Back Street, Boston

Looking east along Back Street in Boston from Massachusetts Avenue, on October 14, 1907. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

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Back Street in 2015:

When the Back Bay was filled and developed into a residential neighborhood in the late 1800s, the houses on the north side of Beacon Street were only a few feet away from the Charles River, separated only by the narrow Back Street, which serves as an alley to access the back of the houses.  Within a few years after the first photo was taken, though, this area began to change.  In 1910, the Charles River Esplanade was completed as a public park along the banks of the Charles River, and the first photo was probably taken as part of the city’s preliminary work on the project.

By the late 1940s, traffic congestion in Boston required some of the land to be used to build a parkway, so in 1951 Storrow Drive was completed as a six lane, automobile-only road with low clearances and no shoulders.  Most of the original parkland was lost, so more land was reclaimed from the Charles River on the other side of Storrow Drive.  As a result, this section of Back Street is now over 250 feet from the Charles River, which isn’t even visible from the ground level anymore.  Many of the 19th century rowhouses are still standing here, but the view from the north-facing windows has been drastically changed now that they have a highway in their backyards.

Boston & Albany Rail Yard, Boston

The Boston & Albany yard along Boylston Street in Boston’s Back Bay, on October 4, 1912. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.


The view in 2015:

The Boston & Albany Railroad maintained a rail yard on this site in the Back Bay for many years, but as the city continued to grow around it in the 20th century, it began to be eyed for potential redevelopment.  The yard took up most of the triangular-shaped area between Boylston Street, Huntington Avenue, and Dalton Street, which included the entire south side of Boylston Street west of Exeter Street, as seen in the 1912 photo.  The first photo shows some familiar landmarks on the left, including the firehouse on the far left, the Tennis and Racquet Club, and in the distance the tower of the New Old South Church.  All three are still standing today, but the view to the right has changed significantly.

By the early 1960s, there were several different options for redeveloping the rail yard.  In 1957, the Massachusetts Turnpike had been completed from the New York border to Route 128 in Weston, just outside Boston.  From there, however, it was uncertain which route the highway would take into the city. One option was to build it parallel to the right-of-way of the Boston & Albany Railroad, which would have included passing through this yard.

One of the problems with running the highway through here, though, came when the Prudential Life Insurance Company purchased the yard, with the intent of building a large complex that would include the tallest skyscraper in the city.  Such a plan would be a great economic benefit to the city, but it threatened the highway that would also serve the economic interests of the city.

In the end, both proposals went through, and the Massachusetts Turnpike was completed through here in 1965, a year after the Prudential Tower was completed directly above it.  Today, as seen in the 2015 photo, the highway runs parallel to the railroad, and they both pass under the Prudential complex and the Hynes Convention Center, which can be seen in the foreground. In the distance to the right is the lower part of the Prudential Tower, which 51 years after its construction is still the second-tallest building in the city.

Division 16 Police Station, Boston

The Division 16 Police Station on Boylston Street, just west of Hereford Street, around 1914. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

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The buildings in 2015:

When the first photo was taken, this police station on Boylston Street consisted of the larger building in the background and the small one-story building in the center.  The larger building is attached to the Ladder 15/Engine 33 Firehouse, and it was completed in the mid-1880s.  At some point in the early 20th century, the police station added the small building to the left of it, and the two buildings were used by the Boston Police Department until 1976.

Today, neither building has seen drastic changes in appearance.  They narrowly survived the construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike, which was completed in 1965 and runs directly under the spot where the photo was taken.  From 1976 to 2007, the larger building was the Institute of Contemporary Art, and it is now owned by the Boston Architectural College.  The smaller building has since been converted into a restaurant, and as of 2015 it is Dillon’s Restaurant and Bar, which is named after a police captain who was stationed here from 1920 to 1950.

