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.

Commonwealth Avenue Mall, Boston

Facing west on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall from Berkeley Street, on November 27, 1901. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

When the Back Bay was planned in the mid-19th century, the streets were laid out in a rectangular grid pattern, with five east-west streets running the length of the development. In the middle was Commonwealth Avenue, which was made significantly wider than the others in order to accommodate a wide, tree-lined mall in the center. The house lots on this street soon became some of the most desirable in the Back Bay, and as the trees matured the street began to take on the appearance of a Parisian boulevard.

Most of the houses along this section of Commonwealth Avenue, which extends west from Berkeley to Clarendon Streets, were built in the 1860s and 1870s, in the Second Empire style of architecture that was popular during this period. Among the street’s few non-residential buildings is the First Baptist Church, which was built in 1875 and can be seen a block away on the left. The streetscape of Commonwealth Avenue also features a number of statues, including the one in the center of the photo that honors Revolutionary War hero General John Glover.

More than a century after the first photo was taken, the Back Bay has remained remarkably unchanged. Nearly all of the historic Victorian brownstone homes are still standing, and Commonwealth Avenue has continued to be the centerpiece of one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods. Aside from the cars on the street, the only hint of the modern world in the present-day scene is the Prudential Tower, which is barely visible through the trees on the far left side of the photo.

41-47 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The four houses at 41, 43, 45, and 47 Commonwealth Avenue, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The houses in 2017:

In the mid-19th century, Boston was geographically small and very crowded, with very little undeveloped land. The population was continuing to grow, however, leading the city to embark on an ambitious civil engineering plan to fill in the Back Bay, a badly polluted tidal marsh along the Charles River. The project began in the late 1850s, and within a decade the neighborhood was already well on its way to becoming one of the city’s most exclusive residential areas.

Commonwealth Avenue, with its broad, tree-lined mall, was intended to be a centerpiece of the development, and house lots on the sunny north side were considered particularly desirable. This spot here, partway between Berkeley and Clarendon Streets, was purchased in 1869 by Elijah C. Drew, a merchant and president of the Eleventh Ward National Bank. Here, he built two identical pairs of symmetrical houses, with a Second Empire-style design that matched most of the other homes in the area.

Upon completion around 1869, Drew moved into the house at 41 Commonwealth Avenue, on the far right side, but he sold the other three homes. House number 43, second from the right, was sold to William T. Andrews, who purchased it for his daughter Elizabeth and her husband, John T. Clark. John was a partner in the crockery firm of Clark, Adams, and Clark, and he also served as chairman of the city’s Board of Aldermen. The house to the left, number 45, was sold to Elmer Townsend, a businessman who owned the New England Wax Thread Sewing Machine Company, and last house on the left, number 47, was also sold to a businessman, dry goods merchant Henry Blaney and his wife Mary.

None of the original families in these homes lived here for very long, and by the end of the 1870s all four had been sold. Over the next few decades, the houses has a variety of other residents, and in 1902 the house at 43 Commonwealth was demolished and replaced with a new house, designed by architect Julius A. Schweinfurth for Ashton R. Willard. This broke up the symmetry of the original set of four houses, and it also created an interesting contrast between the dark brownstones of the Victorian era and the much lighter building materials of the Classical Revival era.

When the first photo was taken, the surrounding lots had not been developed yet. These homes would be built later in the 1870s, and very little has changed since then. Aside from the replacement of the house at 43 Commonwealth, the only other significant change in this scene is the fifth floor atop 45-47 Commonwealth. These two houses had been purchased in 1963 and combined into a single apartment building, and a fifth-floor penthouse was added, replacing the original mansard roof. However, the building was renovated again in 2008, restoring the roof and making the fifth floor almost unnoticeable from the street.

For more detailed historical information on these houses, see the Back Bay Houses website for 41, 43, and 45-47 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.