Newbury Street is located in the Back Bay area of Boston, Massachusetts. It runs roughly east-to-west, from the Boston Public Garden to Brookline Avenue. It is lined with historic nineteenth-century brownstones which contain hundreds of shops and restaurants, making it a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. The more expensive boutiques are located near the Boston Public Garden end of Newbury Street. The shops gradually becomes less expensive and more bohemian as one moves toward Massachusetts Avenue.
As of 2004 Newbury Street is a crazy quilt of shops in renovated brownstone buildings, with stores at all levels physically (basement, street level and above), stylistically (elegant to shabby), and financially (upscale to cheap). Though often described as "fashionable," part of the charm of Newbury Street it its inclusion of everything from expensive clothiers like Armani, Brooks Brothers, and Laura Ashley to Allston Beat ("This techno-music-thumping store is stocked full of fake fur and polyester"), Army Barracks, Inc. ("We offer the best value on authentic U.S. and Foreign Military merchandise. You will find odd, unusual, and practical military supplies that are priced fairly and of great quality and value because of its authenticity."), and Quicksilver Boardriders Club ("Boarder gear, from surf trunks for him to tiny tank tops for her, is always in style.").
Donlyn Lyndon writes that west of Clarendon street, "Newbury Street develops its own very distinctive and appealing character and becomes one of the nicest shopping streets in Boston, or anywhere. Renovated town houses with large glass bays on the ground floor produce a delightful urban landscape.... Owners and tenants... have further animated the street by using the 25-foot space between the building and the sidewalk for various purposes. Some areas are paved and used for displays or sidewalk sales. Others have thick planting.. Some lots have stairs up and down to shops and galleries, others have show windows and display cases for flowers or fashions or other items for sale. But each contributes something extra, and together they make these blocks of Newbury Street genuinely attractive."
Newbury Street's name celebrates the victory of the Puritans in the 1643 Battle of Newbury in the English Civil War.
The first building completed in Back Bay after it was filled in 1860 was Emmanuel Church at 15 Newbury Street. In present-day Boston, Emmanuel Church is an influential Episcopal church which also plays a significant role in the musical life of the city.
In the nineteenth century, Newbury Street was residential. The 1893 edition of Baedeker's United States catalogs Boston's "finest residence streets" as Commonwealth Avenue, Beacon Street, Marlborough Street, Newbury Street, and Mt. Vernon Street. William J. Geddis, however, notes that it was "the least fashionable Street in Back Bay."
Owen Wister's novel, Philosophy 4, set in the 1870s, mentions Newbury Street in this context:
- When you saw [Harvard student Oscar Maironi] seated in a car bound for Park Square, you knew he was going into Boston, where he would read manuscript essays on Botticelli or Pico della Mirandola, or manuscript translations of Armenian folksongs; read these to ecstatic, dim-eyed ladies in Newbury Street, who would pour him cups of tea when it was over, and speak of his earnestness after he was gone. It did not do the ladies any harm; but I am not sure that it was the best thing for Oscar.
A notable building designed by William G. Preston in the classical French Academic style was built in 1864 for the Museum of Natural History. It is located at the corner of Newbury and Berkeley street and now houses fashionable clothier Louis, Boston. Donlyn Lyndon describes it as "a remarkably serene Classical building with none of the latent boosterism of its near contemporary, Old City Hall."
Newbury Street was the original location of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in another Preston building adjacent to the Museum. It was vacated when MIT moved across the river in 1916 and has since been replaced by a life insurance building.
The first retail shop on Newbury Street opened in 1905 at 73 Newbury. (This address is currently the location of a haute-couture salon).
The famous Ritz-Carlton hotel, built in 1927, fronts on Arlington but describes itself as "a Boston landmark on fashionable Newbury Street." Newbury Street was not always considered the fashionable side, however. Sports journalist Heywood Hale Broun told the story of proudly mentioning one day to an acquaintance, Lil Darvas, that his publisher had gotten him a room at "the Ritz," an honor accorded only to stars. Lil replied, "Which side, darling, the Newbury street side or the Public Garden?" "Sure enough," said Broun, "when I arrived, I found myself on the Newbury street side. 'Darling,' she told me, 'if you're not on the Public Garden, you've got a long way to go.'"
On the corner of Exeter and Newbury Street—the address is given both as 181 Newbury Street and as 26 Exeter Street—is a striking building designed by H. W. Hartwell and W. C. Richardson in the Romanesque Revival style. It was originally built in 1885 as the First Spiritual Temple, a Spiritualist church. In 1914 it became a movie theater, the Exeter Street Theatre. The movie theatre was notable both for is ambience ("You felt like you were in some kind of Tudor manor or English country church there") and programming ("It was a theater where people did not call to see what movie was playing, but called only to determine if the movie had changed)." The movie theater quietly closed in 1984. For a while it was a trendy Conran's furniture store, then Waterstone's bookstore. It briefly housed a dot-com named Idealab, and is now general office and retail space.
The transformation that turned Newbury Street into a trendy shopping district for young people began in the 1970s. The original Newbury Comics, now part of a chain of twenty stores whose business (despite the name) is primarily the sale of CDs, was founded on Newbury Street by two MIT graduates in the 1970s.
Once famous for a wealth of bookstores, Boston, like other cities, has suffered a steady decline in the number of independents. The beloved 150,000-volume Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop on Newbury Street, one of the last holdouts, closed in 2002. (It did, however, outlast Waterstone's, the British chain whose giant, well-regarded store just off Newbury Street was a source of pressure on the independents. When Waterstone's closed in 1999, a Boston Globe staffer opined that "the Athens of America feels a bit more like Elmira.")
For over a decade, Tower Records at 360 Newbury Street, in conveniently close proximity to the Berklee School of Music, was a mecca for music lovers. A 1991 Boston Globe article says that "Tower Records stomped into Boston with the nation's largest music store three years ago," while another says that "When Tower Records opened its astonishing store on Newbury Street, it altered the Boston compact disk market forever, and remade Newbury Street's commercial scene." Long the largest record and CD outlet in the Boston area, its closing in 2002, though replaced by another equally huge music store, marked the end of an era.
In the same year, 360 Newbury Street itself, which had been a plain yellow-brick building, was renovated under the direction of architect Frank Gehry and won the Parker Award as the most beautiful new building in Boston. According to architecture columnist Robert Campbell, Gehry "took a blandly forgettable building and transformed it into a monument... It's the first significant example in Boston of a movement known as deconstruction. Deconstructionist buildings are designed to look as if their parts are either colliding or exploding, usually at crazy angles."
- Boston Globe, Paul Hemp, 11/07/1991 p. 61 "stomped into Boston with the nation's largest music store three years ago..."
- Boston Globe, Mark Muro, 10/05/1991, p. 16: "altered the Boston compact disk market forever, and remade Newbury Street's commercial scene..."
- Boston Globe, Robert Campbell,12/06/1991 p. 59: "360 Newbury: A Bold Beauty"
- Lyndon, Donlyn, (1982), The City Observed: Boston, A Guide to the Architecture of the Hub, Vintage Books
- Newbury Street Website (http://www.newbury-st.com/)
- Architectural history of Newbury Street (http://www.newbury-st.com/HTML/History.htm), essay by William J. Geddis