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Boston, Massachusetts

Boston History Dioramas

Painstakingly built dioramas sit unnoticed in a Boston office building. 

The pedestrians on Newbury Street in the Back Bay usually walk right past the old New England Life Insurance building, today known as The Newbry. However tucked inside the monolithic gray granite building are tiny portals into the past. 

For the commuters, shoppers, diners, dog walkers, tourists and students who throng one of Boston’s most lively streets every day, however, there is a reason to stop. The hallway just inside the Newbury Street entrance’s enormous doors holds four windows set into the wall, two on either side. They open onto dioramas; the kind you see in museums, that show scenes from Boston’s history.

The history dioramas were commissioned by the Boston Society of Natural History in 1863 and created by Sarah Ann Rockwell. The backdrops were painted by Henry Brooks. The level of detail is amazing and they give an intriguing picture of everyday life at the time.

Ms. Rockwell put months of research into each piece, working with original blueprints to make sure each building and element was constructed to accurate scale. In their book, “Boston Curiosities,” Bruce Gellerman and Erik Sherman tell us that it took Ms. Rockwell “two weeks to make a single human figure and a month for a horse.”

There’s a lot to see in these four small tableaux. Take your time and look at the little things. Starting on the left, you’ll see:

Now home to retail stores and a sports club at street level, The Newbry was originally a corporate office building. It occupies two thirds of a city block bounded by Berkeley and Clarendon streets.

Know Before You Go

The history dioramas are located in the lobby of 501 Boylston Street but on the Newbury Street side of the building. Enter through the doors on Newbury Street and you will see the dioramas on both sides of the hall. Do not use the Boylston Street entrance as you can’t walk through the lobby to the other side unescorted. This is unfortunate as there are beautiful murals on the walls in between the two guard stations that are well worth seeing. Also, look up at the gilded, coffered ceiling. There is no charge.