100-110 Commonwealth (240 Clarendon): First Baptist Church

100-110 Commonwealth (2013)

100-110 Commonwealth (2013)

Lot 14405' x 124.5' (17,990 sf)

Lot 144.5′ x 124.5′ (17,990 sf)

100-110 Commonwealth (240 Clarendon) is located on the SW corner of Commonwealth and Clarendon, with 90 Commonwealth to the east, across Clarendon, 114 Commonwealth to the west, the Clarendon Street Playground to the north, across Commonwealth, and 234-236 Clarendon to the south, across Alley 435.

100-110 Commonwealth (240 Clarendon) was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and built ca. 1873 for the Brattle Square Church.

The original Brattle Square Congregational (later Unitarian) Church was built in 1699 on land donated by Thomas Brattle (the land was located on Brattle Street, replaced in the 1960s by Boston’s Government Center).  In the 1770s, the original church was replaced by a new church in the same location.  By the late 1860s many of its members had moved to the Back Bay and the proprietors decided to relocate their church to the new neighborhood.  A design competition was held and, in July of 1870, Henry Hobson Richardson received the commission to design the new church.

In her Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works (Houghton, Mifflin and Co.; 1888), Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer describes the church as it appeared soon after its completion:

Tower of the Brattle Square Church; Henry Hobson RIchardson and his Works, by Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (Houghton, Mifflin, 1888)

“It is a cruciform building, not very large, with a lofty tower which stands in the angle between nave and transept, resting upon four piers connected by great round arches. The carriage-porch which is thus formed opens into a low arcaded portico or vestibule that is built out flush with the face of the tower from the end of the transept. This arcade and all the large windows are round-arched, but a range of grouped square-headed lights occurs, beneath a large rose, in the end of the nave. The roof and louvre-boards are covered with red tile, the frieze and the capitals in the porch are of light-colored stone, and the angels’ trumpets are gilded. A single kind of stone appears in the rest of the structure – in walls and trimmings alike – and the treatment of its surface does not vary. But it is a pudding-stone of a warm yellow tint conspicuously diversified with darker iron-stains, and such good advantage has been taken of its changing tone to avoid monotony in the fields of wall and to accent the trimmings that the general color effect is both rich and animated.”

The frieze on the tower was designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer notes that it was “modeled” by him in Paris, “but the general idea for it was Richardson’s, and the carving was done by Italian workmen after the stones were in place.” The History of the First Baptist Church of Boston, by Nathan Elwood (American Baptist Publishing Company, 1899) comments that the “frieze consists of four groups of colossal sculptured figures, representing baptism, communion, marriage, and death. At the corners are four angles of judgment, each with a golden trumpet, summoning the world to the grand assize. The figures of the frieze are likenesses of famous men. In the baptismal scene is Charles Sumner. In the communion Longfellow is the central figure, with Emerson and Hawthorne. In the marriage are Lincoln and Garabaldi.”

An October 26, 1902, article in the Boston Post, quoting a letter from Bartholdi to Edward Everett Hale, confirms that Garabaldi is the “person married in the marriage group,” and that Lincoln is the “man sitting on the left of the spectator” in the same group, and adds that the woman sitting next to Lincoln is “Mme Bartholdi, the mother of the artist.”  However, Bartholdi’s letter also states that “the minister who solemnizes the marriage is studied from Henry W. Longfellow” (whom Elwood’s account indicates is in the communion group). In addition, the letter also confirms that Charles Sumner is included in the frieze, as noted by Elwood, and comments that there also are images of H. H. Richardson and John La Farge, but does not identify where they are.

Baptism, Communion, Marriage, and Death: drawings of Bartholdi’s frieze for the Brattle Square Church; Le Magasin Pittoresque, 1876

The frieze depicting baptism is on the east side of the tower, facing Clarendon; the frieze depicting religious instruction (communion) is on the north side, facing Commonwealth; the frieze depicting marriage is on the south side, facing Newbury, and the frieze representing death (extreme unction) is on the west side, facing Dartmouth.

Drawings of each of the frieze panels were published in Paris in 1876 in Le Magasin Pittoresque. The accompanying article provided no further details on their design.

Jeffrey Karl Ochsner’s H. H. Richardson: Complete Architectural Works (MIT Press, 1982) notes that the four angels at the corners have earned the church “the nickname ‘Church of the Holy Bean Blowers.’”

At one point, it was contemplated that the church also would include a mural painted by noted artist John LaFarge.  A November 9, 1878, article in the Boston Evening Transcript reported that he had “made some designs for Brattle Square, and Bartholdi himself had been engaged to have these enlarged to practical cartoons in Paris. But this work went no further and the Trinity Church came up.”  As a result, LaFarge’s first mural was painted there, rather than at the Brattle Square Church.

