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Boston's Hidden Historic Neighborhood

March 22, 2018

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Boston's Hidden Historic Neighborhood

March 22, 2018

With only 6 square blocks and about 700 residents, historic Bay Village is the smallest of all Boston neighborhoods. Without a doubt, it qualifies as one of the city’s best-kept secrets.


In fact, many locals have never heard of this special Boston community.  


Most travel guides don’t mention it.   

If you discover this hidden area, you’ll experience Boston from an earlier time - and you'll discover one of the city's special enclaves. Located just a block (or two, depending on how you count) south of the Public Garden, Bay Village is next to the Theatre District.


With easy access to excellent restaurants, cultural events and shows, and downtown Boston, Bay Village's location is hard to beat.


Architectural Treasures in Bay Village


What makes this leafy Boston neighborhood so special are the numerous well-preserved original red brick Federal Period townhouses lining narrow, tree-filled streets.


Art Deco architectural details grace later buildings.   You can even see a short stretch of Victorian architecture.  Gas street lamps and almost-hidden gardens complete the picture.


Walk down Fayette Street, for example, and you’ll feel transported back to the 1830s when the English Neoclassic houses were built. 


Stroll over to Melrose Street and you’ll find larger, more elaborate Greek Revival townhouses. 

Closer to Stuart Street, which separates the neighborhood from Park Square's huge hotels and mostly national-brand restaurants, you’ll see luxury condos fashioned from former Art Deco warehouses - reminders of the neighborhood’s colorful relationship with the film industry. 


On Isabella Street, French Renaissance-style Our Lady of Victories Church features 14 large German-designed stained glass windows. Windows flanking each side of the sanctuary are from Chartres, France.   Marist Fathers established the church after arriving in the U.S. in 1880.



Bay Village residents love their neighborhood because of its friendliness, convenient location, and the eclectic mix of singles, couples, families with children, students, and professionals who live here. 


I love Bay Village because of its tranquility.


Once you enter its quiet streets, the buzz of city noise fades away. You're in another world.


Aside from a small handful of restaurants and local businesses along its outer edges, Bay Village is a collection of homes. The neighborhood truly feels like a small village.   Sit on a bench in one of its small parks . . . listen to the birds sing . . . enjoy a peaceful moment. 


You’ll have to remind yourself that you’re still in 21st century Boston.


How Bay Village Became a Neighborhood


Like so much of Boston, Bay Village is a neighborhood built on top of land made by filling in a shallow bay. 


Developer Ephaim Marsh created—and thus became the owner of—the land for much of Bay Village in the 1820s. After laying out the streets once the former mud flats became buildable in 1925, he built some of the neighborhood’s finest houses, including his own at 1 Fayette Street.


Although Marsh’s house no longer stands - a lovely garden now fills the space - you can see similar houses that he constructed at 33-39 Fayette Street.  All together, Marsh built 300 post-Revolutionary buildings and houses in Boston, including many on Broad Street and in Beacon Hill. 


The Federal architecture of many neighborhood buildings echoes larger Beacon Hill mansions.  This is because many of the carpenters and craftsmen who built the grand houses in Beacon Hill settled here and built smaller, simpler versions for themselves.   Original residents also included blacksmiths, sail makers, musical instrument makers, tin workers, and rope makers.


Initially the neighborhood was called the Church Street District due to the Presbyterian church built on Church Street in 1827.  


When that name fell out of favor later, the area came to be called Bay Village, evoking the neighborhood's watery origin as well as tiny Bay Street (off Fayette, near Marginal Road). 


Raising the Neighborhood - Literally!


As massive landfills created ground for nearby Back Bay and South Endneighborhoods, sea-level Bay Village experienced sewer disaster.


By the early 1860s, Bay Village sewers could no longer drain at all—and residents’ basements and filled up with malodorous sewage.


Finally, the City of Boston decided to raise the neighborhood - literally.


Starting in 1865, the City jacked up streets, 457 houses, and 24 stores on pilings 18 feet above sea level and hauled in gravel by rail to place under them.  


But, here's the weird part . . . they filled back yards only to 12 feet, so gardens sat 6 feet below street level.


As you walk along the quiet streets, look for the sunken gardens throughout much of the neighborhood. Can you spot the few houses skipped by the neighborhood-raising process? Hint: 


You’ll see their ground floor windows below street level. 


After resolution of the sewage problem, the neighborhood once again became a desirable place to live. 

Developers erected Victorian-style luxury residential hotels on Cortes and Isabella Streets. 


Businesses set up throughout the neighborhood.


At 12 Piedmont Street, Master Silversmith William Haynes founded a company to produce flutes that became internationally known for their purity of tone. 


Today, generations later, you can still walk down the narrow lane and spot the small blue sign marking the building where Wm. S. Haynes Co. continues to create world-renowned Haynes performance flutes and piccolos.



Edgar Allan Poe and Bay Village


Bay Village is the birthplace of famous American poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe.


Poe was born in 1809 in a house on a part of Carver Street eliminated years ago.


Poe lived here less than a year before his parents, well-known actors in Boston's first theater, moved on to act in another city.


Without getting too deep into literary history and mid-19th century literary rivalries, let's just say that Poe, master of the macabre and prober of the darker sides of the human psyche, did not see eye to eye with Boston's leading literary lights.  


Poe called Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau '"Frogpondians" and dismissed their work as "didactic."  They returned the insults.


