3-5 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The houses at 3 and 5 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The houses in 2017:


Like the neighboring homes at 7-9 Commonwealth, these houses here were completed around 1861, and were among the first to be built in the new Back Bay development. The entire neighborhood was designed to attract Boston’s upper class, but these houses occupy a particularly prime location, on the sunny north side of Commonwealth Avenue and just up the street from the Public Garden. Built as a symmetrical pair, they were originally owned by two siblings, with Abbott Lawrence and his wife Harriette on the left at 5 Commonwealth, and Abbott’s sister Annie and her husband Benjamin Rotch in 3 Commonwealth on the right.

Abbott and Annie were children of Abbott Lawrence, Sr., a textile manufacturer and namesake of the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. He was also a Congressman in the 1830s, and he later became the minister to the United Kingdom, serving from 1849 to 1852. His children moved into these houses about six years after his death in 1855, and the younger Abbott followed in his father’s footsteps as a textile manufacturer.

Annie’s husband, Benjamin Rotch, was also an industrialist, and had been one of the founders of the New England Cordage Company in New Bedford. This ropemaking company was founded in 1842, and originally supplied rope for whaling ships. By the time he and Annie moved into this house, the whaling industry was in sharp decline, but his company remained profitable, manufacturing rope for textile mills, salt mines, and oil wells, among a variety of other uses.

Both families were living in these houses when he first photo was taken, and they remained here for many years afterward. Benjamin died in 1882, but Annie remained in the house on the right until her death in 1893, the same year as her brother Abbott. Abbott’s house on the left was owned by Harriette until her death a decade later, and the house was subsequently sold. In 1905, the house was rebuilt with a Classical Revival-style design that was common for Back Bay homes of the early 20th century.

These houses have since gone through a variety of owners and uses over the years. On the left, 5 Commonwealth was a single-family home until the 1940s, when it was sold to the Boston Center for Adult Education. This organization owned the property until 2009, and the house has since been converted back into a single-family home. In the meantime, for most of the 20th century the house on the right was owned by the prominent Ames family, who leased it to the French consulate from 1961 to 1995. The house was then converted into five  condominium units, but it is otherwise unchanged from the exterior, providing a sharp contrast to the heavily altered exterior of the house on the left.

For more detailed historical information on these houses, see the Back Bay Houses website for 3 and 5 Commonwealth.

7-9 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The houses at 7 and 9 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The houses in 2017:


These two houses, built around 1861, were among the first in the city’s new Back Bay neighborhood. Like many other homes in the area, they were built as a symmetrical pair, with identical Second Empire-style architecture. The development of the Back Bay was intended to provide an upscale neighborhood for Boston’s upper class, in an effort to encourage them to remain in the city instead of leaving for the suburbs. The plan worked well, and many of the city’s wealthy residents soon made their way to new homes here, including dry goods merchants Richard Cranch Greenleaf and Samuel Johnson, Jr., who purchased these two properties.

Greenleaf lived in the house on the left at 9 Commonwealth, and Johnson lived in the one to the right, at 7 Commonwealth. Both men were partners in the C.F. Hovey department store, which was located on Summer Street in the present-day Downtown Crossing shopping district. The store was destroyed in the Great Boston Fire of 1872, but they soon rebuilt it, and the company remained in business until 1947, when it was purchased by Jordan Marsh. During this time, Richard Greenleaf and his wife Mary lived here with their son, Richard Jr., for a little less than a decade, before selling the house in 1870. However, Samuel Johnson and his wife, also named Mary, lived here for the rest of their lives, until her death in 1891 and his in 1898.

After the Greenleafs sold the house on the left, it was purchased by Otis and Lucy Norcross. A member of the prominent Norcross family, Otis was a merchant who imported crockery, pottery, glass, and earthenware. His company, Otis Norcross & Co., became one of the nation’s leading importers of such goods, and he also went on to have a successful political career, serving a term as the chairman of the board of alderman and another term as the mayor of Boston. He died in 1882, but Lucy continued to live here in this house until her death in 1916 at the age of 99, after having outlived five of her eight children.

One of the surviving Norcross children, their son Grenville, inherited 9 Commonwealth from his mother and owned it for the next two decades, until his death in 1937. That same year, the house was sold and converted into a 13-unit apartment building. The entire exterior was remodeled, and the original brownstone was replaced with light-colored stone on the lower third and brick on the upper two-thirds of the building. Along with this, two additional floors were added to the building to accommodate the new apartment units, and the front entrance was moved down to the ground floor.

