Guiding The Back Bay’s Architectural Evolution

August 23, 2011

William Young is the Senior Preservation Planner for the City of Boston’s Back Bay Architectural Commission (BBAC). For 20 years, he has assisted panels of volunteer commissioners who interpret and apply guidelines that safeguard the heritage of the neighborhood.

“The Back Bay had a very long period of initial development– 40 or 50 years depending on how you reckon it– and at perhaps the most fertile period in American Architecture,” Young said.

“History is an ever moving stream. We are living in history and it was not for our generation to create the Back Bay, but it is for us to enjoy its culmination.” He explained that the commission also reviews new projects, like the Apple building and the current construction of a single-family home on Commonwealth Avenue.

He compared the streets of the Back Bay to, “…a bookcase filled with exquisitely bound odd volumes.” The district had some speculative building by developers, but not enough to resemble a bookcase filled with sets of encyclopedias. “The pattern,” Young said, “was really set by individual owners commissioning houses for their own use and enjoyment.”

Manager of Change Not a Curator

While the word preservation is in his title, he gives equal weight to the word planner. “An urban neighborhood is not a museum piece,” Young stressed. “It’s a living and ideally thriving organism.”

He pointed to the existence of roof decks, storefronts, outdoor dining, and telecommunications equipment as examples of how the commission accommodates the present day. “The idea is not to arrest change but to manage it,” he emphasized, “and to assure that the district will continue to resemble itself, in a true way and doesn’t become some replica of itself.”

He continued, “It is really only those applications that have been prepared with disregard to the guidelines that are denied. The commission works hard to find a way to accommodate an applicant’s objectives.”

Immersed in Studying the District

From the time he discovered Bainbridge Bunting’s book, “Houses of Boston’s Back Bay,” Young immersed himself in a study of the district. “The Back Bay has always spoken to me… Because so much thought and vision and taste had been lavished on it, it seemed to demand attention and appreciation.” He explained that for him, appreciation means understanding what makes the neighborhood wonderful. “The details are really exquisite and yet the whole far surpasses the sum of its parts.”

Tips for Working with BBAC

1. Review the guidelines. Young said the guidelines have proven very thorough and durable.  “They’ve exhibited a lot of foresight, and they have not only guided applicants, but they have guided successive commissioners.”

2. You can call the commission office to ask if a project has been approved or to report something that might be in violation of the guidelines. For projects on the exterior of your property, always ask contractors to show you a “Letter of Appropriateness” from the commission.

3. Call Young early in your decision-making process. He is there to assist you. “If I can save people from investing too much time, emotion, money, in a scheme that is at odds with the guidelines, and redirect them in a way that is more likely to be approved, I’m very glad to do that.” Young concluded, “I see myself as someone who mediates between what the applicant wants and what the commission is prepared to accept under the criteria.”

Copies of the “BBAC Guidelines” and “BBAC Commercial Guidelines” are available at, at the Environment Department in City Hall, or by calling 617-635-3850.

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