What Even Is Bay Village?
Tucked among some of Boston’s well-known neighborhoods is a tiny territory of townhouses called Bay Village.
If you’ve heard the name but have never been able to define it, here’s your answer.
Unknown to even the slickest of city dwellers, it’s home to a little more than 1,000 residents. Bay Village is easy to miss for one important reason—it is the smallest officially recognized neighborhood in Boston. Occupying the edges of the South End, Back Bay, and the Theater District, the area is made up of only a few brick row house-lined, gas lamp-lit streets. These streets happen to look a lot like those of Beacon Hill, except smaller.
The striking Federal-style resemblance is not a coincidence. The builders who were constructing extravagant homes on Beacon Hill settled in Bay Village, building smaller, more modest versions of the homes for themselves. They share virtually the same facades and layouts, but lack some of Beacon Hill’s more intricate details, like ironwork and decorative molding.
However, the land on which these small row houses sit was not always there. Bay Village didn’t come into existence until the 1820s, when a developer named Ephraim Marsh created the landfill that makes up the area and laid out its streets. Marsh lived in his neighborhood at 1 Fayette Street, though his home no longer stands today. He’s credited with developing more than 300 buildings in Bay Village, Beacon Hill, and beyond.
Bay Village’s original inhabitants, on the whole, were crafters of all sorts. According to the American Society of Architects Guide to Boston, carpenters, painters, ink makers, rope makers, blacksmiths, sailmakers, salt merchants, tin workers, toll gatemen, cabinetmakers, and instrument makers all took up residence in the neighborhood. At the time of these crafters, the area we call Bay Village was not known as Bay Village, but as the Church Street District. The neighborhood was later dubbed Bay Village as a reminder of its origins as a body of water.
Because of its aqueous origins, sometimes things got mucky. As Back Bay and the South End were also being formed by landfills, Bay Village remained at sea level. At times, the Charles River would flood the area, carrying sewage and all. So, in 1868, the entire neighborhood was raised 18 feet to prevent flooding. Housing plots were filled in, and a new, higher Bay Village came to be. While most of the neighborhood and its problem areas were raised, a few spots were left untouched. Evidence of these spots are visible today in the form of lowered yards and sunken gardens. A few houses also skipped being raised, which can be identified by ground-level windows that are below street level.
As Bay Village developed, undoubtedly so did its residents and businesses. In the 1920s, Bay Village was home to several speakeasies, and as the Theater District developed, actors and artists flocked to the neighborhood. During this time, Art Deco found its way into the area’s architecture. Various Art Deco warehouses were used as film studios, and Bay Village became a center for film distribution for a time.
While most of Bay Village’s warehouses and other buildings have since been converted into condos and apartments, a great deal of the neighborhood’s two-hundred-year history is still plainly visible on its streets today.