Third Harrison Gray Otis House, Boston

The Third Harrison Gray Otis House, at 45 Beacon Street in Boston, around 1860. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library

The house in 2017:


Harrison Gray Otis was a lawyer and politician, and one of the most prominent residents of Boston at the turn of the 19th century. Born in 1765 as a member of the prominent Otis family, he was a young boy when his uncle James became one of the leading anti-British patriots in the years leading up to the American Revolution. After graduating from Harvard in 1783, Harrison subsequently opened his law practice in Boston, and in 1796 he was appointed as the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. That same year, he was elected to Congress, and served two terms from 1797 to 1801.

Otis would go on to serve in the state legislature from 1802 to 1817, and was elected to a term in the U.S. Senate from 1817 to 1822. A few years later, he finished his political career by serving as mayor of Boston from 1829 to 1832. However, despite his extensive political career, his greatest legacy in Boston has probably been his three houses on Beacon Hill, all of which are still standing today as some of the finest examples of residential Federal architecture in the country.

All three of his houses were designed by Charles Bulfinch, one of the nation’s most prominent architects of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first house, completed in 1796, was built on Cambridge Street, but Otis only lived here for a few years before moving in 1800, to another new house on Mount Vernon Street, near the top of Beacon Hill. He did not live there for very long either, though, because his third house, seen here on Beacon Street, was completed in 1808.

When the house was completed, Beacon Hill was just starting to be developed as an upscale neighborhood for Boston’s elite, and Otis’s house occupied one of the most desirable spots, directly across from Boston Common. Although most of the houses here are townhouses, his was originally built as a freestanding home, with gardens to the right and behind it, and a driveway to the left. The house itself is considered to have been one of Charles Bulfinch’s finest works, and Otis was evidently satisfied with it, because he lived here until his death 40 years later in 1848.

Otis’s political career peaked during the time that he lived here, and this house saw several distinguished guests, including James Monroe, who stayed here during a visit to Boston in 1817, as well as Senator Henry Clay. With Beacon Hill becoming the city’s most desirable and exclusive neighborhood, though, property values rose to the point where Otis could no longer justifying having large gardens around his house. So, in 1831 he sold a 25-foot wide section of his garden to his neighbor, David Sears, who built an addition to his own house. This granite townhouse, which can be partially seen on the far right, was built for his daughter Anna and her husband William Amory, who was a prominent textile manufacturer. Two years later, Otis filled in the gap between the two houses by building 44 Beacon Street, directly adjacent to his own house, for his daughter Sophia and her husband, Andrew Ritchie.

By the time Harrison Gray Otis died in 1848, his formerly freestanding home had been mostly incorporated into the streetscape of Beacon Street. The only remnant of the gardens that once surrounded his home is the driveway on the left, which leads to a carriage house in the backyard. A rarity in Beacon Hill, this driveway is the only break in an otherwise continuous row of houses on Beacon Street between Walnut and Spruce Streets. When the first photo was taken about 12 years after his death, the house and its surroundings had already assumed its present-day appearance, and there is hardly any difference despite being taken over 150 years apart.

When the first photo was taken, the house was owned by brothers Samuel and Edward Austin, both of whom were merchants. Neither brother ever married, and after Samuel’s death, Edward continued to live here for many years, until his own death in 1898 at the age of 95. The property changed hands several more times in the first half of the 20th century, and by 1940 it was owned by the Boy Scouts, who used it as offices until 1954. Since 1958, it has been owned by the American Meteorological Society, and it is used as the organization’s headquarters. During this time, the interior was significantly renovated, but the exterior of the house has remained well-preserved, and it still stands as one of the finest homes in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

17-19 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The houses at 17 and 19 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The houses in 2017:


These houses were built on a lot that had been purchased in 1866 by attorney William H. Gardiner. A member of a prominent Boston family, his father John Sylvester John Gardiner had been the rector of Trinity Church from 1805 to 1830, and William had studied law under Harrison Gray Otis in the early 1800s. He was nearly 70 when he purchased this property in the Back Bay, and he had his house built on the right side, at 17 Commonwealth. The house was completed in 1867, and that same year he sold the remaining two-fifths of the lot to Thomas C. Amory, who built his own house here on the left, at 19 Commonwealth.

Like Gardiner, Amory was an attorney, but he was also a poet, author, and historian who published a number of books in the 1870s and 1880s. His house here was completed in 1868, and it was designed by Henry Van Brunt, a young architect who later went on to become one of Boston’s leading architects of the era. It matches the Second Empire-style design of its neighbors, and although narrower than the surrounding homes, it is one story taller, with a fifth floor under the mansard roof.

Both Gardiner and Amory died in the 1880s, and these two houses went on to have a number of subsequent owners in the next few decades. Probably the most notable of these was William Phillips, who owned 17 Commonwealth from 1930 to 1942. Phillips was a diplomat whose career included serving as Assistant Secretary of State and Under Secretary of State, as well as ambassador to Belgium, Canada, and Italy. Because of the nature of his diplomatic work, though, he and his wife Caroline did not live here very much, and instead rented it out to other tenants.

