181 Commonwealth was designed by architect Clarence S. Luce and built in 1878 by T. E. and W. H. Stuart, builders, as the home of banker and merchant Charles Whitney and his wife Jessie Grant (Perkins) Whitney. They previously had lived at 225 Beacon.
He is shown as the owner on the original building permit application, dated March 28, 1878, and on the 1883 Bromley map.
They continued to live there during the 1883-1884 winter season, but had moved to 336 Beacon by the next season.
By 1885, 181 Commonwealth was the home of stockbroker Charles Cabot Jackson and his wife, Frances Elizabeth (Appleton) Cabot. In 1884, they had lived at 20 Hereford.
Frances E. Cabot is shown as the owner of 181 Commonwealth on the 1888 Bromley map.
They continued to live there during the 1894-1895 winter season, but moved soon thereafter to 301 Marlborough.
By the 1895-1896 winter season, 181 Commonwealth was the home of Miss Adele Granger Thayer. She had lived at 169 Commonwealth during the previous season. She is shown as the owner of 181 Commonwealth on the 1895, 1898, 1908, and 1917 Bromley maps.
In about 1905, Miss Thayer was joined at 181 Commonwealth by her secretary, Miss Helen Webster. Miss Webster continued to live with Miss Thayer until about 1912.
By 1913, Miss Thayer had been joined by Miss Elizabeth Greene, probably also her secretary.
During the 1914-1915 winter season, Miss Thayer was living elsewhere and 181 Commonwealth was the home of Arthur H. Fleming, a widower, and his daughter, Marjorie. Arthur Fleming was a lumberman in California, where he was a major benefactor of the California Institute of Technology.
Miss Thayer resumed living at 181 Commonwealth during the 1915-1916 winter season, but was living elsewhere again during the 1916-1917 winter season, when 181 Commonwealth was the home of Emanuel Lycurgus (Eman L.) Beck and his wife, Mary Ruth (Payne) Beck. He was a banker in Mexico City; they also maintained a home in Littleton, New Hampshire.
By the 1917-1918 winter season, Adele Thayer was living at 181 Commonwealth once again. She continued to live there at the tme of her death in March of 1918.
181 Commonwealth was not listed in the 1919 Blue Book.
By the 1919-1920 winter season, it was the home of Mrs. Natalie Bayard (Dresser) Brown, the widow of John Nicholas Brown (after whose grandfather Brown University was named), and her son, John Nicholas Brown, Jr. She also maintained a home in Newport.
In mid-1922, 181 Commonwealth was purchased from Adele Thayer’s estate by wool merchant William Arthur Dupee and his wife, Clara Ethel (Purdon) Dupee. The sale was reported by the Boston Globe on June 29, 1922. In August of 1922, he filed for (and subsequently received) permission to remodel portions of the interior.
The Dupees had lived at 90 Marlborough during the 1921-1922 winter season, and lived in Hyde Park while the remodeling of 181 Commonwealth was being completed. The house was not listed in the 1923 Blue Book, but the Dupees had taken up residence there by the 1923-1924 season. They continued to live there during the 1924-1925 winter season, but moved soon thereafter and by 1927 were living at 7 Fairfield.
During the 1925-1926 winter season, 181 Commonwealth was the home of Benjamin Helm Bristow Draper and his wife, Queena (Sanford) Draper. They had lived at 187 Beacon during the previous season. He was a manufacturer of cotton mill machinery in the firm founded by his grandfather, located in Hopedale, where the Drapers also maintained a home. By the 1926-1927 season, they had moved to an apartment at 137 Marlborough (317 Dartmouth).
By the 1926-1927 winter season, Natalie Brown and her son, John Nicholas Brown, had returned from an extended tour of Europe and the Near East and had acquired 181 Commonwealth. Natalie Brown is shown as the owner of 181 Commonwealth on the 1928 and 1938 Bromley maps.
Natalie Brown and her late husband were friends of architect Ralph Adams Cram, and in the early 1900s she worked with him on the design of her Newport home, Harbour Court, and of Emmanuel Church in Newport. Cram became a mentor to John Nicholas Brown, Jr., engendering in him a deep interest in art and architecture. In the 1920s, John Nicholas Brown, Jr., commissioned Cram to design a chapel at St. George’s School in Newport (which John Nicholas Brown, Jr. had attended), and worked closely with Cram on the Chapel’s design and construction.
In July of 1927, Natalie Brown applied for (and subsequently received) permission to build a four-story rear addition to 181 Commonwealth designed by Cram and Ferguson. In September of 1927, she amended the application to add a fifth story to the addition. John Nicholas Brown, Jr., worked with Cram to design the alterations (in his Ralph Adams Cram: An Architect’s Four Quests, Douglass Shand-Tucci indicates that a “great many drawings of alterations to Brown’s mother’s Boston townhouse (at 181 Commonwealth Avenue) were cataloged in Cram’s job book”). 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 Public Library’s Arts Department (reference BIN P-48).
John Nicholas Brown, Jr. continued to live at 181 Commonwealth until his marriage in October of 1930 to Anne Seddon Kinsolving. After their marriage, they moved to Providence.
By 1940, 181 Commonwealth was the home of Mrs. Anna (Palfrey) Allan, widow of Bryce J. Allan. He had managed the Boston office of his family’s steamship company, the Allan Steamship Line, until his death in August of 1924. They had lived at 255 Beacon, where she continued to live until about 1933 and continued to own until mid-1939. She also maintained a home, Allanbank, in Beverly, where she died in April of 1942.
181 Commonwealth was shown as vacant in the 1941-1943 City Directories.
In late 1942, real estate dealer Henry J. O’Meara purchased 181 Commonwealth from Natalie Brown. The sale was reported by the Boston Globe on December 27, 1942.
By 1943, 181 Commonwealth was owned by Anne M. Knudsen. In January of 1943, she applied for (and subsequently received) permission to convert the property from a single-family dwelling into a lodging house. She continued to own the property in 1951.
The property subsequently changed hands and by 1962 was a women’s dormitory for students at Cambridge School of Business located on Boylston.
In November of 1964, Rainbow Realty applied for permission to change the use from a lodging house into a school dormitory. The application was denied, but the denial was annulled by the Board of Appeal on March 31, 1965, with the proviso that it be limited to female students and that there be a house director on duty on the premises at all times.
By 1985 — and probably by 1972 — 181 Commonwealth was owned by Louis F. Musco, Jr., and George J. Brennan, Jr., trustees of the Commonwealth Realty Trust – Special. They operated the property as a dormitory for Bay State College. It remained a dormitory in 2014.