Searching for Tea History in Back Bay Boston

Boston’s Back Bay is home to great landmarks which give us a glimpse into the colorful personalities who left their mark on the city’s art, architecture and society. I never tire of spending an afternoon walking through Copley Square, up Huntington Avenue and across The Fenway. This area was all new when Frederick Law Olmsted reclaimed the swampy Fens at the turn of the twentieth century.

I often start my morning at one of my favorite Boston landmarks, The Boston Public Library. This impressive Charles McKim-designed building is home to the  richly colored mural paintings of The Quest of the Holy Grail by Edwin Abbey, and the third floor John Singer Sargent murals – Triumph of Religion. Be sure you ascend the palatial grand staircase to see these great treasures. This will help burn off a few more calories before teatime!

The first floor Courtyard Restaurant is housed in a handsome barrel-vaulted room lit by brilliant palladium windows. Afternoon tea unfolds here Wednesday through Friday from 2:00 until 4:00 pm. This literary tea is composed of just the right amount of favorites teatime sandwiches.

There is something very gratifying about celebrating afternoon tea in this literary sanctuary. It is very quiet and soothing, yet you just feel a bit more alive and connected to civilized society upon leaving.  Much like reading a good book, this is an experience you want to share with like-minded friends.

 

Trinity Church

Directly across the plaza sits the grand Trinity Church, a perfect example of Richardsonian architecture. Be sure to see the spectacular stained glass windows, many designed by John LaFarge, good friend of Okakura Kakuzo, author of The Book of Tea.  Okakura dedicated the first edition to LaFarge.

 

 

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Fenway)

You may take the subway or a cab to the museum/home of Isabella Stewart Gardner, an Italian palace devoted to art where Okakura Kakuzo introduced the Queen of Back Bay to the finer aspects of tea, or as he called it “The Cup of Humanity.”

Sargent, a frequent visitor to the Gardner home, painted Isabella twice. You can see both on display along with a vast array of art collected and displayed just as Gardner left it when she died 90 years ago. By decree, it cannot be re-arranged. A new wing has just been added with a gift shop, cafe and a fascinating concert hall. Do peek inside to see the $160,000 Steinway.

Museum of Fine Arts

Just a few blocks away is Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and even more Sargent murals adorning the rotunda. You could spend the afternoon craning your head to take it all in. Okakura Kakuzo served as Curator of Asian Arts here from 1904 until 1913. Many of the items he discovered in Japan and China are on exhibit and Asian tea wares are prominently displayed in the original galleries.

Do make your way to the new wing with colonial items on display. From tea tables to Revere silver, you will have a great adventure spying the tea accoutrements which helped sustain the habit that launched a revolution. And be sure to ask directions to the Japanese tea garden, built in memory to the man who launched Boston’s second great tea party, Okakura Kakuzo.