Following an exodus to the suburbs by fashionable families with the advent of the automobile, the neighborhood suffered a decline, with once-spectacular, single-family residences eventually becoming rooming houses. The Back Bay has long since returned to its original glory. Over the last few decades, most townhouses have been converted to pricey condominiums or exorbitantly pricey single families. In recent years, even the most lavish mansions have been restored and reinstated as sumptuous residences.
While living large may be in vogue in today’s Back Bay, that wasn’t always the case. In the neighborhood’s earliest years, conservative New England restraint was the norm. It wasn’t until the 1890s that larger dwellings were built and existing townhouses combined.
Other habits, however, die hard. Like many current Back Bay families, who flee to beach houses and lake cabins come June, the neighborhood’s original inhabitants lived here only during the school year, choosing to summer on the shore, as described in the book, “Houses of Boston’s Back Bay: An Architectural History.’’ Unlike their ancestors, however, today’s residents enjoy the modern day additions of balconies and roof gardens.
This was the year Isabella Stewart Gardner took up residence at 152 Beacon St. after marrying Boston native Jack Gardner. The house, built by her father, was a wedding gift to the couple. She lived there until moving to the museum site, around the turn of the century.
On the first week of December, about a dozen trees on each of the eight blocks between Arlington Street and Massachusetts Avenue are illuminated with 200,000 light bulbs. The design was inspired by a similar array that former parks commissioner Justine Liff once saw in Paris.
The field of runners in this year’s Boston Marathon, one year after the bombing tragedy, was expanded from 27,000 to 36,000. The race’s historic finish is in the neighborhood, in front of another piece of history, the Boston Public Library.
In April 2013, 55 Commonwealth Ave. set a record for most expensive residence sold in the neighborhood. Built in 1875 for a couple relocating from Dedham, the 9,578-square-foot dwelling went through several transformations, from lodging house to apartments, before reverting back to a single family in 1991.
Despite high rents and an often disappointing number of vacancies, the city’s most concentrated area of stores is still right in your backyard, along with an insane number (pushing 100) of salons and spas. A sprinkling of restaurants, coffee bars, and frozen yogurt shops round out the mix and make owning a car almost seem silly.
PROClarendon Street Playground
Families make up just 20 percent of Back Bay households (as opposed to 30 to 50 percent in nearby suburbs), but you wouldn’t know it looking at this well-shaded corner lot. Replete with ride-on toys and balls, as well as a calendar of special events, it’s a mecca for parents looking to entertain their kids and make social connections for themselves.
No public schools
Parents who decide to stick it out in the city, especially in this neighborhood, will be disappointed that the Back Bay has no neighborhood public school option, despite widespread interest from the community over the years.
Some pricey condos come with deeded parking, but otherwise options are limited to renting a spot or staking out “resident only’’ spaces, which are good for up to a week during street sweeping season. Parking meters abound, but beware of hypervigilant meter attendants. As for overnight accommodations for cars of guests, the city provides none.
Marni Elyse Katz blogs about design at StyleCarrott.com.