Both of these houses are still standing today, although they have been modified over the years. In the early 1920s, the front entrance of 19 Commonwealth was lowered to the ground floor, the steps were removed, and the old doorway became a window. About a decade later, similar work was done to 17 Commonwealth, shortly after William Phillips purchased the property. Later in the 20th century, both houses were converted into condominiums, and today each house is divided into three individual units.

For more detailed historical information on these houses, see the Back Bay Houses website for 17 and 19 Commonwealth.

Boston Art Club, Boston

The Boston Art Club building at the corner of Dartmouth and Newbury Street in Boston, around 1882. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The building in 2017:


The Boston Art club was founded in 1855 by local artists, as a way of exhibiting and promoting their work. The organization met in a variety of locations throughout much of the 19th century, but by the early 1880s the Art Club had expanded to nearly 600 members, and there was a need for a new building. Like many of the city’s other cultural institutions, they moved to the recently-developed Back Bay, where they hired architect William Ralph Emerson to design a new building here at the corner of Newbury and Dartmouth Streets. It was an ideal spot for an art club, since it was just a block away from Art Square. Later renamed for Boston artist John Singleton Copley, this square has long been the main focal point of the Back Bay neighborhood, and it was the home of the Museum of Fine Arts from 1876 until 1909.

Upon completion of this building in 1882, membership in the Boston Art Club continued to grow, and the exhibitions that were held here were major events, attracting many of the nation’s leading artists. However, non-artist members began to vastly outnumber actual artists, which led to the organization becoming more of a social club, with conservative members who were reluctant to embrace modernism and other new art styles in the early 20th century. They continued to hold exhibitions for many years, and even allowed women to join as members in 1933, but the club would never reach the level of prominence that it had enjoyed in the late 1800s. The building was finally sold in 1950, and it is now a public school, the The Muriel Sutherland Snowden International School at Copley.

Phelps-Hatheway House, Suffield Connecticut (2)

The Phelps-Hatheway House on South Main Street in Suffield, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:


This elegant Georgian-style home is a prominent architectural landmark in the Connecticut River Valley, and is one of the finest 18th century homes in the entire region. As mentioned in an earlier post, it was built sometime between the 1730s and 1761 for Abraham Burbank, and the house was later inherited by his son Shem. At the time, the house was much smaller, consisting of just the central portion. It had a gabled roof, and lacked the ornamentation that was later added. Shem was a merchant, as well as a captain in the state militia prior to the American Revolution. However, like many other wealthy merchants in the area, he was also a Tory, and sided with the British during the war. As a result, his business suffered, and in 1788 he had to sell the house.

The next owner of the house was Oliver Phelps, who, like Burbank, had been a merchant. However, unlike Burbank, he had been on the winning side of the American Revolution, serving as a deputy commissary for the Continental Army. He was originally from Granville, Massachusetts, and served in both houses of the Massachusetts legislature. He was also a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention in 1779-1780, and served on the Governor’s Council in 1786. At this point he was a wealthy man, and in 1788 he formed a partnership with Nathaniel Gorham, who had been one of the delegates to the US Constitutional Convention the year before. Together, they purchased six million acres of land in western New York for one million dollars, and that same year Phelps purchased this house from Shem Burbank.

Around 1794 set about expanding the house with a new wing on the right side, as well as adding ornamentation to the exterior. This brought the house up to architectural tastes of the late 18th century, and it also reflected his considerable wealth and social standing. Some of the remodeling was done by a young local architect, Asher Benjamin. About 21 years old at the time, he would go on to become one of the nation’s leading architects, and this house is his earliest known work. Phelps also had the interior decorated lavishly, including with imported French wallpaper that still covers the walls of the house today.

During this time, Phelps also continued his land speculation, purchasing vast tracts of land in present-day Ohio, Georgia, West Virginia, and northern Maine. By 1800, he was, according to some sources, the largest private landowner in the country, but this ultimately led to his downfall when land values dropped. Deeply in debt, he sold his house in 1802 and moved to Canandaigua, New York, which had been part of his initial land purchase in 1788. He served a term in Congress from 1803 to 1805, but his financial troubles continued, and he died in debtor’s prison in 1809.

Apparently undeterred by the financial ruin of its two previous owners, Asahel Hatheway purchased the house from Phelps in 1802. He had grown up at his parents’ house just a little south of here, and studied theology at Yale. After graduation, he briefly worked as a pastor, but then returned to Suffield, where he became a farmer and a merchant, along with serving as a church deacon and a justice of the peace. He married his wife Anna in 1778, and they had six children together. Anna died in 1807, only about five years after moving into this house, but Asahel continued living here until his death in 1828, at the age of 89.