The church was built on a lot with a 116 foot frontage on Commonwealth. The land was originally sold by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at its auction on September 30, 1863. Dry goods merchant and railroad investor Samuel Henry Gookin was the successful bidder for the 32 foot corner lot and the two 28 foot lots west of it, and dry goods merchant James Lovell Little was the successful bidder for the next 28 foot lot to the west. Neither bidder took title to the land.

On March 20, 1866, the Boston Traveller reported that, at a meeting of the Proprietors of the Brattle Square Church held the previous day, a committee was formed “to consider the expediency of selling the present church and land, and building another church elsewhere.” The article also reported that several “gentlemen concerned with the society” had already purchased Samuel Gookin’s and James Little’s rights to acquire “four very desirable lots” at the southwest corner of Commonwealth and Clarendon, and the gentlemen had agreed “to hold them for one year for the society, in case it should decide to build in that locality” and would sell them to the society at the same price as they had paid.

The purchasers of the lots were Franklin Haven, Ebenezer Dale, and John Gardner. Franklin Haven was a banker and one of the three Commissioners on Public Lands responsible for the sale of the Commonwealth’s lands. He and his wife, Sarah Ann (Curtis) Haven, lived at 97 Mt. Vernon. Ebenezer Dale was a textile manufacturer and wholesale dry goods dealer. He and his wife, Caroline Mumford (Young) Dale, lived at 111 Beacon. John Gardner was treasurer of the Salisbury Mill Company in Amesbury. He and his wife, Emily (Stimson) Gardner, lived at 6 Hancock.

On October 9, 1866, the Boston Evening Transcript reported that the Brattle Square Church proprietors had decided to proceed with the move and had created a thirteen member committee to sell the current church and to buy the land and build a new church. Franklin Haven, Ebenezer Dale, and John Gardner were members of the committee, and subsequently took title to the four lots from the Commonwealth. The deeds were dated October 1, 1866 (about the same time as the Church had created the committee) but were not recorded until November 8, 1872).

On December 2, 1870, the Transcript noted that the “Brattle Street Church corporation have procured plans and specifications for a new house of worship, which it proposes to erect upon the lot of land at the corner of Commonwealth avenue and Clarendon street, now owned by some of the members of the society. The plans were drawn by a New York architect, and they are now in the hands of the committee for revision and final acceptance.”

On May 20, 1871, the Christian Register reported on plans for the church, noting that “the foundations are already being put in by the mason of the structure, Mr. Augustus Lothrop. The carpenter work is to be by Clement & Creesy.”

On June 13, 1871, the Boston Herald reported that during the previous week (apparently after he had begun the foundation work) Augustus Lothrop had filed a Notice of Intention with the Board of Street Commissioners to build the new church.  The cornerstone was laid on September 14, 1871, at the corner of Commonwealth and Clarendon.

On June 29, 1872, with construction of the building well advanced, the Proprietors of the Church in Brattle Square purchased the land from Franklin Haven, John Gardner, and the estate of Ebenezer Dale (who had died in December of 1871).

Click here for an index to the deeds for 110 Commonwealth (240 Clarendon), and click here for further information about the land between the south side of Commonwealth and Alley 435, from Clarendon to Dartmouth.

On July 19, 1872, a Boston Traveller article on “present building operations” in the Back Bay reported that the church “has its walls up and the roof on, and work is advancing on the interior and the tower.”  The article noted that I. & H. M. Harmon, masons, were the superintendents for the project.

First Baptist Church, photograph taken in 1883 from 129 Commonwealth; Manning family album, courtesy of Historic New England

First Baptist Church, photograph taken in 1883 from 129 Commonwealth; Manning family album, courtesy of Historic New England

The congregation demolished their church on Brattle Street in 1872 and began meeting at the unfinished church on Commonwealth in the spring of 1873. A May 10, 1873, article from the Boston Globe commented that “the society that formerly worshipped in the old church in Brattle square have, for the past two Sabbaths, held services in the chapel room connected with the new church building now erecting at the corner of Clarendon street and Commonwealth avenue.”

