Picture yourself at a sidewalk cafe on an elegant shopping street, watching the diverse passersby, or wandering on brick pavements through tree-lined streets rich with architectural vistas and historic presences, or strolling through French gardens and along leaf-dappled, statue-decorated malls. Then imagine lunching on fine Italian food, say, in a charming setting, grazing through myriad international boutiques, before dropping into a cafe bookstore where you can eat a chocolate mousse, drink espresso or wine (or smoke!), while glancing through Le Figaro, the Times of London or the latest novel.
Europe? No, Boston: Boston's Back Bay, one of the world's greatest works of the art of living. It is the chic heart of upwardly mobile downtown Boston--thriving, beautiful, lively and urbane. And it is the trendiest of all modern Boston's neighborhoods.
In a single afternoon you can walk the entire Back Bay, a clearly defined area bounded by the Charles River to the north with its esplanade park along Storrow Drive, the Public Garden to the east, commercial Boylston Street and cultural Copley Square to the south. Stretching to the Fenway on the west, the last block is virtually cut off by the intensely trafficked Massachusetts Avenue (known as Mass Av). Walk its regular grid of gracious tree-lined streets: stately Beacon Street, more intimate Marlborough Street, elegant Newbury Street (so like Paris' Faubourg St.-Honore). Be delighted by the myriad styles of Back Bay townhouses, churches and public buildings--of red brick and brownstone, pale granite and white marble, red sandstone and yellowish Roxbury pudding stone.
Meander beneath elms and among statues down its main spine--grand Commonwealth Avenue, a double street with a long park-like mall down the middle, its 240-foot width, slightly larger than the Champs Elysees in Paris. Magnolias abound in the front yards of houses whose setback requirements and height limitations were imposed from the beginning. The 19th-Century quip was that Beacon Street was for the old rich, Commonwealth Avenue for the new rich, Marlborough Street for the old poor and Newbury Street for the new poor. However, they were all really a homogeneous group of substantial people, whose sisters, cousins and aunts all lived around the corner.
The north-south streets march westward from the Public Garden, alphabetically in the order they were created: Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon. Socially, Arlington has always had pride of place, overlooking the Public Garden--which is laid out in the French style with statuary, and willow trees overhanging the pond.
During the Depression, the Back Bay--except at its fringes along the garden and backing on the river--devolved into student lodgings and frat houses for Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the general boom of the 1960s triggered enormous growth in Boston, founded on high-tech wealth that continues to this day.
As an architect who has lived in Paris and Boston, I am especially attracted to the area's design, to its rich blend of styles. But it is the shopper in me that responds to Newbury Street's variety: art galleries, clothing shops from couture to ethnic to used furs, shoe stores, hairdressers, antiques and museum shops, restaurants, cafes, bookstores, unusual boutiques from European fine linens to Nepalese jewelry. Newbury evolves from elegant at the Arlington Street end to funky, student-bohemian by Mass Av. The Ritz-Carlton hotel anchors Newbury Street to the Public Garden, with its elegant restaurant overlooking the park and summer rooftop dining. Its civilized bar is a Boston institution. By a wood fire (shades of the Paris Ritz), drink mainly lubricates conversation; women alone could always get a drink there, and feel comfortable.
Many of the new developments in Back Bay are along the south side of Boylston Street and Copley Square. Linked interior shopping malls: the Prudential Center through to Copley Place, and Heritage on the Garden at Arlington Street, are enough to satisfy the most obsessive mega-shopper, and a boon in bad weather. The complexes also incorporate hotels, restaurants, offices, parking facilities and the Hynes Convention Center. I.M. Pei's partner, Bostonian Harry Cobb's blue-glass Hancock Tower (built in 1972, with its empyrean observation roof) hovers somewhat ghostlike at the southeast corner of Copley Square, reflecting and magnifying Trinity Church.
One can drop by the downstairs of Emporio Armani Express & Restaurant on Newbury Street for pizza and to watch the world stroll by. Or spend hours browsing in opulent surroundings at the Boston annex of the English chain, Waterstone's Booksellers, in the Exeter Street Theatre building. Or we can head off to Lou Lou's Lost and Found to buy seriously discounted china from mostly long-gone restaurant and hotel chains. Or, after a heavy afternoon of shopping Newbury, stop at Trident Booksellers & Cafe to savor a rich dessert and a European magazine and later be properly lodged at the College Club on Commonwealth--a magnificent, slightly fusty townhouse that is a quick window back into the 19th Century.
