A Walking Tour in Boston's Back Bay

[Copyright 1999 Mary Lee Cox]


This walk through Boston’s Back Bay is an easy one, and it can be interrupted for rest and refreshments often along the way.  There are no hills to negotiate.  The shaded benches in Copley Square and all along the Commonwealth Avenue Mall invite rest whenever you wish..  There are adequate rest rooms in the shopping malls at Copley Place and the Prudential Center and also in the lower level of the Public Library.

The Back Bay is both a residential neighborhood and a vital commercial center.  You will find blocks of formal Victorian town houses,  the grand promenade of Commonwealth Avenue, the architectural pleasures of Copley Square, and the always changing shops, sidewalk cafes, and art galleries of Newbury Street.

The Back Bay covers a large geographic area, once salt marsh partially under water, part of Boston Harbor.  In response to a  rapidly growing population with no place to expand, the Commonwealth, the City of Boston, and private interests together filled in this part of the Bay, creating building lots block by block between 1850 and 1900, from Arlington Street out to Kenmore Square - one of the great engineering feats of the nineteenth century.  The new streets were laid out in a grid pattern, unlike the winding paths of the original town.  Some of the new space, valuable as it was, was dedicated to wide boulevards, contributing to the value of the house lots..  The grandest of the boulevards was Commonwealth Avenue.  Schools, colleges, and churches got new sites here at a bargain.  Old South Church, Trinity Church, the Church of the Covenant, and First Unitarian left their downtown locations and built new churches, followed by their congregations who built new houses.  The Museum of Fine Art, the Natural History Museum, the new public library and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commissioned new buildings reflecting, as buildings do, the hopes and dreams of their users for the future.

The Back Bay has always been a wealthy residential neighborhood, although some of the largest town houses were sold in the 1920’s and 1930’s to colleges when the original house owners moved to suburban estates.  The colleges are still a presence.  MIT outgrew its stately building on Boylston Street and moved across the river to Cambridge in 1902.  The old Museum of Natural History building next door is now a men’s store, remaining as a finely maintained example of what Boylston Street once looked like.  Most of the town houses have become upscale condominiums or apartments.

Women remembered on this walk made their way through some of the doors newly opened by their predecessors to become professional musicians, college professors, editors, and philanthropists.

Note on the map that two locations - numbers 8, the Mason house, and 9, Fanny Farmer’s house, can be eliminated to make a shorter walk.  This option is noted in the text.

Begin at 358 Boylston Street, under the sign of the Golden Swan. 

1.  Women's Educational and Industrial Union - WEIU

When Dr. Harriet Clisby, Melissa Chamberlin, and Sarah Eaton founded the Union in 1877, their intention was to ease the transition of young women from rural New England who had newly arrived to work in Boston:  “for mutual cooperation and sympathy among women.”   At the same time a store was opened to help women support themselves and their families, providing an outlet for women’s crafts and foodstuffs.  The Union's first location was 74 Boylston Street.  There have been a number of locations since.  In the early years, a woman physician was available for consultation every day during lunch hour.   The Union has always maintained its practical approach and its focus on the needs of working women, and still does so.

Harriet Jemima Winifred Clisby (1830-1931)
Australian born and trained in London as a nurse, she came to the United States to get her medical education at the New York Medical College for Women. In Boston, she practiced and lectured on preventive medicine, especially for women.  The Union was an outgrowth of her lunch time clinic for working women.

Abby Morton Diaz was the president of the Union from 1892-1914.  Then Mary Morton Kimball Kehew [1859-1918], as full time director, expanded the original Union services to help all Boston working women.  There were vocational training classes, eventually taken over by Simmons College, in 1902.  One of those classes was in salesmanship.  The Union also provided, and still does, vocational guidance and assistance in finding jobs.  When college educated women first began to look for work in significant numbers, the Union assisted them in finding professional careers.  Free legal service was provided for working women.  From 1907-1915 a research department gathered and prepared wage and hour information about women’s work for the Massachusetts Department of Labor.  The Union shop sold the work of women.  The food service, intended to provide nutritional and inexpensive lunches for working women, ended only a few years ago. Current programs include a transitional housing program, a job training program for new entrants to the job market, and advocacy for women and their families.

The Union shop is still a favorite place for unusual women's and children’s wear and gifts.   The Union was also the first home of The Bookshop for Boys and Girls, Bertha Miller’s shop begun in 1916.  Miller was secretary of the Union at the time.