The new church was dedicated on December 22, 1873, with a sermon by its pastor, Rev. Samuel K. Lothrop. The December 23, 1873, Boston Globe article on the dedication noted that the congregation “seemed well pleased with the latest of Boston’s churches. The building with its Moorish interior ornamentation and rich coloring, presents a unique and brilliant appearance by gas-light; and in every respect, except acoustics, the edifice meets the highest expectations of the society which built it.” The article then elaborated on its reference to acoustics: “In the main part of the church there is little or no difficulty in hearing, but in certain corners a disagreeable echo prevents any very distinct understanding of what is being said. However, these places are but few, and, generally speaking, the acoustic properties of the church will compare favorably with those of most of the places of worship in the city.”

The frieze at the top of the tower was not completed until late 1874.  On December 30, 1874, the Boston Globe reported that it was “virtually finished, the contractor, Mr. Augustus Lathrop [sic], having this morning removed from the roof the last piece of the platform.”

Not long after the church was dedicated, the congregation was encountering increasing financial pressures, including the burden of the mortgage undertaken to finance the construction and the more general economic downturn following the financial Panic of 1873.

In October of 1875, the church ceased public services. At the annual meeting of the proprietors in March of 1876, it was agreed to explore sale of the church, and at their annual meeting in March of 1877, the proprietors voted (as reported by the Boston Globe on March 21, 1877) “to sell the meeting-house of this corporation … and also the organ, bell, carpeting and all the personal property, and that from the proceeds of the sale” the society would “pay off the mortgages and all other liens and encumbrances” on the property.

Auction notice, Brattle Square Church; Boston Evening Transcript, 27Apr1881

No buyer emerged and the proprietors renewed their decision to sell the property at their annual meetings in March of 1878 and March of 1881. The property was offered for sale at public auction on May 9, 1881.  It was purchased at the auction by Joshua Montgomery Sears on behalf of residents seeking to protect the church from destruction.  The deed conveying the church to him was dated May 28, 1881. He and his wife, Sarah Carlisle (Choate) Sears, lived at 12 Arlington.

In his Boston’s Changing Times, Michael Holleran describes the events which saved the building:

“When an auction of the property was announced, J. Montgomery Sears led other Back Bay residents in organizing to save the H. H. Richardson building, then just nine years old. They did not want to see, in the Evening Transcript’s words, ‘our most magnificent avenue …bereft of its most conspicuous ornament.’ The appeal quickly brought pledges of $30,000, but the organizers expected the building to sell for $150,000, and so they abandoned the effort. Sears attended the auction out of curiosity, and when the bidding ran to only half the anticipated sum, he stepped in and bought the property for $81,000, with ‘a vague idea of utilizing it as a public hall or music hall, or in some other way preserving it.’ He offered it at cost to any religious body, or at a slight advantage to anyone else who would preserve at least the tower. Lest potential allies think this his own private philanthropy, he threatened five weeks after he bought it to demolish the whole thing if a purchaser did not come forward within two months, and two months after this deadline passed he advertised for removal of the building as salvage. George B. Chase, a member of the Old South Preservation Committee, organized a campaign to save the tower alone. He had obtained pledges for most of the money, and assurances that the city would fit up and maintain the steeple as a clock tower, when the First Baptist Church bought the building and thus ended the question.”

The events surrounding J. Montgomery Sears’s purchase of the property were described in more detail by the Boston Evening Transcript on March 4, 1882. The article also noted several alternative proposals for the property’s use, including as a concert venue or as a lecture hall for Boston University.  It also commented on a number of proposals by individuals in letters to the press, “some good plans … but also some wild, impracticable schemes.” Among these were that it become a museum of Christian art or as a repository for monumental sculpture, that a coffee room be established at the top of the tower with access by means of an elevator, or that the tower be moved to Copley Square and become a monument to President James A, Garfield, who had been assassinated on September 19, 1881.

J. Montgomery Sears conveyed the church to the Deacons of the First Baptist Church in Boston on March 29, 1882.

As part of the transaction, the First Baptist Church entered into an agreement to ensure that the tower would be preserved in perpetuity. The agreement was described in more detail by the Boston Globe on March 5, 1882:

First Baptist Church (ca. 1890), photograph by J. W. Taylor; Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago (Digital file #43924)

First Baptist Church (ca. 1890), photograph by J. W. Taylor; Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago (Digital file #43924)

“It is said that $30,000 of the $100,000 paid for the Brattle Street [sic] Church was subscribed by residents of the Back Bay who are interested in the preservation of the tower; and by the terms of the sale the tower and a plot thirty-five feet square, including the land upon which the tower stands, will be held in perpetual trust by the Boston Memorial Association, so that in the event of the sale of the church by the society which now owns it, the tower would be preserved.”

The Boston Memorial Association had been formed in 1880 to provide a vehicle by which donations and legacies for the improvement and beautification of the city could be left in trust. It merged with the Bostonian Society in 1902.

