A Short History of Newbury Street

by Patrick Quinn

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The street's origins begin under water. Until the mid 1800s, the 2 mile long stretch of what is now Newbury Street was part of Boston Harbor. Beginning in 1857, the harbor was slowly filled in to become the Back Bay section of the city. The dirt and fill came from neighboring communities and the crests of Boston's once substantially higher hilltops. Walking west, away from the Common, is a walk forward in time. The area was filled to Claredon St. by 1860, to Exeter St. by 1870 and was completed in 1882. 1 Virtually all of the buildings were built around the same time and the neighborhood utilized European design elements, including wide boulevards, grid patterns and parkways. 2 Originally a residential neighborhood, it was prestigious and exclusive at its very inception. According to museum director Edward W. Gordon, "By the 1880s and 1890s, it was the most desirable place to live in the city and was, in fact, eclipsing Beacon Hill. The houses were bigger and they had all the latest amenities - indoor plumbing and coal-burning furnaces." 3

The coal furnaces may no longer remain, but the structure laid out in the 19th century lasts to this day and continues to influence the feel of the street. Cultural and retail uses have now surpassed the original residential design, providing the basis for its 20th and 21st century fame. The beginnings of Newbury Street as a retail and tourist destination are a little harder to pin down, although the street has clearly been a mecca for many decades. The street has taken on a life and meaning far beyond its architectural design. Known as the "Rodeo Drive of the East," it serves as Boston's representative of fashion and style, on par with the most exclusive districts of San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. The street is home to an eclectic mix of independent shops and high-end fashion and dining establishments. In some fields, the street reigns absolutely supreme. For those in the city's salon and hair style industry, there is no other location. As one stylist and salon owner declared, "You go off Newbury Street and you're a second-class citizen". 4

Newbury Street shows an individuality and uniqueness that is lacking in so many other commercial districts. Broad sidewalks, storefronts that extend into the sidewalk and street vendors all encourage a wide mix of people to traverse the street. Ultimately, Newbury Street embodies a rich urban and retail environment not often found in American cities. It is a destination certainly worth your further examination.

Notes

  1. "History of the Back Bay," http://nabbonline.com/history/bb_history.htm.
  2. Kathleen Howley, "Boston's Back Bay Setting the Pace in High-End Market," Boston Globe, Jan 15, 2000, E1.
  3. Edward W. Gordon in Kathleen Howley, "Boston's Back Bay Setting the Pace in High-End Market," Boston Globe, Jan 15, 2000, E1.
  4. Edward Blee in Judy Rakowsky, "Newbury St Shops See Hair-Raising Tax Hikes," Boston Globe, Mar 25, 1998, B1.