedly regarded as one of the finest buildings in America."

Admirers of the 60-story John Hancock Tower, designed by I. M. Pei, assert that it does not diminish the impact of Trinity Church, although its construction did damage the church's foundations. Donlyn Lyndon notes that an early Hancock press release had "the gall to pronounce that 'the building will reflect the architectural character of the neighborhood.'" Lyndon opines that it "may be nihilistic, overbearing, even elegantly rude, but it's not dull."

The Boston Public Library, designed by McKim, Mead, and White in Roman Renaissance style was intended to be "a palace for the people." Baedecker's 1893 guide terms it "dignified and imposing, simple and scholarly," and "a worthy mate... to Trinity Church." At that time, its 600,000 volumes made it the largest free public library in the world.

The Copley Square area is close to the Back Bay (MBTA station) railroad terminal, and is the eastern nexus of a system of hotels and shopping centers connected by a set of glassed-in pedestrian overpasses. These hotels and shops are glossy and upscale, but are mostly not very different from what one would find in many other American cities. Hotels include the Copley Plaza, Westin International, Marriott Copley Place, Colonnade, Sheraton Boston, and Back Bay Hilton. The large Copley Place mall includes the only Neiman Marcus in the New England area. The system of overpasses extends over half a mile to the Prudential Center and the shops surrounding it. The 52-story Pru tower, thought a marvel in 1964, is now considered ugly. However, the Prudential Skywalk observatory offers a wonderful view of Back Bay, Boston, and surrounding areas.


  • Bacon, Edwin M. (1903) Boston: A Guide Book. Ginn and Company, Boston, 1903.
  • W. C. Fields: "My Little Chickadee" (1940), in which the Fields character calls himself "one of the Back Bay Twillies."
  • Train, Arthur (1921), "The Kid and the Camel," from By Advice of Counsel. ("William Montague Pepperill was a very intense young person...")
  • Howells, William Dean, Literary Friends and Acquaintance: My First Visit to New England

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