Bertha Mahoney Miller [1882-1969].  The Bookshop for Boys and Girls was first located on the second floor of the Union, at an earlier address.  She created a little handout sheet for parents about children’s literature,  The Horn Book, which soon became a periodical.  Miller, as founder and long time editor of The Horn Book, is a permanent influence on children’s literature in America.  The  periodical she founded is still in existence.  Reviews of books for children in this periodical  raised standards and is still teaching generations of parents, educators and librarians about choosing the best books for young people.  The magazine’s name was chosen not only for its reference to the first American books made specifically for children, but also, Miller said, “to blow the horn for good books for boys and girls.”

Continue on Boylston Street to the next corner,  Berkeley Street.  The imposing store on the corner across from you, now Louis of Boston, was built to house the Museum of Natural History.  It is one of the few remaining original public buildings in the Back Bay,  and displays the elegance of the early expectations for the new part of Boston.  Imagine beside it, where the New England Life Insurance Building now stands, a similar building at 50 Boylston, the home of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the nineteenth century.  Three of the earliest women graduates of MIT were Ellen Richards, Alice Bryant and Sophia Hayden.

2.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology [old site]
Ellen Swallow Richards[1842-1911].  In 1873 Ellen Swallow was the first woman graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  She taught there for twenty-six years.  Despite her national reputation, high local profile and many publications, she never became a professor.  Initially, the Women’s Laboratory, at MIT, where she taught, was funded by the Women’s Education Association, an outgrowth of the New England Women’s Club.  The laboratory was located in a garage near the Boylston Street location of the college, on this site.  MIT became co-educational shortly afterward.  The Women's Education Association then gave $10,000 to fund a parlor and reading room for women students within the college.  Richards is credited with opening the science professions generally to women, is considered the first sanitary engineer (she tested the quality of water) and the founder of ecology as a science.  She was among the women who promoted school lunches and developed the New England Kitchen.  Maria Parloa asked her to provide information about the science of cookery and cleaning for Parloa’s cooking classes, and Richards coined the term “home economics.”  One of her works was The Cost of Living (1899), about household management.

Alice Gertrude Bryant [1862-1942].  An engineering student at MIT, Alice Bryant later became a doctor.  She was one of the first two women members of the American College of Surgeons in 1914.  She combined both fields: she held the patents on three important medical devices for surgery.

Sophia Hayden [1868-1953].  Hayden was the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture.  Her most important work was the design and construction of the Woman’s Building at the Columbian Exposition in 1892.  Her work was brutally criticized by contemporary architects; her Exposition building called “too feminine.”  It was a temporary building, taken down soon after the Exposition closed.  None of her other work is now standing.

Turn down Berkeley Street two blocks to Commonwealth Avenue.  At this corner, take a short detour to your right, back toward Arlington Street, to the home of Amy Cheney Beach at number 28; it is marked with a plaque.

3. Amy Cheney Beach [1867-1944]  28 Commonwealth Avenue.  Amy Beach was the most prominent woman composer of her time, and the first woman to work in the larger forms of symphony and cantata.  She never studied composition formally.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed her compositions and she was sometimes the piano soloist at symphony concerts.  Beach wrote the “Festival Jubilate” for the dedication of the Women’s Building at the Columbian Exposition in 1892.  When Beach was eighteen she was married in Trinity Church to Henry Beach (he was forty-two).  She always performed under the name of “Mrs. H.H. Beach” until Henry Beach died and she moved to Europe, performing there as “Amy Beach.”

Return to Berkeley Street and continue one block to Marlborough Street.  The elegant house surrounded by an iron fence, at number 53,  was given to the French Library by Katherine Lane Weems.

4. Katherine Lane Weems [1899-1989]
53 Marlborough Street, now the French Library and Cultural Center.  A sculptor of animals, Katherine Weem’s work to be seen in the Boston area includes the leaping dolphin group outside the Aquarium, a bronze she began when she was 75 years old and finished four years later.  There is also a life size pair of rhinoceroses at the doors of the biological laboratories at Harvard, and a room of smaller animal bronzes at the Museum of Science.  Katherine was the only daughter of an old Boston family.  This Marlborough Street house was their town residence and the scene of the parties, concerts, visiting, social responsibilities, and philanthropic activities characteristic of Beacon Street living in the early twentieth century.  Katherine’s father Gardiner Lane was the president of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts. Hers was scarcely the usual background for a sculptor;  and Katherine was expected to be a social success and find a suitable husband at the same time she was attending the Museum School.  She found good teachers as well as the support, encouragement and friendship of four other women sculptors.  Marriage came eventually, but not until she had made a name for herself.  Among her numerous awards is the Widener Gold Medal.   A lover of French literature and culture, Katherine Weems left the house to the French Library.

