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Destination: Massachusetts : Boston Uncommon : Back Bay is European by design, walker-friendly and oh, so chic

March 26, 1995|BARBARA SHORTT | Shortt , a free-lance writer who studied architecture at MIT , lives in New York City. and

BOSTON — Picture yourself at a sidewalk cafe on an elegant shopping street, watching the diverse passersby, or wandering on brick pavements through tree-lined streets rich with architectural vistas and historic presences, or strolling through French gardens and along leaf-dappled, statue-decorated malls. Then imagine lunching on fine Italian food, say, in a charming setting, grazing through myriad international boutiques, before dropping into a cafe bookstore where you can eat a chocolate mousse, drink espresso or wine (or smoke!), while glancing through Le Figaro, the Times of London or the latest novel.

Europe? No, Boston: Boston's Back Bay, one of the world's greatest works of the art of living. It is the chic heart of upwardly mobile downtown Boston--thriving, beautiful, lively and urbane. And it is the trendiest of all modern Boston's neighborhoods.

In a single afternoon you can walk the entire Back Bay, a clearly defined area bounded by the Charles River to the north with its esplanade park along Storrow Drive, the Public Garden to the east, commercial Boylston Street and cultural Copley Square to the south. Stretching to the Fenway on the west, the last block is virtually cut off by the intensely trafficked Massachusetts Avenue (known as Mass Av). Walk its regular grid of gracious tree-lined streets: stately Beacon Street, more intimate Marlborough Street, elegant Newbury Street (so like Paris' Faubourg St.-Honore). Be delighted by the myriad styles of Back Bay townhouses, churches and public buildings--of red brick and brownstone, pale granite and white marble, red sandstone and yellowish Roxbury pudding stone.

Meander beneath elms and among statues down its main spine--grand Commonwealth Avenue, a double street with a long park-like mall down the middle, its 240-foot width, slightly larger than the Champs Elysees in Paris. Magnolias abound in the front yards of houses whose setback requirements and height limitations were imposed from the beginning. The 19th-Century quip was that Beacon Street was for the old rich, Commonwealth Avenue for the new rich, Marlborough Street for the old poor and Newbury Street for the new poor. However, they were all really a homogeneous group of substantial people, whose sisters, cousins and aunts all lived around the corner.

The north-south streets march westward from the Public Garden, alphabetically in the order they were created: Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon. Socially, Arlington has always had pride of place, overlooking the Public Garden--which is laid out in the French style with statuary, and willow trees overhanging the pond.

During the Depression, the Back Bay--except at its fringes along the garden and backing on the river--devolved into student lodgings and frat houses for Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the general boom of the 1960s triggered enormous growth in Boston, founded on high-tech wealth that continues to this day.

As an architect who has lived in Paris and Boston, I am especially attracted to the area's design, to its rich blend of styles. But it is the shopper in me that responds to Newbury Street's variety: art galleries, clothing shops from couture to ethnic to used furs, shoe stores, hairdressers, antiques and museum shops, restaurants, cafes, bookstores, unusual boutiques from European fine linens to Nepalese jewelry. Newbury evolves from elegant at the Arlington Street end to funky, student-bohemian by Mass Av. The Ritz-Carlton hotel anchors Newbury Street to the Public Garden, with its elegant restaurant overlooking the park and summer rooftop dining. Its civilized bar is a Boston institution. By a wood fire (shades of the Paris Ritz), drink mainly lubricates conversation; women alone could always get a drink there, and feel comfortable.

Many of the new developments in Back Bay are along the south side of Boylston Street and Copley Square. Linked interior shopping malls: the Prudential Center through to Copley Place, and Heritage on the Garden at Arlington Street, are enough to satisfy the most obsessive mega-shopper, and a boon in bad weather. The complexes also incorporate hotels, restaurants, offices, parking facilities and the Hynes Convention Center. I.M. Pei's partner, Bostonian Harry Cobb's blue-glass Hancock Tower (built in 1972, with its empyrean observation roof) hovers somewhat ghostlike at the southeast corner of Copley Square, reflecting and magnifying Trinity Church.

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