The house was inherited by his son, Asahel, Jr. Like his father, the younger Asahel had graduated from Yale, and became a merchant in New York City before returning to Suffield in 1812. He and his wife Nancy had six children, and he died in 1829 at the age of 49, just a year after his father’s death. His daughter Louise, who was only a few years old when he died, became the third generation of Hatheways to own the house. She never married, and lived here for the rest of her life, until her death in 1910. The 250th anniversary book of Suffield, published a decade later, describes how “her stately dignity and gracious but firm refusal to open her home to any but a few intimates imparted to the old mansion an air of mystery.”

Louise was the last living descendant of Asahel Hatheway, Sr., and after her death many of the family heirlooms were donated to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The house is now owned by Connecticut Landmarks, a preservation organization that maintains several historic houses in the state. Both the exterior and interior have been remarkably well-preserved, and the house is open to the public for tours. Even older than the house itself, though, is the massive sycamore tree on the left side of both photos. It is approximately 300 years old, predating the house by several decades, and aside from the loss of a large limb it has not changed much in the 80 years since the first photo was taken.

Charles C. Spellman House, Springfield, Mass

The house at 80 Sumner Avenue, at the corner of Fort Pleasant Avenue in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The house in 2017:


Architect G. Wood Taylor designed many of the homes in Springfield’s Forest Park neighborhood, including this one, which was completed in 1895. It is an excellent example of Colonial Revival architecture, and was even featured in the April 1900 Scientific American Building Edition. With a prominent gambrel roof, dormer and Palladian windows, and shingled exterior, it incorporates many common Colonial Revival elements, and it bears resemblance to some of Taylor’s subsequent Forest Park designs, including one on Maplewood Terrace that was also featured in Scientific American.

The house was built for attorney Charles C. Spellman and his wife Jennie. Born in nearby Wilbraham, Spellman attended Yale, later graduated from Harvard Law School, and then began practicing law in Springfield in 1868. During his time as a lawyer, he also served in several different public offices, including serving for many years as clerk of the police court in Springfield. In 1887, he served a one-year term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and the following year he served in the Massachusetts Senate.

A year after the family moved into this house, Charles and Jennie’s son Charles graduated from Yale. He was subsequently admitted to the bar, and he became his father’s law partner in the firm of Spellman & Spellman. He lived here with his parents until around the time of his marriage to Alice M. Malley in 1903, and by the 1910 census Charles and Jennie were living alone in this house. Charles died in 1920 and Jennie in 1925, and by 1930 the house was the home of Harris L. Judelson, a Russian immigrant who owned a meat market.

At some point in the mid-20th century, the house was covered in asbestos siding, and the porch was altered. It was later converted into medical offices, and today it is still used as a chiropractor’s office. However, the exterior has since been restored, with wood shingles replacing the old siding. Like the other surrounding houses, it is part of the Forest Park Heights Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Henry E. Marsh House, Springfield, Mass

The house at 96 Sumner Avenue in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The house in 2017:


This house was built in 1896 for Henry E. Marsh, the owner of Cooley’s Hotel in Springfield. The hotel itself was nearly as old as Marsh, having been established in 1849 by Justin M. Cooley. Marsh, who had been born in Hatfield in 1846, moved to Springfield when he was 20 and became an office boy for the hotel. From there, he worked his way up in the hotel, and eventually became a partner in the business in 1881.

Cooley retired in 1892, and Marsh took over ownership of the hotel. He subsequently enlarged it, making it one of the city’s premier hotels. It enjoyed a prominent location next to the railroad station, just north of the arch over Main Street, and by 1905 it boasted 75 rooms, which could accommodate 300 guests. The hotel also featured a restaurant, Turkish baths, and even a Western Union telegraph office.

Henry Marsh lived in this house with his wife Mary and their two sons, Phillip and Harry. Their oldest son, Edward, had died of Bright’s disease at the age of 23, a few years before this house was built. Phillip also died relatively young, at the age of 34, in 1913, with his death certificate listing diabetes as the cause of death. By 1914, Henry had retired from the hotel business, and two years later he sold this house to real estate dealer William Lay.

Both Henry and Mary died in the 1920s, and in 1929 his former hotel became the Hotel Charles, which stood at the corner of Main Street and Frank B. Murray Street until its demolition in the 1990s. However, his former mansion on Sumner Avenue has fared better over the years. By the 1930 census, it was owned by Edward L. Stoughton, the vice president and future president of Wico Electric Company. He was 39 at the time, divorced, and lived here with his two daughters, Dorothy and Marylin, who were 18 and 6 years old, respectively.

More than 120 years after the Marsh family moved into this house, it remains well-preserved. in its original condition. Many of the mansions along this section of Sumner Avenue were later demolished to build apartment blocks or other buildings, but this house still stands as a good example of late 19th century Colonial Revival architecture. Along with the rest of the neighborhood, the house is now part of the Forest Park Heights Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.