On April 16, 1882, the First Baptist Church members held an inaugural vesper psalm service in their new church. An April 17, 1882, Boston Globe article reported that they would continue to conduct their regular services at their old church, at the corner of Shawmut and Rutland, while the former Brattle Square church was significantly remodeled.

On July 10, 1882, the First Baptist Church purchased the vacant lot west of the church from William Gordon Weld (who had purchased it on the same day from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) for the purpose of constructing a chapel with rooms for the church Sunday school and for committee meetings. On July 18, 1882, the Church purchased a six inch wide strip of land to the west of the lot from David H. Coolidge, owner of 114 Commonwealth (the eastern party wall of 114 Commonwealth was built entirely within the boundaries of its lot, rather than located so that the boundary line ran down the middle of the wall with six inches on the lot for 114 Commonwealth and six inches on the lot to the east, as usually was the case; the First Baptist Church acquired the eastern six inches so that it would own its half of the wall).

Remodeling of the main church and construction of the new chapel took place simultaneously.

A September 1, 1882, Boston Globe article reported on progress of the work on both buildings, noting that many of the interior alterations of the original building, including constructing new galleries, were designed to “improve, if possible, the acoustic properties of the church, which are notoriously bad” as well as to increase the seating capacity. The article reported on progress of the new chapel building. “The foundation is completed and the carpenters are at work framing the timbers for the first floor. The style of the architecture will closely resemble that to the sanctuary, the object being to have both buildings harmonize in their general external affects.”

The cornerstone for the new chapel was laid on September 12, 1882. It was designed by architect Thomas William Silloway and built by Mead, Mason & Co.

First Baptist Church, looking north on Clarendon; American Architect and Building News, Imperial Edition, 24Mar1894

On October 29, 1882, the congregation took formal possession of the church building. A Boston Herald article on that date described the remodeling. “Very radical changes have been made in some parts of the edifice. Two single and a group of five other windows have been made in the lower part of the transept walls. These are glazed with cathedral glass, and give an inviting and cheerful aspect to the heretofore dimly lighted auditorium. New galleries, finished in ash, have been built in the transepts and nave over a new corridor, which has been built at the entrance end of the auditorium. A change has been made at the pulpit end of the room by bringing forward the pulpit and building a new baptistry and choir gallery over it in front of the organ. The latter has been so remodelled as to admit of its being played from the front instead of the end, as formerly. The large ante-chapel has been newly frescoed, the pews have been entirely remodelled and new gas fixtures, with electric lighting apparatus, have been put in. The main entrance corridor has been elegantly tiled, the old storm doors removed and all thrown open to the street. In a word, a great deal of work has been done in all parts requiring it, and the venerable ‘old Brattle square bell,’ cast by Mears of London in 1809, has been suspended in the tower.”

On November 14, 1882, the congregation held a public auction of the choice of the pews in the new building.

The new chapel building was completed in February of 1883.  The History of the Churches of Boston (Division One: Baptist and Presbyterian, edited by James Pike and published in 1883 soon after the chapel was completed, described the new building:

“The new chapel was opened on Friday evening, February 9, 1883. It is at the side of the main building, and is 104 feet long and 28 feet wide, with a small addition of the size of 12 feet by 44, taken from the main edifice. It has a seating capacity of about 400, and, with connecting rooms, of 100 more. The pastor’s room, Bible and Committee rooms, etc., are over the ante-rooms. In this annex the architecture of the original edifice has been closely followed under the direction of Mr. T. W. Silloway. The decorations are Romanesque, and the frescoing is a handsome piece of work, scarcely excelled in Boston. In the basement is a refectory, extending under the entire chapel. The cost of the chapel and land was $50,000.”

On April 4, 1900, the deacons of the First Baptist Church transferred the property to the First Baptist Church Society in Boston. On June 23, 1960, the Society transferred the property to the The First Baptist Church of Boston.

The Church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 23, 1972.

On September 4, 2019, the Church entered into a preservation restriction agreement with the Massachusetts Historical Commission to restrict exterior or interior alterations that would affect “the characteristics which contribute to the architectural, archaeological or historical integrity of the premises.”

Drawing of Brattle Square Church Tower by John Ames Mitchell, showing details not built, prepared for the Architectural Sketch-Book of the Boston Portfolio Society and published by the American Architect and Building News, 29Jun1878. John A. Mitchell was an architect in Boston and, in 1883, co-founded Life magazine.

Drawing of First Baptist Church; King’s Boston (9th edition, 1889)