Back Bay History

For a genealogical history of Back Bay’s houses – information about who lived in them and how they were used over the decades – go to the website Back Bay Houses. Launched in 2014, the website is the culmination of ten years of research to identify who lived in (and, if possible, who owned) each Back Bay property. All you have to do is click on a property’s address to find out the names of the house’s prior residents (including wives’ unmarried names) and read a very high-level summary of what they did in the world. Voilà – Your instant Back Bay ancestors!

Timeline of the History of the Back Bay

1814 Development begins: Massachusetts Legislature chartered the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation, and approved construction of a long mill dam to cut off 430 acres of tidal flats from the river, which also served as a toll road to Watertown. The dam is under present-day Beacon Street.
1821 Basin subdivided into Upper or Fill Basin, Lower or Receiving Basin, to power water mills
1841 US Harbor Commission established line beyond which the Back Bay could not be filled, and thus encroach on the harbor
1849 Health Department demanded the area be filled
1850 Commission appointed to investigate the Back Bay and recommend development options
1852 July — Commission on Harbor and Back Bay Lands appointed
1853 Commissioners on Boston Harbor and Back Bay Lands begin writing annual reports
1855 Name of Commission on Harbor and Back Bay Lands changed to Commissioners on Public Lands
1856 Tripartite Agreement of 1856 between the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the City of Boston, and the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation – dividing up the lands. Part of the city land went to develop the Public Garden.
1857 September–Filling of the Back Bay began-average depth of fill 20 feet; more than 450 acres filled; fill brought from Needham; streets were filled to grade 17 (17 ft above mean low tide), lots filled to grade 12, so basements would be below street level.

1859 The Unitarian congregation, then in a church on Federal Street designed by Charles Bulfinch, votes to build a new building in the Back Bay at the corner of Arlington and Boylston Streets.
1860 The house at 137 Beacon Street, later known as the Gibson House, was built
1860 152 Beacon Street built for Isabella Stewart by her father
1860 Filling of Back Bay reached Clarendon Street
1861 State granted a block of Back Bay (Boylston and Berkeley) to the Boston Society of Natural History and MIT
1861 Halcyon Place (corner of Berkeley and Commonwealth) built as a guest home for families of patients at Mass General
1861 The Unitarians’ new church, now known as Arlington Street Church, is completed. It is the first public building in the Back Bay.
1862 Emmanuel Church (15 Newbury Street), the first building constructed on Newbury Street, is consecrated.
1863 MIT located on Boylston-current site of New England Life building
1864 Society of Natural History building completed (Berkeley between Boylston and Newbury)
1865 December-Toll no longer collected on mill dam toll road
1865 First statue erected on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall
1867 Central Congregational Church completed (Newbury Street and Berkeley)
1868 First Church of 1630 (Unitarian) moved from Chauncy Place to newly completed church designed by Ware and Van Brunt (Berkeley and Marlborough)
1869 Temporary coliseum built in Copley Square. It held the National Peace Jubilee that year, which was attended by President Ulysses Grant
1870 Filling of Back Bay reached Exeter Street
1871 160 Commonwealth, Hotel Vendome, built–first hotel in city with electric lighting, it had an independent lighting plant designed by Edison in 1882
1871 Brattle Square Church (Unitarian) moved to newly built church designed by H.H. Richardson (Commonwealth and Clarendon) aka-“church of the holy bean blowers.” Statues on the tower designed by Frederic August Bartholdi, designer of the Statue of Liberty.
1872 Fire destroys 65 acres of downtown Boston

1874 Second Church of 1660 (Unitarian) moved from Bedford Street to newly completed church (Boylston between Dartmouth and Clarendon)
1875 Third Church (Congregational) moved from Old South Meeting Hall to newly completed church (Dartmouth and Boylston)
1876 Museum of Fine Arts opened in Copley Square
1877 Trinity Church completed, designed by H.H. Richardson
1879 Commissioners on Public Lands changed to Harbor and Land Commission
1880 150 Beacon Street – Isabella Stewart Gardner bought to expand her home at 152
1880 Land for the current site of Boston Public Library purchased
1882 Filling of Back Bay complete to Charlesgate East

1883 Harvard Medical School located in building at Boylston and Exeter
1883 Triangle lot bounded by Huntington, Dartmouth, Boylston purchased and named Copley Square
1884 Hollis Street Church completed (southeast corner of Newbury and Exeter, current site of Exeter towers) It was destroyed in 1966
1884 Triangle lot bounded by Huntington, Trinity Place, St. James added to Copley Square to make it a square
1885 Temple of the Working Union of Progressive Spiritualists completed (northeast corner of Newbury and Exeter)
1887 Bridge from West Chester park in Boston to Mass Ave in Cambridge authorized
1889 Bay State Road created by dredging the river and filling the Charles Rivers
1890 Filling of Back Bay reached Kenmore Square
1891 Bridge from West Chester Park in Boston to Mass Ave in Cambridge opened to travel, and renamed the John Harvard bridge
1894 West Chester Park renamed Massachusetts Avenue
1895 Boston Public Library opened in Copley Square
1895 Christian Science Church dedicated
1899 Mass Historical society moved from 30 Tremont Street to the newly built 1154 Boylston Street
1900 Filling of Back Bay completed with last few acres of the Fens
1908 Last single-family residence built on an originally vacant lot in the residential district at 530 Beacon Street
1910 MIT moved to Cambridge

1955 Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay formed
1963-1965 Magnolias planted on Commonwealth Avenue
1966 Massachusetts Legislature establishes the Back Bay Architectural District
1967 Back Bay Architectural Commission holds its first meeting
1969 20 Gloucester Street – First conversion of an existing residential building to condominium units in the City of Boston
1973 Back Bay added to the National Registry of Historic Places

Images provided courtesy of the Boston Public Library.