Back Bay was rich and glamorous from its beginning, built with money harvested from the cheap Irish labor of the 1850s, Civil War profits, textile and railroad money. It was never just a real estate venture, but a monument of self-conscious civic pride. The overall layout was elegantly French, designed by Arthur Gilman who had traveled in France, to the imperial Paris of Napoleon III, of Baron Haussmann's boulevards and of mansard-peaked roof lines. This appealed to the new rich American taste, which had been formed by steamship travel to Europe, especially to London, Paris and Rome. If Boston fancied itself Athens (and it did, according to historians), Back Bay was Paris. Back Bay arts patron Thomas G. Appleton said, "All good Americans, when they die, go to Paris."
Back Bay was a Gargantuan landfill, undertaken when the original hub of Boston--an island connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land called Boston Neck--became overcrowded after the Irish migrations. On the eve of the Civil War, one-third of Boston was poor Irish--and Anglo Bostonians were uncomfortable.
The first landfill project was the new South End, created along the harbor side of Boston Neck's mud flats. It filled up with new rich in no time at all. North of the Neck, an early 19th-Century milldam with a toll road over it cut off the "back bay" of the tidal Charles River, and as the city grew, so did sewage into Back Bay. By 1850 the sludge stank, so it would be a double gain to the city to fill it in. To do so, a steam train went nine miles from the West Needham granite quarries to Back Bay, delivering 35 freight cars of gravel--once an hour, 24 hours a day, six days a week, for 30 years (1857-1887).
The square mile created at Back Bay was so desirable that the exodus by cramped patricians to Back Bay began in 1859. The fashionable even deserted their just-built South End homes, and the South End became utterly middle-class. The creme brought along their cultural institutions and 12 Protestant churches.
Back Bay's generous 25-foot-wide building lots were auctioned, and the buyers called in architects, a roster of famous names: Richard Morris Hunt, Louisiana-born Henry Hobson Richardson, Charles F. McKim (all trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris), Ogden Codman, Ware and Van Brunt, Stanford White and so on.
It is no accident that the first architecture school in the United States, founded on Beaux-Arts principles, was set up in Back Bay at the newly created Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Young Bostonian Louis Sullivan wandered excitedly around growing Back Bay. Then and there Sullivan made up his mind to become an architect and make beautiful buildings "out of his head," he later wrote. He became the quintessential modern American architect and the prime builder of Chicago.
Away from the bustle of Mass Av or Boylston Street, Back Bay is quiet and peaceful, the better to hear the daily carillon concerts from its many church towers. Back Bay's first church went up on the very first land filled in: the Unitarian congregation of abolitionist minister William Ellery Channing (whose statue faces the church in the Public Garden) commissioned planner/architect Arthur Gilman to build its new brownstone Georgian-Revival Arlington Street Church in 1859.
A center of antislavery activity, it was a rendezvous for long-hair protesters in the 1860s, just as in the 1960s.
The First Church (established 1630), the Second Church (1649) and the Third Church (1670) congregations all moved to Back Bay in the 1860s. Baptists, Lutherans, Christian Scientists, Episcopalians and Congregationalists all followed. H. H. Richardson's First Baptist Church's square bell tower has a sculpted frieze with trumpet-blowing angels by the French sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi.
Trinity Church's (established 1734) charismatic rector and hymn-writer Phillips Brooks ("O Little Town of Bethlehem") bought land on the east side of Copley Square in 1869 and invited five architects to compete. Richardson won with an unusual Greek-cross plan of granite and red sandstone, richly painted inside, under wood barrel vaults. Muralist and stained-glass artist John LaFarge, assisted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (both Paris-trained) with Edward Burne-Jones, created lush terra-cotta, gold and blue-green interiors with black walnut woodwork. Saint-Gaudens' statue of Brooks stands outside Trinity's north facade.
If commerce was not envisioned in Back Bay, culture definitely was. The Boston Society of Natural History (established 1830) received land from the state legislature in 1860 on Berkeley between Boylston and Newbury, and built a Science Museum (still standing, but now a fashionable apparel store called Louis). MIT, incorporated in 1861 as a federal land-grant institution (hence co-ed), took up the rest of the block.
