191 Commonwealth is located on the NE corner of Commonwealth and Exeter, with 183 Commonwealth to the east, 19 Exeter to the west, across Exeter, 18 Exeter to the north, across Alley 425, and 192 Commonwealth to the south, across Commonwealth.
191 Commonwealth was designed by Weston and Rand, architects, and built in 1872 by Weston & Shepard, masons.
Originally designed as six floor-through apartments (called “French flats”), it was built for Alexander Agassiz, his brother-in-law, Henry Lee Higginson, and Henry Lee Higginson’s father, George Higginson . “Alexander Agassiz and others” are shown as the owners on the original building permit application, dated August 7, 1872, and on the final building inspection, dated December 29, 1873.
The original building was built on a lot with an 84 foot frontage on Commonwealth purchased on March 17, 1873, by George Higginson, Henry Lee Higginson, and Alexander Agassiz. It was named the Hotel Agassiz in honor of the Agassiz family.
Click here for an index to the deeds for 191 Commonwealth.
Alexander Emmanuel Rodolphe Agassiz was a zoologist and oceanographer, and also was the developer and president of the Calumet and Hecla Copper Mines. His father, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, was the a noted Harvard naturalist. Alexander Agassiz lived in Cambridge; his wife, Anna (Russell) Agassiz died in December of 1873.
George Higginson was a founding partner in the investment banking firm of Lee, Higginson & Co., which specialized in railroad and mining stocks and was closely associated with the Calumet and Hecla company. He lived at 39 Brimmer his wife, Mary Cabot (Lee) Higginson, died in August of 1849.
George and Mary Higginson’s son, Henry Lee Higginson (called “The Major” because of his military service during the Civil War) was a partner in Lee, Higginson & Co., and the husband of Alexander Agassiz’s sister, Ida Olympe Frederika Agassiz. Henry Lee Higginson may be best known for founding the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881 and for sustaining it for many years thereafter. Henry and Ida (Agassiz) Higginson lived at the Hotel Hamilton at 260 Clarendon, but moved to the Hotel Agassiz when it was completed and continued to live there for the rest of their lives. He died in November of 1919, and she in May of 1935.
On March 12, 1878, George Higginson purchased the 25 foot wide lot to the east of the Hotel Agassiz from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where an annex to the Hotel Agassiz subsequently was built. On January 15, 1887, he transferred a one-third interest, each, to Henry Lee Higginson and Alexander Agassiz, noting in the deed “the whole of the estate known as 191 Commonwealth Avenue” was owned by the three of them in equal shares, “but for convenience the easterly portion…has heretofore stood in the name of George Higginson alone and it is now desired to make record title correspond with the actual fact.”
Bainbridge Bunting’s Houses of Boston’s Back Bay indicates that 185 Commonwealth was designed by architect James Smith and built in 1883 for William Bradley. Based on the deeds and the Bromley maps, this does not appear to be correct. Bunting apparently erroneously put the information for 179 Commonwealth under his heading for 185 Commonwealth. The original building permit application for 179 Commonwealth, dated March 14, 1883, indicates that it was built in 1883 for William Bradley, and that James Smith was the builder, not the architect (Carl Fehmer was the architect for 179 Commonwealth).
George Higginson died in April of 1889. In his will, he left his one-third interest in the Hotel Agassiz to Henry Lee Higginson’s wife, Ida (Agassiz) Higginson. On February 17, 1909, Henry Lee Higginson transferred his one-third interest to his wife.
Alexander Agassiz died in March of 1910, and on February 1, 1912, his executors transferred his one-third interest in the Hotel Agassiz to his three sons: George Russell Agassiz, Maximilian Agassiz, and Rodolphe Louis Agassiz.
The property continued to be owned by Higginson and Agassiz family members until 1951.
By 1935, the number of units had increased from six to nine. Between 1935 and 1938, several of the larger apartments on the third, fourth, and fifth floors were subdivided, and the number of units increased to fourteen. In 1952, a larger apartment on the second floor was subdivided into three, and the number of units increased to sixteen.
On April 26, 1951, 191 Commonwealth was purchased from the Higginson and Agassiz families by Miss Clara Rita Drucker. She was a law office secretary and probably held the property for someone else. In about 1964, she married to Harry Keimach.
On August 26, 1964, 191 Commonwealth was purchased from Clara Keimach by Beatrice M. Coulter, and on April 30, 1965, it was acquired from her by Nicholas D. Rizzo, trustee of the Munick Realty Trust.
The Boston Globe reported the sale on Mary 9, 1965. It commented: “Over the past 91 years, the original six apartments, with about 18 to 20 rooms each, have been modified and today there are 16 apartments with about 6 to 10 rooms each. The original 21 water closets have been replaced by modern bathrooms, and the fireplaces are no longer required to provide heat. Designed to provide luxury living, the former Hotel Agassiz, with its 11-foot ceilings, still provides the finest in gracious intown living, and is another example of the fine ‘Old Boston’ just a few blocks away from Boston’s newest and tallest structure, the Prudential Tower.”
On May 18, 1973, Nicholas Rizzo converted the property into 16 condominium units, the 191 Commonwealth Avenue Condominium.