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 14405′ 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, 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.” Jeffrey Karl Ochsher’s H. H. Richardson: Complete Architectural Works (MIT Press, 1982) adds that the the four angles at the corners have earned the church “the nickname ‘Church of the Holy Bean Blowers.’”

The original church was built on a lot with a 116 foot frontage on Commonwealth. The land was purchased from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on October 1, 1866, by Franklin Haven, Ebenezer Dale, and John Gardner, and acquired from them by the Proprietors of the Church in Brattle Square on June 29, 1872.

Click here for an index to the deeds for 110 Commonwealth (240 Clarendon).

Detail of Bartholdi frieze on the south side of the tower (2012); courtesy of BostonZest.com

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.”

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

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 downtown 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.

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 1, 1881.

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

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)

“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.”

Joshua Montgomery Sears purchased the church on May 28, 1881, and he sold it on March 29, 1882, to the Deacons of the First Baptist Church in Boston.

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. 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).

The chapel’s cornerstone was laid on September 12, 1882, and the building was completed in February of 1883. It was designed by architect Thomas William Silloway and built by Mead, Mason & Co.

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.”

The First Baptist Church continued to be located at 100-110 Commonwealth in 2017.

Drawing of Brattle Street Church Tower by H. H. Richardson, showing details not as built; American Architect and Building News, 29Jun1878

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