Tennis and Racquet Club, Boston

The Tennis and Racquet Club at the corner of Boylston and Hereford Streets in Boston, on April 5, 1912. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

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The building in 2015:

This building has been home to the Tennis and Racquet Club since it opened in 1902, 10 years before the first photo was taken.  As the Back Bay developed as one of the city’s premier neighborhoods in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a number of private social clubs sprung up for the neighborhood’s wealthy residents.  The Tennis and Racquet was one such social and athletic club, and it is still active today in this historic building, with its original court tennis and racquets courts in the large, mostly windowless area above the second floor.

Boylston Street, Boston (2)

Looking east on Boylston Street from near Hereford Street, on June 7, 1912. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

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Boylston Street in 2015:

These two photos don’t line up perfectly, but they are close.  The building just beyond the trolley on the left is the same one on the far left of the 2015 photo, so the 1912 photo just shows the view from a little further back.  Both illustrate some of the dramatic changes to Boylston Street, especially on the right side.  This section of the Back Bay south of Boylston Street was once a rail yard for the Boston & Albany Railroad, and there were no buildings on this side of the street west of the Hotel Lenox at Exeter Street.

Today, many of the early 20th century buildings on the left side of the street are still standing, but the right side has been completely redeveloped.  This section between Boylston Street an Huntington Avenue now includes the Prudential Tower, the rest of the Prudential Center complex, as well Hynes Convention Center, which is in the foreground of the 2015 photo.  The rail yard is gone, but the main tracks are still there, parallel to the Massachusetts Turnpike.  Both the tracks and the Pike run underneath the Hynes Convention Center, just to the right of where the photo was taken.

903-911 Boylston Street, Boston

The rowhouses at 903-911 Boylston Street, on the north side of the street between Gloucester and Hereford Streets, sometime between 1909 and 1914. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

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The buildings in 2015:

Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood was developed over the second half of the 19th century, beginning at the eastern end on Arlington Street and progressing west over the decades.  By the 1890s, the project was mostly complete, so in 1892 these Victorian rowhouses were among the last to be built.  Today, they are among the few 19th century residential buildings still standing on Boylston Street; most had been demolished in the early 20th century when the street became a major commercial center.

By the time the first photo was taken, the houses had already transitioned into commercial properties, with extensive renovations on the ground floor to make storefronts.  Many of the buildings along these few blocks of Boylston Street had automobile dealerships on the ground floor, including all three of these rowhouses.  On the far right is the Warren Motor Car Company, which helps provide a date for the photo.  Like many early car manufacturers, they didn’t last long, only manufacturing cars from 1909 to 1914.

In the middle is the Whitten-Gilmore Company, who according to the window lettering sold Chalmers cars, and the dealership on the left sold Stevens-Duryea and Waverley cars.  Stevens-Duryea was founded in 1901 by J. Frank Duryea, who along with his brother had invented the first gasoline powered automobile in America in the 1890s.  The company operated out of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, until closing in 1927.  Waverley did not have the same success that Stevens-Duryea or Chalmers had, but they were one of several early 20th century manufacturers of electric cars.  Although electric cars are usually associated with the 21st century, they were fairly popular until the 1910s, when their limited range and slow recharging times made gasoline-powered cars a more attractive alternative.

Today, the building on the left is still standing, although it has seen some drastic changes, especially the removal of all but the lower two floors.  However, the other two rowhouses look basically the same on the upper floors, giving a small surviving glimpse into 19th century Boylston Street.  The car dealerships are long gone, of course, and today cars are sold on large suburban lots rather than in converted Victorian houses.  The building on the left now houses McGreevy’s, which is advertised on the sign as “America’s first sports bar.”  It is named after Michael T. McGreevy, the owner of the Third Base Saloon and the leader of the Boston Red Sox “Royal Rooters” fans.  His baseball-themed bar closed during prohibition, but his extensive collection of photographs that once hung on the wall were donated to the Boston Public Library, and I have recreated several of them in this blog, here and here.  The current McGreevy’s bar seen here has no direct connection to the original Third Base Saloon, though; it opened in 2008 and is owned by Ken Casey, the bassist for the Dropkick Murphys.