If you stand in Copley Square today, with Trinity Church at your back, on the left is the Copley Plaza Hotel and in front of you is one of the most famous buildings in America, the Boston Public Library, opened in 1895. You can read the large inscription over the door: "FREE TO ALL." The pinkish granite cornerstone for the grand Italian Renaissance-style library was laid in 1888 on the west side of Copley Square. Originally established in 1848, it was the first major tax-supported library and is still one of the five largest collections in the United States. It has a graceful arcaded courtyard, a grand staircase, mural cycles by John Singer Sargent (an American trained in Paris) and French painter Puvis de Chavannes, and bronze doors by Daniel Chester French.
By the first Revolutionary centennial celebration, Back Bay was world-renowned for arts, sciences, intellectuality and fine living. "Back Bay" became American shorthand for a state of mind. From 1860, John Lowell Gardner and his New York bride Isabella Stewart lived on Beacon Street, where she collected the art she later put into a Venetian palace on the Fenway, now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Julia Ward Howe came in 1868; Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his own words, "committed justifiable domicide," and moved to Beacon Street in 1870.
John Singer Sargent has been described as the "court painter" of Back Bay, where he was a frequent guest and had his first American show. Isabella Stewart Gardner met Sargent (an American born to expatriates) in his London studio, introduced to him by Bostonian expatriate novelist Henry James (who had earlier written art criticism and been tutored by LaFarge). She became his sponsor. Paintings of most of these people are in the city's Museum of Fine Arts.
The Copley-Plaza hotel of today, with its baronial lobbies and ballroom, was the final residence and studio of Sargent. It later became famous for its Wednesday waltz evenings, where stately and intellectual Boston matrons were transformed into figures of romance and where young society did mating dances.
The power of the conception that built Back Bay has been vindicated by time: It has adapted and absorbed. Boston writer Jane Holtz Kay has called it "an absolute orgy of fine design, a garden of green delights" and "a pedestrian city . . . for the eyes." It is the most civilized square mile in the United States today.
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Back Bay Bounty
Getting there: From LAX fly nonstop to Boston on American and United or with a change of planes on other airlines. Lowest advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at about $360.
Where to stay: Ritz-Carlton, Boston, 15 Arlington St. Rates $220-$385; suites $325-$840. Restaurants, bar, shops; telephone (617) 536-5700 and (800) 241-3333.
Copley Plaza, 138 St. James Ave. Rates $214-$230; suites $230-$430. Two dining rooms, coffee shop, bars, etc.; tel. (617) 267-5300 and (800) 822-4200.
College Club, 44 Commonwealth Ave. Nine rooms. Rates $50 with continental breakfast for a single room with a shared bath and a large window overlooking Commonwealth Avenue near the Public Garden; $75 with private bath; immense twin-bedded doubles with private bath, $95. Dining room open for lunch and dinner Monday-Friday. Beautiful triple living room and staircases. Elevator. No room service; tel. (617) 536-9510.
The Westin Hotel, Copley Place (tel. 617-262-9600 and 800-228-3000) and Marriott Boston, Copley Place (tel. 617-236-5800 and 800-228-9290) are good commercial chain hotels, with variable room rates from $109 to $240.
Where to eat: Emporio Armani Express & Restaurant, 214 Newbury St., downstairs elegant bar-restaurant, excellent individual pizzas, salads, meals; upstairs quiet elegance; moderate prices (a la carte: $4.50-$22). Northern Italian and continental; tel. (617) 437-0909.
Ciao Bella, Cafe and restaurant, 242 Newbury St.; moderately priced Italian food, espresso, outside patio, valet parking. Lunch, snacks, Sunday brunch, dinner; tel. (617) 536-2626.
Joe's American Bar & Grill, 279 Dartmouth St. Wood-paneled comfort with American-California menu: steaks, salads, pasta, American desserts. A la carte: $3.75-$17. Also takeout; tel. (617) 536-4200.
Trident Booksellers & Cafe, 338 Newbury St. Wine, beer, smoking, inexpensive snacks and meals with books, newspapers, magazines. Open daily; tel. (617) 267-8688.