Continue on Marlborough Street to Arlington, turn left, and walk one block further to Beacon Street.  In the center of the block between Arlington and Berkeley is number 114 Beacon, now a part of Fisher College.  This was the birthplace and childhood home, during the winter, of Marian Hooper Adams.

5. Marian (“Clover”) Hooper Adams  [1843-1885] 114 Beacon Street,   She was schooled in Cambridge at Elizabeth Agassiz’ school and married Henry Adams in 1872.  She was an amateur photographer, one of the earliest portrait photographers, and the few pieces of her work that remain reveal an extraordinary eye.  Her letters to family members and friends have also been published; letters to her husband were destroyed by him after her death.  The Adams couple bought a house at 91 Marlborough Street (no longer standing) and in 1877 moved to Washington, DC, where they commissioned H.H. Richardson to build a house near LaFayette Square. (Also no longer standing).  There is no mention of her in The Education of Henry Adams.   Only a single, blurred photograph of Clover remains, but the St. Gaudens monument, commissioned by Henry Adams to mark her grave, broods in Rock Creek Park in Washington.

The next stop is on the next block of Beacon Street.

6. Isabella Stewart Gardner [1840-1924]   152 Beacon Street (number no longer used; plaque is at number 150 ).
On what is now the site of an Emerson College building was the home of one of the most colorful and well known of Boston women, Isabella Gardner.  She and her husband used her  wealth to collect art.  After his death she continued collecting, with Bernard Berensen to assist in the decisions; she gave the collection, as well as the palace she built to contain it, to the city of Boston.  Before the palace was built, she entertained often at this location.  Her house no longer exists.  In response to Mrs. Gardner’s wishes, there is no longer a number 152 either.  The Gardner Palace museum is included in the driving tour.  Her collection is displayed, according to her express directions, exactly as she arranged it there.  Note, if you are able to go, the subtext of women in the art:  madonnas, Monet’s mother, a Flamenco dancer, the Medusa and Aphrodite in the atrium.  There are works of six women artists in the McNight room, her own private sitting room.

 In the next block of Beacon Street, on the opposite side, is number 241, the last home of Julia Ward Howe.
7. Julia Ward Howe [1819-1910]  In her later years, after her husband died, Julia Howe moved here, to 241 Beacon Street.  The vine covered house is on the National Historic Register and is marked with a plaque:  “Her Battle Hymn is Eternal.”  The national renown of  Julia’s words in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and her work in the women’s suffrage movement gave the last years of her life a new focus and enriched opportunities.  She once said, “Life is like a teacup; all the sugar is at the bottom.”

Turn left on Dartmouth Street back to Boylston Street and the last stop in Copley Square or, for a longer walk, include stops numbers 8 and 9 by continuing down Commonwealth Avenue as far as Hereford Street.

8. Fanny Mason. 211 Commonwealth Avenue.   Fanny Mason was a patron of music in Boston at the turn of the century.  At the rear of this house, in 1897, a large and elegant music room was added.  She invited such musicians as Paderewski, Rubenstein, and Casals to perform here as well as in her other houses on the North Shore and in Paris.  She introduced modern composers to the Boston scene, composers usually not represented on Boston Symphony Orchestra programs.  Fanny Mason was a friend and traveling companion of Isabella Stewart Gardner

Continue down Commonwealth Avenue to Hereford Street.   The cross streets in the Back Bay are alphabetical, and, having begun at A, you are now seven (long) blocks further on.  On the corner of Commonwealth and Hereford, at number 40 Hereford, was the final location of the Boston Cooking School, and Fanny Farmer’s last home.

9. Fanny Merrit Farmer [1857-1915].  40 Hereford Street.
When Farmer’s first Boston employer sent her to take the Boston Cooking School course in 1887; the school had been in operation for a few years; it was begun by the Women’s Education Association as vocational training, intended to prepare professional cooks.  Fanny Farmer was head of the school by 1894.  She completely revised their cookbook in 1896, and her concept of level measurements changed cookery completely for American women.  With one swish of the knife across the teaspoon it became possible to duplicate a recipe exactly.  The courses offered at the school began with how to make a fire and brew coffee; twelve lessons later students made lobster salad and charlotte russe.  Farmer, like Maria Parloa, her predecessor in cookery education, was deeply concerned with the connections between diet and health.  Fanny Farmer lectured at Harvard Medical School about nutrition, and she was proudest of her Food and Cookery for the Sick published in 1904.  The Boston Cooking School operated at a number of locations, beginning on Tremont Street, moving to Huntington Avenue in the 1920’s, and eventually to Hereford Street.

