Boston’s Back Bay is a living, walkable architecture lesson, home to some of the most stunning eye candy in the U.S. You’ll find the most beautifully preserved, elegant, and diverse examples of 19th-century urban design without even opening a map, because they’re all around you: Italianate, Queen Anne, and Victorian Gothic buildings, as well as those designed in Italian Renaissance, Beaux Arts, Georgian, and Federal revival styles, to name just a few. Below are six that make the Back Bay neighborhood itself a work of art. And since they’re all a short walk from Newbury Guest House, they require little more than shoe leather to marvel at.
Gracing one of the most elegant stretches of the Back Bay’s Commonwealth Avenue, Baylies Mansion sits just steps from the Public Garden. It was built in 1903 for textile tycoon Walter Baylies and his wife Charlotte, who wanted their “town” residence to outshine its brownstone neighbors and hired architect Arthur Rice to design the house in Renaissance Revival style. Set back behind a high iron fence with tall urn-topped piers, its Indiana limestone façade is ornamented with molded window surrounds, piano nobile balustrades, and attic swag panels. To the left of the mansion beneath a rounded copper roof is a single-story wing housing an exquisitely detailed Louis XVI ballroom added in 1912 for the debut of the Baylies' daughter. The home was put in trust for the Baylies’ heirs in 1939 and purchased in 1941 by the Boston Center for Adult Education before again becoming a private single-family dwelling in 2009. 5 Commonwealth Avenue – a 15-minute walk from Newbury Guest House
While you’re still on Commonwealth Avenue, don’t miss the Hooper Mansion, one of the Back Bay’s most interesting examples of Second Empire architecture. The home was built in 1860 for trading company owner (and later Massachusetts Congressman) Samuel Hooper and his wife Anne with a semi-detached home for their son and his family. The side-by-side mansions were designed by respected architect Arthur Gilman, who used contrasting pressed brick and tan sandstone for the façade. Gilman also designed its dentillated cornice, lavish door and window surrounds, and octagonal bay windows, all topped by a mansard roof with stunning inset windows. Later owners extended the eastern half of the façade in the 1890s; when the mansion was converted to six condominiums in 2016, the developer mandated in the deed that the open garden at its corner remain a public space. Canine trivia: The Hoopers loved dogs, and the mansion is credited as the home of the original Boston terrier breed. 448 Beacon St. – an 8-minute walk from Newbury Guest House
Trinity Church Boston
At the time of its construction in 1872, Trinity Church Boston was heralded as the new face of ecclesiastical architecture in America and has since been named one of the most significant buildings in the U.S. by the American Association of Architects. The church is a celebrated example of "Richardsonian Romanesque" design, named for architect H. H. Richardson and his attempt to give concrete form to the mesmerizing preaching of Trinity’s then-rector Phillips Brooks. Richardson scrapped his original drawings, which called for a classic Gothic Revival design, and sketched an unorthodox Greek cross plan with a chancel, nave, and transepts of equal size grouped around a central square. Its inclusive, open plan was a radical departure from church design of the time, and reflected the democratic American tradition seen in town halls, court houses, railroad stations, and libraries across the country. Viewing the church’s elaborate carved exterior, hand-crafted kneelers, and stained-glass collection (considered one of the finest in the nation), one could mistake it for a museum, but Trinity is an active house of worship open to all. 206 Clarendon Street – a 10-minute walk from Newbury Guest House
Central Boston Public Library
If there’s one don’t-miss building on our list, this might well be it. The Boston Public Library’s Central Library in Copley Square was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. It was the first major Beaux Arts building in the United States, and the first large-scale urban library building in the nation. Constructed from 1888-1895, the BPL is the triumph of its architect Charles Follen McKim and some of the greatest craftspeople, painters, and sculptors of the 19th century. McKim’s design echoes that of another notable library, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. BPL’s copper cornice, patterned with alternating seashells and dolphins, decorates a roofline that honors the city’s maritime history; sculptor Domingo Mora created 33 medallions with the emblems of booksellers and printers between the window arches; and three sculptural seals representing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the library, and the City of Boston, can be seen on the Dartmouth Street façade. Below these is carved the head of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, and the motto free for all.
BPL’s interior is just as impressive, with its gracious pink Knoxville marble vestibule, bas-relief bronze doors and grand staircase with ivory gray Echaillon steps embedded with fossils. It also houses exquisite murals by John Singer Sargent and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, who was considered one of the greatest muralists of the 19th century – the artist’s only mural work outside of France. And if you’re looking for a quiet place to read a good book or just contemplate the library’s beauty, we suggest BPL’s graceful courtyard, modeled on the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. 700 Boylston St. – a six-minute walk from Newbury Guest House
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
The museum that houses many significant examples of European, Asian, and American art began in the Beacon Street home of heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner. When her private collection of paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and decorative arts began to outgrow their home, she and her husband Jack commissioned architect Willard Sears to create a public home for them. The Gardners’ love of Italy – and Venice’s Palazzo Barbaro in particular – served as the inspiration for Sears’ design, and the source of many of its materials. The Gardners traveled throughout Venice, Florence, and Rome in 1897 gathering columns, windows, and doorways to adorn every floor, as well as capitals, balustrades, reliefs, and statues from the Roman, Byzantine, Renaissance, and Gothic periods. Isabella herself was on the construction site daily, often requiring workers to redo details that didn’t exactly replicate their Italian counterparts.
Most museum visitors find the stonework arches, columns, and walls of the Gardner Museum’s Courtyard as impressive as its collections. Its mix of Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance elements could’ve resulted in architectural cacophony, but Sears and Gardner managed to integrate them seamlessly, creating a lovely, harmonious whole. Almost as famous as the museum itself is the fact that in 1990 it became the site of the single largest property theft in the world. 25 Evans Way – a 26-minute walk from Newbury Guest House
Massachusetts State House
The Massachusetts State House is the oldest building on the Back Bay’s Beacon Hill, and one of its most recognizable. Designed by Boston-born architect Charles Bullfinch and completed in 1798, it dominated the city’s skyline and was a major influence on its character, widely acknowledged as one of the most magnificent and well-situated buildings in the country.
Bullfinch’s Federalist design was a classicizing of the style of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio – one used by Thomas Jefferson for his Monticello estate and followed by many examples in government buildings across the U.S. (Bullfinch later contributed designs to the Capitol in Washington.) The State House’s white marble, copper, and limestone façade is smooth and plain, with a balanced, symmetrical, and dignified countenance. Architectural details are restrained and largely confined to panels, tablets, and friezes, all the better to set off its most visible and well-known feature: its prominent gold dome. The original dome was covered with copper by Paul Revere's Revere Copper Company, the first in America to successfully roll copper into sheets for commercial use. It was gilded with gold leaf in 1874, but painted gray during World War II to prevent reflection and bombing attacks. The dome was re-gilded once in 1969, and again 1997 with 23-karat gold. 24 Beacon St. – a 29-minute walk from Newbury Guest House
So what about the Back Bay’s signature brownstones? You can’t miss them if you make Newbury Guest House your home base for architectural tourism – you’ll be staying in one of its best (and most comfortable) examples of the neighborhood’s charming Queen Anne/Rustic style.