26 Exeter (181 Newbury) is located on the NE corner of Exeter and Newbury, with 192 Commonwealth to the north, across Alley 434, 28 Exeter (190 Newbury) to the south, across Newbury, 179 Newbury to the east, and 201 Newbury to the west, across Exeter.
26 Exeter (181 Newbury) was designed by Hartwell and Richardson, architects, and built by Norcross Brothers in 1883-1885 as the First Spiritual Temple of the Working Union of Progressive Spiritualists. The exterior of the building was completed in the fall of 1884, and it was ready for occupancy in June of 1885.
The Working Union of Progressive Spiritualists is shown as the owner on the original building permit application, dated October 3, 1883. It had been founded in 1883 by Marcellus Seth Ayer, a wholesale grocer. He purchased the land for 26 Exeter the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on March 11, 1885, after the building was substantially complete, and on April 28, 1885, he transferred the land and partially completed building to himself, G. F. T. Reed, and Frederick W. Gregory as trustees of the Working Union of Progressive Spiritualists.
Click here for an index to the deeds for 26 Exeter (181 Newbury).
Soon after the building’s completion, the Harbor and Land Commissioners (the agency responsible for enforcing restrictions contained in the original Back Bay land deeds from the Commonwealth) brought legal action to compel removal of the stone porch on the Newbury façade, arguing that it violated the setback requirements in the deed, In February of 1889, the Supreme Judicial Court dismissed the complaint and the porch was allowed to remain.
Marcellus Ayer married in January of 1895 to Hattie Mabel Dodge. After their marriage, they lived in Harwich Port and then, by the late 1890s, at 181 Newbury.
In 1914, 26 Exeter became the Exeter Street Theatre, a motion picture theatre operated by Marcellus Ayer and managed by Hattie Ayer. The First Spiritual Temple also continued to be located there, but in only a portion of the space.
In her April 3, 1984, Boston Globe article on the 26 Exeter, architectural historian Jane Holtz Kay attributed the remodeling to architect Clarence Blackall, noted for his work in designing theatres.
The Ayers continued to live at 181 Newbury until 1919, when they moved to 190 Commonwealth, across the alley from 26 Exeter. He died in January of 1921.
Hattie Ayer — who remarried in 1927 to Salvatore Paparone, a dancing teacher — continued to manage the theatre until her death in 1930.
From about 1931, the Exeter Street Theatre was managed by Miss A. Viola Berlin, a trustee of the Working Union of Progressive Spiritualists, who continued to own 26 Exeter. She to managed the theatre for the next 42 years, until it closed in October of 1973.
In his The Proper Bostonians, Cleveland Amory described the Exeter Street Theatre and Miss Berlin (without naming her): “Boston’s First Family ladies, who scorn Hollywood and all its works, are nonetheless enticed to this mausoleum-like structure by reason of the fact that its proprietor, a cultivated woman with a degree and an accent from the University of London, features foreign films and runs her business in the homey way she knows all Proper Boston women love. She calls all her regular patrons by name, knows what night they generally want to come and where they wish to sit. She never buys a picture without seeing it first; when her patrons telephone her and ask if they should come – which is general practice – she tells them whether or not she thinks they will have a good time. If they come against her advice, she makes clear that they are on their own.”
In its October 11, 1973, article on the theatre’s closing, the Boston Globe noted that Miss Berlin “made the Exeter into an institution, a proverbial ‘pleasuredome’ for dowagers of the last five decades.” … “Most incredible, as a pecan to to the taste of its clientele who prefer their motion picture entertainment sans wrapper-rustling, slurping and crunching, the Exeter Street Theater has never had a refreshment stand. After all, they don’t sell peanuts at Symphony.”
On March 15, 1974, 26 Exeter (181 Newbury) was purchased from the Working Union of Progressive Spiritualists by real estate developer Neil St. John (Ted) Raymond, as trustee of the Exeter Street Theatre Conservation Trust. It applied for (and subsequently received) permission to change the use from a theatre, meeting house, and caretaker’s room to a theatre, restaurant, bar, offices, and caretaker’s room, and also to add a one-story “greenhouse” addition on the Newbury Street side of the building.
The restaurant T.G.I. Friday’s subsequently occupied the basement and greenhouse area.
The Exeter Street Theater reopened under new ownership and continued to operate until 1984.
In 1984, the Exeter Street Theatre Conservation Trust applied for (and subsequently received) permission to eliminate the theatre use and change the occupancy to a restaurant, bar, offices, and retail.
The major retail space, above the restaurant, was subsequently occupied by Conran’s furniture store.
On July 12, 1984, 26 Exeter (181 Newbury) was acquired from Neil St. John Raymond by Jonathan G. Davis, trustee of the Exeter Theatre Development Trust.
In 1991, the space previously occupied by Conran’s became Waterstone’s Books.
On July 27, 1992, 26 Exeter (181 Newbury) was acquired from Jonathan G. Davis by Exeter Street, Inc.
On August 31, 1995, the building was seriously damaged by a fire which started as a grease fire in the restaurant. Both T. G. I. Friday’s and Waterstones — which suffered extensive water damage — eventually reoccupied the building.
Waterstone’s bookstore closed in 1999, and by 2001, its space became the site of IdeaLab.
On September 19, 2001, 26 Exeter (181 Newbury) was purchased from the EastWest Property Fund Limited Partnership by Coles Holding, Ltd., and on December 31, it transferred the property to the Exeter Theatre Corporation.
IdeaLab continued to be located at 26 Exeter until about 2003.
Also in 2005, T.G.I. Friday’s closed its restaurant. In 2009, after remodeling the greenhouse area, Joe’s American Bar and Grill occupied the space. It previously had been located at 277–279–281 Dartmouth.