Walking Through Boston’s Back Bay

One of the many things we learn when training with @BostonbyFoot is that we walk through time, over water, and underground. Not literally, of course, but Boston’s history is three-dimensional in many ways. In Boston’s Back Bay, for example, we stand on what was originally swamp land and tidal mud flats. That unusable—and unpleasant—area was filled in during the years from 1857 to 1900 and it was done pretty much block by block. 

Gibson House Museum, Boston, Back Bay

Gibson House Museum

So as you walk west on the long streets:  Beacon, Marlborough, Newbury Street as well as Commonwealth Avenue, you are walking through the period of time in which the land was created and the houses were built. You can also see a progression of the architectural styles that developed in that period. 

These stately town houses are beautiful when seen from the outside, but what did they look like on the inside?  It’s hard to tell from the street because the houses are long and narrow (typically just 25 feet wide) with windows only in the front and the rear. The back ends face service alleys.  Fortunately, you can find out by visiting one of three “house museums” that present a slice of early Boston life.

Entering the Nineteenth Century

Yesterday my husband and I visited the Gibson House Museum (@The_GibsonHouse) at 137 Beacon Street (between Arlington and Berkeley).  Outside, the magnolias flaunted their magnificent pink-and-white blooms on a gorgeous 21st-century day. We stepped across the threshold to enter the world of 1860.

The house, along with the one next door, was built from 1959 to 1860 by the widow Catherine Hammond Gibson, who moved there from Beacon Hill with her son, Charles Hammond Gibson. It was designed in the Italian Renaissance style by the noted Boston architect Edward Clarke Cabot, and is built of red brick and brownstone. Its interior is what one might call tastefully ornate. 

Our guide, Jonathan, was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic, which made for a very interesting tour.  We learned a great deal about the house and how it operated, the family and their history, the culture of the time, and how the house became a museum. The Gibson House is filled with original nineteenth-century furniture, wallpaper, china, kitchenware, carpets, clocks, and many marvelous paintings, including a family portrait by Thomas Sully

Gibson House Museum, Back Bay, Boston

Gibson House Interior

The Gibson House gives a whole new meaning to the term “upstairs/downstairs.”  An unusually tall house for the Back Bay at six levels, it must have forced its servants to be in good shape. I felt sorry for the maids who would have had to climb all those dark, narrow, twisty stairs in long skirts and while carrying heavy trays, platters, and buckets.

Our tour group was small—only four people—and we were the last tour of the day so we were able to spend more time in the museum than we expected. When we finally left, we headed over to @Skipjack’son Clarendon Street for their excellent chowdah and a seafood dinner. 

We enjoyed yesterday’s tour so much that we’re planning to visit Boston’s other two house museums: the Harrison Gray Otis House, one of three houses with this name, all designed by Charles Bulfinch, and currently the headquarters of Historic New England, and the Nichols House Museum on Beacon Hill. 

Next Saturday’s Boston by Foot lecture is on land building in Boston and I’m looking forward to it. It’s fun to walk on water.

3 thoughts on “Walking Through Boston’s Back Bay

  1. I commented extremely favorably on a previous post (the Copley Plaza lions provenance) and looked over the blog about Back Bay, an area where wife and I will be ambling through (albeit too briefly) from the Copley to the Public Garden.
    We leave next morning on a cruise to Montreal, having originated in Calgary, Alberta (north of Montana).

    Could I suggest having a blog on the original wrought iron Copley Station Headhouse for the “T” (http://www.deangelisiron.com/projects/Restoration/43)

    Perhaps one on the Cheers Bar as well (I’m not a fan of the former TV series and watched about 2 minutes of it total but it might interest some people)

    It will be part of the very short walk I will be able to take around Copley Square, in addition to the above to the Public Garden

    • Thank you for your comments, Massey. I wish you had the time to take Boston By Foot’s Back Bay tour. It’s filled with wonderful information about the area, how it came to be, the history and the architecture of the buildings in it.

      I will check out the Copley Station Headhouse and thanks for the tip. Have a great time on your cruise.


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