 Walk over Hereford Street one block to Newbury Street and back down Newbury to Dartmouth.  Newbury is a shopping street of trendy boutiques and sidewalk cafes; only a few of the art galleries which once occupied much of the street remain.  The buildings were residential in their first lives; upper levels are still apartments.  Turn on Dartmouth back to Boylston Street; you will be in Copley Square.  The modern building on your left is on the site of the Chauncey Hall School.

Copley Square
10.  Lucy Wheelock [1857-1946].  Lucy Wheelock was a pioneer in early childhood education.  She taught at Chauncy Hall School, located at Boylston Street near Dartmouth Street.  Wheelock founded Wheelock college to educate kindergarten teachers.

Boston Public Library.  The McKim/Mead building facing the square houses the research library; the modern addition behind it is the general, circulating library.  Both are open to all residents of the Commonwealth.   Busts of Lucy Stone  and her daughter Alice Stone Blackwell are in Bates Hall, the main reading room of the research library.  They are the only women so honored here, although the space intended for an art library is still called the Charlotte Cushman room.  The Stones appear on the Foremothers walk, and Cushman on the North End Walk.

Louise Imogen Guiney [1861-1920] worked at the Boston Public Library from 1899 to 1901.  A poet, short story writer and literary critic, Guiney was Irish Catholic and part of the aesthetic revival in Boston.  She has been called an “ambassador between two Boston cultures” - the Brahmin intelligentsia, or at least its arty wing,  and the Irish community.  With her friend Alice Brown she traveled to England, made several hiking tours, and edited a newsletter called Pilgrim Scrip, intended to encourage women to travel on their own.  The two women also created a Women’s Travel Bureau, to assist women with travel arrangements; it became part of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union and lasted until the middle 1980’s.

Across the street from the library, on the Dartmouth Street Side of Copley Square, there is memorial to Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese poet and artist whose home was in Boston..  Gibran’s editor, mentor, platonic lover (to judge from their published letters) and frequent source of financial support was Mary Haskell.

Mary Elizabeth Haskell [1873-1964]  Gibran memorial and 314 Marlborough Street (between Fairfield and Gloucester), once “Miss Haskell’s School for Girls.”  Haskell was a progressive educator who, with her sister, founded a school for girls and directed it for fifteen years.  Following that, she was headmistress of the Cambridge School, which still exists in a Boston suburban town.  She was a close friend and patron of Kahlil Gibran.  She financed his art education in Europe, provided funds for a number of his needs, took care of his family.  Kahlil Gibran’s book of mystical, spiritual prose-poems, The Prophet. became a cult classic and still sells a spectacular number of copies yearly.  Mary Haskell was also Gibran’s editor.  Her contributions to his work are rarely acknowledged, although he dedicated many of his works to her.  English was his second language; she edited and rewrote his work, and it is her voice as well as Gibran’s heard in The Prophet.

The walk ends here in Copley Square; there is a T stop (inbound on the library side, with the wrought iron entrance) and outbound on the opposite side of the street.  Rest rooms and refreshment in the Copley Place shopping mall, entered through the Westin Hotel on Copley Square.

ROUTE: Begin at Arlington Street T stop.  The Boston Garden and Arlington Street Church are on this corner.  The route is serpentine and involves some retracing of steps.  Walk one block down Boylston, to the sign of the Golden Swan, and beyond it  to Berkeley Street.  Turn right and walk two blocks down on Berkeley to Commonwealth Avenue, making a short detour to the middle of the block to stop at  number 28 Commonwealth.  Then return to Berkeley Street, and one block further to Marlborough Street.  Turn on Marlborough Street in the direction of Boston Garden to Arlington, left one block to Beacon Street, and back down Beacon for three blocks, to Dartmouth Street.   There are two choices here:  for a shorter walk, you may continue on Dartmouth to Copley Square, where the walk ends and there is another T stop.  Alternatively, you  may make a somewhat longer walk by following Dartmouth Street to Commonwealth Avenue, walking down Commonwealth to Hereford Street, across Hereford to Newbury and return on Newbury to Dartmouth Street and over to Copley Square.