The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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September 3, 2012

A walk to the eastern shore...

I live, I'm learning, on land that didn't exist until the second half of the 19th century. This watercolor from the early 1800s, which I love (it's the wallpaper on my laptop) shows the view from the hills of Brookline, where I lived for a long time, toward Boston, there in the distance, reached by a long thin neck.  My new street is somewhere just under that peaceful blue water at  the center of the picture. :)

That body of water, I'm learning was called Back Bay because if Boston Harbor {out of view on the other side of that green peninsula} was the front, Back Bay was in the back. By the 1840s, Back Bay was not this pleasant or sweet-smelling, and a mill dam, which was built across the bay to harness water power for manufacturing, only made the problem worse. 

I'm drawn to this picture too, from looks very clean and well-laid-out, doesn't it?

Two of the houses built on the mill dam {the ones behind the lamppost, with the railing on the second floor} are still here.

There's a back alley and a parkway between these houses and the water now, and it's fun to imagine how pretty it would be if there weren't.


By the time the[se] houses at 93-94 Beacon Street were built in 1849, Back Bay had become very polluted. ... A famous 1849 city report called Back Bay a 'great cesspool' with a 'greenish scum many yards wide' along the shore and the surface beyond 'bubbling like a cauldron with the noxious gases that were exploding from the corrupting mass below.' The solution, most agreed, was to fill Back Bay and develop the made land as a residential area.
from Walking Tours of Boston's Made Land, by Nancy S. Seasholes

The filling began in the late 1850s, with gravel brought in by special trains.  If you stand on the Arlington Street side of the Public Garden, the walking tour tells us, most of the buildings that you see across the street were built around 1860, soon after this first edge of the bay was filled in.

{A small strip at this end of the Public Garden was filled in with ashes collected from city homes; it's only this one part that was, but it led to rumors that the whole Back Bay was filled with 'hoopskirts and oyster shells.' Our pre-purchase inspection never mentioned that...}

From the beginning, I'm learning, the Back Bay was a city redevelopment project, a real estate speculation, and less positively, an attempt at housing discrimination on a grand scale.

The street plan for the Back Bay was determined before the state began filling in 1858. From the outset of the project, it had been intended that the central east-west avenue -- now Commonwealth Avenue -- would be wide then the other streets. ... The center one hundred feet was to be an ornamental walk, as it still is...
      The reason for devoting so  much land to this grand, French-style boulevard -- land that could have otherwise been sold as house lots -- was to attract upper-middle-class residents. As in the South End before it... the 'hidden agenda' of the Back Bay was to create an attractive residential area that would keep upper-middle-class Yankees, who were valued by the city as both tax payers and voters, to remain in the city to counter the Irish, who were pouring into Boston at that time.
      Although Back Bay was intended as a high-class neighborhood, the made land was required to be sold at auction because that would presumably get the best price, so theoretically anyone with sufficient money could love in Back Bay. Nevertheless, the state commissioners of the project tried to sell to the 'right sort.' For example, when they sold two lots on the northeast corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Berkeley Street at below market price in May 1860 before auctions were mandated, they justified it by saying that such sales to 'eligible parties' would induce similar people to buy in Back Bay. It thus seems ironic that these same lots that were sold at too low a price in 1860 became the site of two houses built in 1861 at 25-27 Commonwealth Avenue...which in 1998 were converted into four condominiums that then sold for three million dollars per unit!

I noticed this beautiful house last weekend, when I first went out exploring.
It's on a corner, with a pagoda-like entrance on the side and topiaries
in the garden. As it turns out, this is no. 27.

 I like this drawing, from about 1870, too. {Beacon Street, where the old mill dam ran, is the street closest to the water, then comes Marlborough, then Commonwealth -- with the tree-lined mall down the middle -- then Newbury, then Boylston. }

{Does anyone else remember the scene, in the 1993 film of The Age of Innocence, when they show Mrs. Manson Mingott's  Fifth Avenue mansion, sitting in a big, empty, muddy field? That's what this reminded me of.}

And it didn't last long, or at least like many places, it came, and went, and came back again.

In contrast to the South End [which, ironically, is more trendy today] ... Back Bay did become the fashionable residential area that had been envisioned. This was aided by many building restrictions -- lots could not be used for 'mechanical or manufacturing' or, on Commonwealth Avenue, 'mercantile' purposes [that last part still seems to be true].  Many prominent Bostonians moved to Back Bay in the late 1800s, living in houses that, according to the restrictions, had to be at least three stories high, be set back a prescribed distance, and have no more than a five-foot projection in front. But by the mid-1900s, Back Bay houses had begun to deteriorate -- many of the Boston Brahmins had moved to the suburbs and their houses and mansions had been converted into rooming houses, apartments, or doctors' offices. Since then, however, there has been a resurgence of single-family ownership and, although ... many original houses and mansions are still rental units [condos, mostly, now] or owned by institutions, Back Bay is considered one of the most prestigious residential neighborhoods in the city. The residential character of Back Bay is particularly evident on Marlborough Street, down which you are now going.

 Somehow, I know I'm going to spend a lot more time looking at all of these houses...

So now you know how I spent part of my long weekend. I hope yours was as enjoyable for you!

{I found the watercolor at the top in Boston Beheld:  Antique Town and Country Views, by D. Brenton Simons. The black and white drawings, and the quotes from the walking tour, are from the Nancy Seasholes book. The other photos are by me...I had a lot of fun making them pseudo-historic, to match. :) }

1 comment:

Lisa May said...

It's been too many years since I was in Boston - you're definitely making me want to visit again!

Thank you for visiting!

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