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Back Bay Architectural District

The Back Bay Architectural District was designated in 1966 and expanded in 1974, 1979, and 1981.

The Back Bay Architectural District Commission (BBAC) meets the second Wednesday of each month to review proposed exterior design changes and alterations.

Design Review Process

All exterior work is subject to the review of the BBAC.  You must submit a Design Approval Application to the Commission and it must be approved by the Commission before beginning any exterior work.

  • To save time and costs, contact staff early in the planning process to determine project compliance with guidelines.
  • Review all instructions and documentation requirements before submitting your application to ensure it is complete. Only complete applications will be added to a public hearing agenda.
  • Submit your application well in advance of a filing deadline in case it is marked incomplete and additional or revised information needs to be submitted.
  • Staff is not available to review applications for completeness immediately upon submittal.
  • Do not begin any work, or buy materials until after you have received confirmation your project has been approved.

The Back Bay was originally tidal flats, used for milling operations until the mid-19th century, when the bay was filled over several decades, resulting in over 450 acres of usable land by the 1880s.

The Back Bay was to be a fashionable residential district with plans by the architect Arthur Gilman created in 1856. Having travelled to Paris, Gilman was familiar with Baron Haussmann’s plan for the new layout of that city and this inspiration reflected a growing American interest in French architecture and city planning.

As the tidal flats were slowly filled in, beginning at edge of the Public Garden and extending westward, residential construction followed.  Because the land filling efforts proceeded slowly, construction advanced concurrently on filled-in lots as they became available.  As a result, most blocks in the Back Bay date from approximately the same era and, when viewed in sequence, illustrate the changing tastes in and stylistic evolution of American architecture over the course of the mid- to late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Commercial buildings were erected alongside these residential structures, primarily on Newbury and Boylston Streets. Commercial development began on Boylston Street around 1880 and on Newbury Street in the early 20th century. While new structures were built for some of these commercial ventures, others adapted existing row houses for their purposes.  This early example of adaptive reuse helped to maintain the Back Bay’s uniform appearance.

The Back Bay has been home to a number of important artists, writers, and philosophers. Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Santayana, John Singer Sargent, and William Morris Hunt are among the many notable figures that lived in the Back Bay. As the site of the original Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Natural History, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Back Bay has been an important center for American culture.

Noted architects whose work is represented in the Back Bay include H.H. Richardson, McKim, Mead, and White, Peabody and Stearns, and Richard Morris Hunt, among others. A number of architectural styles are represented in the Back Bay, including Italianate, Gothic, Ruskinian Gothic (also known as High Victorian Gothic), French Academic, Queen Anne, and Panel Brick, along with many of the revival styles, including Italian Renaissance, German Renaissance, Beaux Arts, Chateauesque, Georgian, Federal, and Adamesque.