In the meantime, 7 Commonwealth on the right side continued to be used as a single-family home for many years, with owners who included Mary Frothingham, the widow of former Lieutenant Governor and Congressman Louis A. Frothingham. She moved into this house in 1928, a few months after her husband’s death, and she lived here for more than 25 years, until her death in 1955. Like the house to the left, her house also became an apartment building, with 12 units, although the renovations were far less drastic than next door. The house would remain an apartment building for about 50 years, but in 2007 it was sold and converted back into a single-family home.

Today, 7 Commonwealth looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken nearly 150 years ago, and 9 Commonwealth looks better than it used to. In 2013, it underwent another major renovation, which converted the 13 apartments into five condominiums. In the process, the 1930s exterior was replaced with a design that better matches its original appearance. Because of the two additional stories that had been added during the first renovation, the house is still not symmetrical with 7 Commonwealth, but today it is far more historically accurate than it had been for the previous 75 years.

For more detailed historical information on these houses, see the Back Bay Houses website for 7 and 9 Commonwealth.

11-13 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The houses at 11 and 13 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The houses in 2017:

This lot in the Back Bay was purchased in 1860 by Frederick Hall Bradlee, a merchant whose father, Josiah Bradlee, had established he prosperous form of Josiah Bradlee & Co. In 1846, the firm had been described as “one of the wealthiest commission houses in the city,” and Josiah harbor an estimated net worth of $500,000, equal to about $13.5 million today. Frederick was similarly wealthy, with a fortune of about $300,000 in 1846, and at the time he lived on Tremont Street with his wife Lucretia. However, in the 1860s they joined the many wealthy Bostonians who were relocating to the fashionable Back Bay neighborhood, which was just starting to be developed.

Frederick Bradlee did not actually start building on this lot until later in the decade, when he hired architect Nathaniel J. Bradlee (no direct relation) to design two homes here. The two houses match, with very similar Second Empire-style architecture, but they do not form a symmetrical pair. The one on the left, at 13 Commonwealth, is slightly wider, while the narrower 11 Commonwealth is one story taller. Both houses were completed around 1868, and Frederick kept the wider one for himself and Lucretia, while selling 11 Commonwealth to his daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Henry Ward Abbott.

Frederick lived here in this house for about 20 years, until his death in 1888, and 13 Commonwealth was sold soon after, to Martha Codman, the widow of artist John Amory Codman. Some of Frederick’s descendants would go on to achieve prominence, though, including his grandson, Frederick J. Bradlee Jr., who was an All-American football player at Harvard in the early 20th century. The younger Frederick’s son, Ben, was born in 1921, and went on to become the longtime editor of the Washington Post, where he played a major role in exposing the Watergate Scandal.

In the meantime, the house at 13 Commonwealth was sold in 1907 to Anna Nowell, the daughter of former governor Oliver Ames and a cousin of another Oliver Ames, who lived in the house on the far left at 15 Commonwealth. She and her husband George had the house demolished, and they hired the architectural firm of Parker, Thomas & Rice to design a replacement, with a Classical Revival style that matched the architectural tastes of the period. As part of this project, the front steps and porch of the neighboring 11 Commonwealth also had to be removed, and a new entrance was added to the ground floor.

Since the early 20th century, both houses have gone through a variety of owners. On the right, 11 Commonwealth has remained a single-family home, and aside from the removal of the old entrance very little has changed in the building’s appearance. The house at 13 Commonwealth was a single-family home until the 1940s, when it was converted into medical offices on the lower floor and apartments on the upper floors. Some of the offices were later converted into additional apartments, but in 2000 the entire building was restored, and it is now a single-family home again.

For more detailed historical information on these houses, see the Back Bay Houses website for 11 and 13 Commonwealth.

15 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The house at 15 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The house in 2017:


This elegant house, completed in 1866, was part of the initial development of the Back Bay, and it also sits on an unusually wide lot, compared to most of its neighbors. Because of this wider lot, the architectural firm of Snell and Gregerson had much greater latitude in designing it, and they created a front facade that was completely symmetrical, with bow-front windows on either side of the front entrance, extending up all three floors. In this sense it is also different from the other homes, most of which were too narrow to allow for a symmetrical design, and it also had a different architectural style, contrasting with the brownstone, mansard-roofed Second Empire homes nearby.

