Alexander Hamilton Statue, Boston

The statue of Alexander Hamilton, located on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall between Arlington and Berkeley Streets, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The statue in 2021:

These two photos show the statue of Alexander Hamilton on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall in Boston. It was the work of artist William Rimmer, and it was commissioned by Thomas Lee, who presented it to the city of Boston as a gift. The statue stands nine feet, four inches tall, and it was carved out of Concord granite. It stands on a base of blue Quincy granite, which also includes a granite plaque featuring profiles of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.

The statue was unveiled here on August 24, 1865. The public reception was somewhat mixed, with some criticizing the use of granite rather than more conventional materials such as bronze, while others criticized the design itself. Contemporary sculptor Truman Howe Bartlett called it “the indifferent work of a genius, not the consistent labor of talent,” and art critic George B. Woods observed that Hamilton seemed to be “swathed like an infant or a mummy.” Nonetheless, other such as the statue’s benefactor, Thomas Lee, appreciated the design, and the harsh criticism of the statue seemed to soften over time.

Today, the statue still stands here more than 150 years after it was installed. Its surroundings have also seen few changes over the years, and most of the houses from the first photo are still standing today, although they are largely hidden by the trees. Overall, the Back Bay remains a well-preserved example of late 19th century residential architecture, and the tree-lined Commonwealth Avenue Mall is a major centerpiece of the neighborhood.

1 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The houses at 1 Commonwealth Avenue and 12 Arlington Street in Boston, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The houses in 2017:

This building at the corner of Arlington Street and Commonwealth Avenue was actually built as two separate houses, starting with the house on the right at 12 Arlington Street. Located on the sunny north side of Commonwealth Avenue and directly opposite the Public Garden, this house occupies one of the most desirable locations in the entire Back Bay neighborhood. Completed in 1860, it was also among the first houses to be built in the new neighborhood, with the development starting here at the Public Garden and steadily working westward over the next few decades. It was originally owned by John D. Bates, a merchant who had paid $13,695 for the vacant lot in 1858, and subsequently had this elegant house built here.

In the meantime, the slightly smaller lot at 1 Commonwealth was purchased by Samuel Gray Ward, who built his house here around 1861. Ward was a banker who worked as agent for the prominent Baring Brothers of London, and by the time he and his wife Anna moved into this house he was a very wealthy man. Aside from his career in international banking, though, Ward was also involved in the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. Although Transcendentalism is more associated with utopian communes and cabins at Walden Pond, rather than townhouses on Commonwealth Avenue, Ward was good friends with leaders in the movement, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. He even had several poems published in the literary magazine The Dial, although that was mostly the extent of career as a writer.

Samuel and Anna Ward ended up living here for just a few years, because in 1865 they moved to New York City, where he went on to become one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That same year, the house was sold to Nicholas Reggio, an Italian merchant who lived here for two years until his death in 1867. His widow, Pamelia, was probably still living here when the first photo was taken, but in the late 1870s the house was sold again, to cotton merchant James Amory. He likewise only lived here for a few years before his death, and his family sold the house in 1892.

Like its neighbor, the house at 12 Arlington also changed hands several times in only a short period of time. John Bates died overseas in 1863, and five years later the property was sold to merchant William H. Bordman, who in turn sold it five months later to Nathan Matthews. A real estate developer, Matthews served as the president of the Boston Water Power Company from 1860 to 1870, and in that capacity he was involved in the filling of the Back Bay. He was also a philanthropist, and his contributions included Matthews Hall, a Harvard dormitory that was completed in 1872 and still bears his name today.

Matthews apparently ran into financial trouble, perhaps caused by the Panic of 1873, because in 1876 he sold the house to two of his creditors. The following year, they sold the house to another real estate investor, Joshua Montgomery Sears. Born in 1854, Sears was an orphan by the age of two, but he inherited a sizable fortune from his father, Joshua Sears, who had been a wealthy merchant. This inheritance was held in a trust during his childhood, gaining interest for 20 years, so by the time he graduated from Yale at the age of 22, he was already one of the wealthiest men in Boston, with a fortune purported to be worth $7 million.

In 1877, the same year as his graduation, he married Sarah Choate, a 19-year-old aspiring artist whose father, Charles F. Choate, was the president of the Old Colony Railroad. Sears purchased this house for her as a wedding gift, paying Matthews’s creditors the princely sum of $110,000 for the property. The purchase was just for the house at 12 Arlington, but in 1892 he bought the adjoining house at 1 Commonwealth and combined the two homes, removing the Commonwealth Avenue entrance in the process. Along with this, he also owned a country estate in Southborough, the 1,000-acre Wolf Pen Farm.

Joshua Sears went on to have a successful career as a businessman, but it was his wife Sarah who went on to achieve far more lasting fame. A patron of the arts, Sarah commissioned portraits by artists such as John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, and also purchased paintings from leading European artists, including Degas, Manet, Cézanne, and Matisse. However, she was also a successful artist and photographer in her own right, and exhibited her work at many of the major world’s fairs in the 1890s and early 1900s. Joshua died from pancreatic cancer in 1905 at the age of 50, but Sarah outlived him by more than 30 years, and owned this house until her death in 1935.

In the following years, this house was put to a variety of uses. During World War II, it was a club for officers in the Army and Navy, and after the war it was purchased by the Boston Archdiocese and used as a school and convent. In 1966, it was converted into offices, and was eventually owned by Sears, Roebuck & Company (no relation to the building’s former owner). Most recently, in the mid-1990s, the building was converted back into residential use, and it is now divided into nine condominium units.

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

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 the prosperous firm of Josiah Bradlee & Co. In 1846, the firm had been described as “one of the wealthiest commission houses in the city,” and Josiah had 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.