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Why Boston’s Historic Districts Stay Historic

News Back Bay Beacon Hill South End
A runner jogs through Beacon Hill, which is considered one of Boston’s nine historic districts.
A runner jogs through Beacon Hill, which is considered one of Boston’s nine historic districts. Lane Turner/The Boston Globe

Everyone knows that Boston is historic. You can stand where the Boston Tea Party took place, you can look at the plaque where the Boston Massacre occurred and you can step inside Paul Revere’s house.

But, did you know that despite everything historical in the Hub, there are only nine city-designated “historic districts’’ throughout the city? Each has its own Historic District Commission (all mayoral appointed volunteers), which meets monthly and with the purpose of ensuring “that the unique historic and architectural character of these Boston neighborhoods is protected and preserved.’’

What does that mean?

William Young, assistant director for Historic Districts for the city of Boston, said a historic commissioner’s job is to “review exterior work in the district to ensure that the standards and criteria for the districts are adhered to.’’

Young said that the review process extends from maintenance and repair, design changes, new storefronts, building additions, and new construction. According to Young, there is no inspector controlling the historic districts and each community understands what the rules and regulations are for building exteriors. The guidelines for each district are on the Boston Landmarks Commission website. Each commission also hosts monthly meetings where people can get exterior change projects approved.

“We are not architecture history cops,’’ said Young. “[We are] periodically informed of work that may not have been through the process or might not be consistent.’’

If a neighbor sees construction or a change that is not compliant with the district’s codes, they can report it to the city.

Who cares about keeping buildings looking like they originally did? According to Young, these districts are key to maintaining Boston’s unique architectural character. “Visibility and tangibility of Boston’s past as reflected by architecture helps to make the city a magnetic place to live, work, and to visit,’’ he said.

Each of the districts has their own rules and regulations for how building exteriors can look and what changes can be made. The commission for the district must approve changes after an application has been submitted.

The Districts

For the next nine weeks we will be featuring one of these nine historic districts:

Historic Beacon Hill District (Designated in 1955): Residential development was strengthened in Beacon Hill once the new State House was built in 1797. Much of the development included mansions on large plots of land, symmetrical houses and rowhouses, or homes that were attached. Read the Beacon Hill story here.

Back Bay Architectural District (Designated in 1966): The construction in this district couldn’t begin until tidal flats were built in the mid-1800s, creating more than 450 acres of land that could actually be used. Back Bay’s residential district was largely constructed by architect Arthur Gilman, who travelled to Paris and used that as inspiration, though styles changed as time went on. Read the Back Bay story here.

Bay State Road/Back Bay West Architectural Conservation District (Designated in 1979): This was a similar project to that of Back Bay. A group called the Bay State Road Improvement Society in 1900 decided they wished to prohibit commercial and industrial uses for the street for 50 years – only homes could reside until 1950. There are a variety of architectural styles on Bay State Road, which has become one of its signifying characteristics. Read the Bay State Road/ Back Bay West story here.

St. Botolph Architectural Conservation District (Designated in 1981): St. Botolph was part of a landfill project to fill in tidal areas as an effort to create more space to build residential properties. By the end of the 1880s about 90 percent of the buildings in the district were single family homes. Development occurred in the 1890s for multi-family structures and the architectural style changed to one that used materials of a lighter color. Read the St. Botolph story here.

Bay Village Historic District (Designated in 1983): This area used to be mudflats, but in 1825 a dam was built to drain the water, allowing houses to be constructed. Bricks were mostly used to build the homes until the 20th century when Art Deco began to prevail. Read the Bay Village story here.

South End Landmark District (Designated in 1983): During its original construction, mostly three and four-story single family rowhouses, considered fashionable at the time, were built. Eventually the homes switched to multi-family homes or lodging houses for the working class. Read the South End story here.

Mission Hill Triangle Architectural Conservation District (Designated in 1985): Development here began in 1872 and was divided up into 190 house lots of various sizes. They were mostly two-story, single-family rowhouses with front yards. Once Huntington Ave. was created, more muti-family houses were constructed. Read the Mission Hill story here.

Aberdeen Architectural Conservation District (Designated in 2001): This area, at the time of its development in the mid-1880s, was considered the “romantic suburb’’ because the houses were large and ornate. Most of the men in these homes were taking the new public transportation system to work in the city. Apartments began to be built in the early 20th century. Read the Aberdeen story here.

Fort Point Channel Landmark District (Designated in 2008): This area of the city, formerly owned by the Boston Wharf Company, has the city’s largest collection of 19th and 20th century industrial loft buildings. Much of the area is visually uniform. Read the Fort Point story here.

Each of these districts has their own distinct feel, culture, and regulations that reflect their neighborhood’s past, but they come together to make one unified Boston.