The house was originally owned by William Dudley Pickman, a Salem native whose father, Dudley Leavitt Pickman, had been a partner in Silsbee & Pickman, one of that city’s leading merchants of the early 19th century. William took over his father’s interest in the company after his death in 1846, but in 1865 he moved to Boston, which had rapidly eclipsed Salem in importance as a commercial port by this point. He and his business partners owned a number of ships, and were primarily involved in trade with Calcutta and other ports in India. Both he and his wife Caroline were living here when the first photo was taken, and they remained here for the rest of their lives, until his death in 1890 and hers in 1898.

After Caroline’s death, the house was purchased by Oliver Ames, a member of the extremely wealthy Ames family. His great-grandfather, also named Oliver, had founded a shovel business in Easton, Massachusetts in the early 19th century. This became a particularly lucrative business in the middle of the century, when widespread railroad construction and the California Gold Rush both caused demand for shovels to skyrocket. Oliver’s grandfather, who was named Oliver Jr., inherited the shovel business, and also became the president of the Union Pacific Railroad during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, and his son Frederick, Oliver’s father, also became a railroad tycoon, serving as vice president of the Old Colony Railroad and a director of the Union Pacific. Frederick also built the Ames Building, Boston’s first skyscraper, and upon his death in 1893 some newspapers considered him to have been the wealthiest man in the state.

Oliver probably used much of his inherited wealth to buy this house for himself and his wife Elsie a few years after his father’s death. Not content to leave the house as it was, he hired the prominent architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge to remodel the house, including adding a fourth story for servants’ quarters. This was, of course, not the Ames’s only residence, as they also had a mansion in his hometown of North Easton and another one on the seashore in Beverly. Like his father, Oliver was involved in a variety of businesses, including serving as treasurer of the family’s shovel company. In addition, he was a director for a wide range of corporations, including General Electric, Western Union, and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Oliver Ames died in 1929, and this house was sold after Elsie’s death in 1945. Their other two homes in North Easton and Beverly were demolished soon after, but their Commonwealth Avenue residence was sold and converted into a school, the Boston Business Institute. It was subsequently owned by the Boston Psychoanalytic Society, and it was most recently sold in 2012 for $12.5 million. This was the most expensive home sold in Massachusetts that year, and the 15,000-square-foot building has been converted back into a single-family home. These renovations included removing the top floor that Ames had added, and restoring the balustrade on the roof. As a result, today the home hardly looks any different from its appearance nearly 150 years ago when the first photo was taken.

For more historical information on this house, see this page on the Back Bay Houses website.

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.

21-23 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The houses at 21 and 23 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The houses in 2017:


The easternmost block of Commonwealth Avenue, between Arlington and Berkeley Streets, was among the first to be developed in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Shortly after the land was filled, much of the block on the north side of the street was purchased in 1860 by merchant and Congressman Samuel Hooper, who built his own house at 25-27 Commonwealth, which is partially visible on the far left. Hooper sold the rest of the lots, including these ones, and in 1868 a pair of symmetrical Second Empire-style townhouses were built here. The homes match the architectural style of the rest of the street, and they are nearly identical to two other sets of houses at 41-47 Commonwealth.

The house on the left, number 23, was owned by Daniel Spooner, a former shipping merchant who later entered the textile industry, becoming treasurer of the Great Falls Manufacturing Company in New Hampshire. He only lived in this house for about a year, until his death in 1869, but his wife Elizabeth continued to live here until later in the 1870s. The house on the right, 21 Commonwealth, was owned by John A. Burnham, a manufacturer whose positions included serving as president of the Nashua Iron and Steel Company. He lived here until his death in 1884, and the house remained in his family until 1913.

Since then, both houses have seen a number of subsequent owners, but essentially nothing has changed in this scene. Both houses are still standing, as are the houses on either side of the photos, and Commonwealth Avenue continues to be one of the most desirable streets in Boston. Today, many of the historic townhouses have been converted into apartments or condominiums, including the house on the left at 23 Commonwealth, which is now a four-unit condominium building. The building on the right was converted into classrooms in the 1940s, and was used by several different school over the years before eventually being restored to a single-family home in the early 2000s.

For more detailed historical information on these houses, see the Back Bay Houses website for 21 and 23 Commonwealth.