17 Commonwealth was built in 1866-1867 as the home of attorney William Howard Gardiner and his wife, Caroline (Perkins) Gardiner. They previously had lived at 11 Temple Place.
William Gardiner purchased the land on which 17 Commonwealth was built on September 11, 1866, from his nephew, Thomas Forbes Cushing (the son of John Perkins Cushing and Mary Louisa (Gardiner) Cushing). At the time of the purchase, Thomas Cushing and his wife, Fanny Leslie (Grinnell) Cushing, lived at 190 Beacon.
The lot purchased by William Gardiner had a frontage of 50 feet and had been part of a larger tract that originally had been purchased from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on May 2, 1860, by shipping merchant and US Congressman Samuel Hooper. That tract extended west from the lot where 11 Commonwealth would be built to the corner of Commonwealth and Berkeley. Samuel Hooper and his wife, Anne (Sturgis) Hooper, built their home on the corner lot, at 27 Commonwealth.
Click here for an index to the deeds for 17 Commonwealth, and click here for further information about the land between the north side of Commonwealth and Alley 422, from Arlington to Berkeley.
William Gardiner subdivided the lot into two parcels, a 30-foot lot where he had 17 Commonwealth built and a 20-foot lot to the west. On October 16, 1866, the Boston Evening Transcript reported that he had filed with the Board of Aldermen a notice of intention to build. Construction of 17 Commonwealth began soon thereafter and was completed in 1867. In March of 1867 he sold the lot to the west to Thomas, Rebecca, and Isabella L. Amory, specifying in the deed that “the front of the house first to be erected on said granted premises shall be built in conformance with plans of building designed or approved by Henry Van Brunt architect.” This would imply that 17 Commonwealth also was designed by Henry Van Brunt.
Caroline Gardiner died in May of 1867, probably before 17 Commonwealth was completed.
As originally designed, 17 Commonwealth included a structure used for coal storage and a larder which extended from the front wall of the house to the sidewalk. The top was covered by turf and it was surrounded by a solid stone wall eighteen inches thick. The surface of the turf was three and one-half feet above the sidewalk, and the stone wall was about ten inches higher. This structure was in violation of the restrictions contained in deeds originally granted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which required a twenty foot setback from Commonwealth Avenue, allowed only specified projections into that reserved area, and limited the width of bays which extended into the reserved area. William Gardiner was informed of this violation in June of 1867 by the Commissioners on Public Lands, and took no action. In August of 1867, the Attorney General filed legal action to compel his compliance, and in May of 1875, the Supreme Judicial Court ordered that the structure be removed (Attorney General v. William H. Gardiner; 117 Mass 492).
On November 16, 1883, 17 Commonwealth was acquired from the estate of William Gardiner by wool merchant William Hilton. He and his wife, Esther Althine (Ward) Hilton, made it their home. They previously had lived at 217 Beacon.
On May 4, 1884, the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette reported that the former “Gardner mansion… which was recently purchased by Mr. William Hilton has undergone extensive renovation under the direction of Messrs. Snell and Gregerson, and has been made one of the finest houses on the avenue. Mr. Hilton will move into his new house the present week.”
William Hilton died in December of 1887. Esther Hilton continued to live at 17 Commonwealth until her death in November of 1895.
On February 5, 1896, 17 Commonwealth was purchased from the estate of William Hilton by Isabella White (Talbot) Clark, the wife of Frederic Simmons Clark and the daughter of former Governor Thomas Talbot. They previously had lived at 56 Commonwealth.
Frederic Clark was treasurer and later president of Talbot woolen mills in Billerica. They also maintained a home, Red Gables, in North Billerica.
They continued to live at 17 Commonwealth during the 1913-1914.winter season, but moved thereafter, probably to their home in North Billerica, where they were living at the time of the 1920 US Census.
On June 26, 1916, 17 Commonwealth was purchased from the Clarks by dry goods merchant William Whitman, Jr. He and his wife, Ruth (Loring) Whitman, made it their Boston home. They also maintained a home in Simsbury, Connecticut, which previously had been their primary residence.
The Whitmans continued to live at 17 Commonwealth until mid-1930, when they moved to 12 Marlborough.
On June 9, 1930, 17 Commonwealth was acquired from William Whitman by William Phillips. He and his wife, Caroline Astor (Drayton) Phillips, made it their home. They also maintained a home, Highover, in Beverly.
William Phillips was a career diplomat. He served as Assistant Secretary of State (1917-1920), Minister to the Netherlands (1920-1922), Ambassador to the Netherlands and Minister to Luxembourg (1922-1927), Minister to Canada (1927-1929), Under Secretary of State (1933-1936) and Ambassador to Italy (1936-1940).
In August of 1930, he applied for (and subsequently received) permission to remodel 17 Commonwealth, lowering the front entrance from the first floor to the ground level, and adding a bay window and two stories to the rear ell. The remodeling was designed by architects Richardson, Barott, and Richardson. Plans for the remodeling — including floor plans, framing plans, and a rear elevation — are included in the City of Boston Blueprints Collection in the Boston City Archives (reference BIN P-82).
William and Caroline Phillips lived at 17 Commonwealth until about 1933, when he was appointed Under Secretary of State and moved to Washington DC. He continued to own the house and lease it to others.
By the 1933-1934 winter season, it was the home of George Hastings Swift and his wife, Lucile Darst (Casey) Swift. They previously had lived at 21 Beaver Place.
George Swift was president of the Brighton Stock Yards Company and the New England representative of the meat packing firm, Swift & Company, founded by his father, Gustavus Franklin Swift.
The Swifts continued to live at 17 Commonwealth until about 1940, when William and Caroline Phillips returned from his service as Ambassador to Italy. The Swifts moved to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
The Phillipses occupied the house briefly, but on November 2, 1942, he sold it to the Associated Jewish Philanthropies. That same month, it applied for (and subsequently received) permission to convert the house into an Army and Navy Club with a caretaker’s unit. On December 30. 1942, it transferred the property to the Boston Jewish Welfare Board Army & Navy Club, Inc.
On December 10, 1946, 17 Commonwealth was acquired by Zionist House, Inc. In August of 1952, it filed for (and subsequently received) permission to convert it from a club into offices for the headquarters of their organization.
On January 24, 1995, 17 Commonwealth was purchased from Zionist House, inc, by Seventeen, Inc. (C. David Hetrick, president).
In March of 1995, it applied for (and subsequently received) permission to remodel the property into three apartments. and on March 26, 1996, converted the house into three condominium units, the 17 Commonwealth Avenue Condominium.