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WALK THIS WAY | BACK BAY

Where grand meets chic

Socialite Smoki Bacon shows off the gardens, shops, art, and architecture of the Back Bay

Email|Print| Text size + By Tina Cassidy
Globe Staff / July 25, 2004

Legendary Back Bay socialite Smoki Bacon, who lives in a brownstone at Beacon and Arlington streets, has spent her whole life in the neighborhood. And she's quite pleased with that collision of history and geography.

"I get the vapors if I go beyond Kenmore Square," says the sprightly grandmother. (Her daughter is married to Chris Gabrieli, the mayor's point man on marketing the Democratic National Convention.)

And so on a warm spring day, Bacon agrees to show us all her favorite features of one of Boston's most expensive, most elegant neighborhoods. The area's commercial spine is Newbury Street, with shops ranging from Chanel to Urban Outfitters. Its heart is Commonwealth Avenue, whose magnolias are to Boston what the cherry blossoms are to Washington. And its soul may very well be the lobster salad at the Ritz Cafe.

Bacon's first stop: The Public Garden. Just a few feet from her front door, she revels in having the oasis of rigorously manicured gardens and famous Swan Boats as her front yard. "And we don't have to take care of it!" she gloats.

Next: The Commonwealth Avenue Mall. There are no stores here, just a wide swath of grass, dotted with statues, that separates the eastbound and westbound lanes. Neighbors argue over whether trees should be adorned with Christmas lights. They walk their purebreeds. And tourists gawk at the mansions, small slices of which sell for millions of dollars each. "This was a swamp," Bacon says of the area, which is built on landfill. That was before 1,600 homes were built, beginning in the 1860s. "That began a great exodus from the South End. This became the place to live." But even among the rich, there were divisions of degree. "My mother-in-law told me the people who lived on the sunny side of the street didn't speak to the people who lived on the shady side."

Turning left off Comm. Ave. onto Berkeley Street, she spots Louis (pronounced LOO-eez), a Boston clothing institution in a stately brick building at Berkeley and Newbury that used to be the New England Museum of Natural History and was once Bonwit Teller. Today the store is known for its boutique designer collections for men and women as well as its Restaurant L. But Bacon -- despite the Chanel bag she's sporting on this day -- swears she doesn't shop at the pricey end of Newbury. (The more expensive stores sit closer to the Public Garden; they become less so as you near Massachusetts Avenue.) Her favorite store: Filene's Basement, the classic Boston markdown store at nearby Downtown Crossing. "I got my first wedding dress there," she says.

The first block of Newbury: Bacon doesn't shun this altogether. "The cafe at the Ritz, overlooking the Garden, happens to be my husband's and my favorite place to watch people walk by."

Glancing around her -- there are good-looking people darting into Burberry, Brooks Brothers, Zegna, DKNY, Armani, and Cartier -- she remembers an old Boston truism: "The elegant women are between Arlington and Berkeley, and I don't know where they go after that." Farther down Newbury: It's not just clothing stores that make the street compelling to Bacon. There are many art galleries tucked into the brownstones that line the street. "Haley & Steele have terrific engravings," she says. She spots the New England Historic Genealogical Society: "They've expanded . . . as they should -- beyond the Brahmins."

At the corner of Clarendon Street, she looks to her right and notes the "Holy Bean Blowers." That's a longtime nickname for the sculpted trumpeters adorning the H.H. Richardson-designed bell tower of the First Baptist Church of Boston on Commonwealth Avenue. The architecture is one of the things Bacon loves most about the neighborhood. At the corner of Dartmouth and Newbury she looks to the left, admiring the skyline view.

We pass two other galleries Bacon likes -- Chase and Judi Rotenberg -- and at the corner of Exeter, we stop at one of her favorite places to nosh: Stephanie's on Newbury. "It's a great place to people-watch because they have an outdoor cafe. It gets filled up quickly."

Copley Square: There are a few things here not to be missed. Anchoring the square is the main branch of the Boston Public Library, with "marvelous John Singer Sargent murals and there's a courtyard that is beautiful and never jammed."

The BosTix kiosk sells half-price day-of-show theater tickets.

At the head of the square sits Trinity Church -- another H.H. Richardson building -- with its remarkable stained glass and the following bit of historical trivia. "The first minister," Bacon notes, "composed `O Little Town of Bethlehem.' "

Inside the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel, beyond the grand Oak Bar, is the dining room. "One of the most gorgeous," Bacon insists, gazing up at the deer heads on the wall. "Brahmins were great hunters."

Looming in the background is Copley Place, a high-end mall anchored by Neiman Marcus that features Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Christian Dior boutiques and is connected to the Prudential Tower. Besides offering views at its Top of the Hub restaurant and bar (the Hancock Tower's observation deck was closed after 9/11), the Pru is home to more stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue. But Bacon doesn't bother with global-brand retailers. "You could be in Detroit," she says. "Or you could be in Los Angeles."

Tina Cassidy can be reached at cassidy@globe.com.

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