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 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).
On November 4, 1883, the Boston Herald reported that “work was commenced Friday on the first spiritual temple of the Working Union of Progressive Spiritualists,” and described the building in some detail:
“It is to be in the Romanesque style of the architecture of central France. The external walls are wholly of stone, the general surface of a warm colored granite, and the trimmings of Longmeadow freestone. The principal entrance is on Exeter street. From the main vestibule stairs lead to a large hall, occupying the first floor above the street, and affording, with its gallery, seating capacity for 1200 people. A large arched recess provides space for the organ, and in front of this the speaker’s platform is located. Over the main hall is a story of rooms and small halls for circles or seances, separated by a corridor running lengthwise of the building from front to rear, and connecting at each end with stairs from below. Stairs from the main hall are on each of the four corners of the building, and great care has been taken that ample and direct means of egress shall be had from all sections of the building. In the construction, also, provision has been made against spread of fire, and particularly in the case of the stairs that they shall be fire resisting. The building will be heated by steam. The total cost of the building, including ground, wiil be $225,000. It is to be completed and ready for occupancy early in the fall of 1884.”
The cornerstone was laid on April 9, 1884. In its April 12, 1884, article on the building, the Boston Globe reported that the exterior would be of Braggville granite and Kibbe brownstone (the Kibbe quarry was located in East Longmeadow). On April 16, 1884, the Boston Globe published more details on the building, including sketches of the floor plans “taken from the architects’ drawings,” and noted that the “object of erecting the new building is to establish a school where men, women and children may be instructed in spiritual, intellectual and physical development. There will be a sort of Sunday school for children where, while learning the higher ideas of Spiritualism, the young people will gain at the same time educational knowledge and be taught specially that, in order to attain a higher mental and moral development, they must keep their bodies in a state of perfect health and purity. To this end a gymnasium will probably be one of the features of the institution.”
Construction took longer than anticipated and the exterior was not completed until late 1884. On November 2, 1884, the Boston Herald reported that “the exterior of the structure is now substantially completed.” The Herald article repeated and expanded upon its description a year earlier when the building was first planned, adding that “the lower story or basement under the main hall … entered from the front vestibule or by steps at the opposite end of the building” contained a “lecture room capable of accommodating 500 persons.” The article also commented that “the most careful attention is being paid to the all important matters of heating and ventilating the building. The whole structure is to be warmed by indirect steam heat, the radiators being located under the basement floor. Fresh air is supplied through narrow slits in the stonework of the basement walls. From these the air drops to the spaces below, where, being warmed, it is distributed by pipes throughout the building.” Above the second story meeting rooms “is the great ventilating chamber, into which are gathered the various air ducts, large and small, from all parts of the building. The floor or deck of this chamber is of copper, as are also the open screens of the end gables and the center turret of the building, and through these wind and rain may sweep harmlessly.”
The temple was formally opened with ceremonies on September 27, 1885.
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 [sic] 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, 2002, 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.