A 1928 map shows a square at the intersection of Broadway, Fayette, and the now-defunct part of Carver Street named after him - but this honor along with the real estate appears to have been lost to the vicissitudes of urban redevelopment. 


However, thanks to the efforts of local Poe fans, including Professor Paul Lewis, a leading Poe scholar and Boston College faculty member, you can now see a statue of the famous writer at Poe Square at the corner of Boylston and Charles Streets across from Boston Common on the edge of the Theatre District, named in his honor.


Bay Village's Castle


Everyone wonders about "The Castle," a landmark Bay Village building, built in the 1890s at the corner of what's now Columbus Ave and Arlington Street to house the First Corps of Cadets, a private military organization founded in 1741 to guard the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor.  


As far as I'm aware, Bay Village is the only Boston neighborhood to have its own castle.


John Hancock commanded the Corps in 1776.  Members served in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War I.  In 1940, the Corps became a National Guard Unit, and finally stopped using the building in the late 1960s.


Surely the Armory must be one of Boston's most unusual buildings.  Built from granite blocks specially cut to look "rustic," this late Victorian building faithfully emulates medieval design with its 6-story crenellated tower complete with slit windows for arrows, a drawbridge, and corbel towers. 


After a stint as a University of Massachusetts library and convention facilities for the nearby Park Plaza Hotel, the Armory now houses one of Bay Village's top restaurants.


Changes in the Neighborhood


Early in the 20th century, Bay Village became the center of Boston's film industry. 


Boston's blossoming Theatre District just to the north and east brought actors, musicians, and other entertainment industry professionals to the neighborhood.  Several film distribution companies moved in.

To clear space for massive film warehouses, the studios demolished Federal-period houses on Piedmont, Winchester, and Church Streets. 


You can still see the some of the Art Deco warehouses, now transformed into professional offices, restaurants, and stylish dwellings.   If you're in the neighborhood, take a look at 48-50 Melrose Street, originally built as a two-story film studio in 1915.  A 1985 renovation added two more floors (looks like one from the street) in the same deco-like style.


Other non-residential structures, such as the Chemical No. 2 fire station on Church Street, also provide residential space.


During Prohibition, the period during the 1920s and early 1930s when an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned alcohol, Bay Village became home to many speakeasies - illegal bars - and also to Boston’s film industry, including major film and newsreel production studios. 


In 1983, the Boston City Council passed an ordinance to preserve the neighborhood’s design heritage by designating the community as a Boston Architectural Conservation District.  All external alterations to buildings and houses now require Historic District Commission approval—notoriously hard to get.


Bay Village Today


Aside from commercial buildings, the Revere Hotel, and several excellent restaurants clustered along the outside perimeters of the neighborhood, especially Stuart Street and Charles Street South, Bay Village is primarily residential.   


A few professional offices as well as a small New England School of Law office are tucked among the residences.


A corner site at 12 Church Street provides space for a small café. 


In the not-so-distant past, entertainment attractions from Boston’s former Combat Zone spilled over into nearby Park Square until urban "renewal" targeted the area in the form of the mammoth Department of Transportation building and numerous restaurants bordering Bay Village.  


The neighborhood’s own contribution to Boston's 21+ nightlife, Jacques Cabaret on Piedmont Street, showcases female impersonation performances. 


Neighborhood real estate prices reflect the desirability of the neighborhood's location. Although attractive mid-century apartments can be found along Stuart Street, much of the rest of the neighborhood consists of townhouses and condos. 


Small "pocket" gardens scattered throughout the neighborhood add to its charm.  If you're exploring the neighborhood, sit on a bench for a few minutes to enjoy the neighborhood.  


I sometimes stop by Davio's To Go (10 St James Street, between Arlington and Berkeley Streets - one of my favorite Boston Cheap Eats spots!) for a slice of their fabulous deep dish pizza, fragrant with olive oil and herbs, and then head over to one of these small parks - instant picnic!


Where to Dine 


Although Bay Village is primarily residential, you’re in no danger of starvation.   You’ll find several highly-regarded chef-owned restaurants, including Pigalle and Erbaluce, plus even more restaurants in the Theatre District, Back Bay and South End. 


Where to Stay in Bay Village


Despite its tiny size, Bay Village does have a hotellocated within its boundaries.


The luxurious Revere Hotel appeals to families due to its large rooms, and to theater fans because it is steps away from Boston's Theatre District.


Every September, hundreds of film directors, actors, writers, and film buffs gather at the Revere for the hugely popular Boston Film Festival.


Getting to Bay Village


Location:   Bay Village is located next to the Theatre District and just a couple of blocks south of the Public Garden and Boston Common.   


Surrounding streets include Stuart Street on the north, Charles Street South on the east, Marginal Road and Cortes Street on the south, and Berkeley Street on the west. 


Closest T Lines/Stations:Green Line/Arlington; Orange Line/Back Bay or New England Medical Center


Nearby Parking Garages:  The Motor Mart Garage on Stuart Street near Arlington Street is directly across from Bay Village in Park Square.  Like most city garages, it is fairly pricey.  For more suggestions, check out other parking garages near the Theatre District.


You can also find a small parking lot at the corner of Church and Shawmut Streets, and another on Arlington Street just past Piedmont.   


With the exception of 2 visitor parking spaces at the Arlington Street/ Piedmont Street intersection, the rest of the on-street parking is Residents Only. 


Do NOT attempt to drive through Bay Village – the streets are much too narrow, and besides, this special place is best experienced on foot.



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