Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Two (Former) Back Bay Institutions

Back Bay, 1888 (click on image for larger view).

One of the first things people learn about Boston is that the Back Bay was just that - a tidal bay of the Charles river, filled in during the 19th Century as Boston expanded out from its virtual island form and joined the mainland to the south. The major effort started about 1857, and was finished by the turn of the 20th Century. While the district isn't particularly old, even by Boston standards, it has evolved over time. Of course, there is much original architecture. In some cases, however, the original inhabitants have moved or disappeared altogether. In still others, once-notable building are gone, leaving nothing to attract our curiosity.

Rogers Building, Boston Tech.

In this case, we are looking at three buildings and two institutions. One building still stands, but both institutions have moved on. Along Boylston street, between Berkeley and Clarendon streets, once stood the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Boston Society of Natural History. M.I.T. was founded in 1861, and was, for a time, called Boston Tech. Both M.I.T. and the Boston Society of Natural History were granted land to build on in 1866, and the two institutions were constructed on Boylston street. When the Cambridge shore of the Charles river across from the Back Bay was filled in , M.I.T moved across the water (in 1916) to a far larger campus.

M.I.T. buildings near Copley square, 1917.

This map showing a new M.I.T. campus is from 1917, just after the move to Cambridge, so it shows the extent of the school right before it left Boston. For orientation, the large building in the upper left is the Copley Plaza. Multiple buildings had been erected over the former site of railroad tracks. Boston's disappearing train stations and railroad yards will be the focus of a future post.

Boston Society of Natural History - Postcard (BPL collection)

The Boston Society of Natural History was founded in in 1830 by physicians interested in collecting and studying natural history material. In time, professionals trained by the great Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz at Harvard would take over leadership of the society and do much original research, particularly in American flora and fauna.

After a period of growth and vigor, the society and its collections fell on hard times. During the first half of the 20th Century, the collections and library were gradually sold off or donated to other institutions, and the society morphed into an educational institution as the Museum of Science. In that form, it moved to the Charles River dam, where it sits now. The original building was sold, and became the home to the Lord and Taylor clothing store. The building itself can still be seen on Berkeley street, absent the carved animal heads that once adorned the edifice.

An interior shot of the Museum of Natural History (BPL Flickr group).

Here we see the M.I.T. building shown above being torn down after the move to Cambridge.

The Rise and Fall of the Boston Society of Natural History

History of Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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