281 Beacon was designed by Peabody and Stearns, architects, and built in 1881 by J. and H. M. Harmon, builders, for merchant, cotton manufacturer, and real estate developer Charles William Freeland, probably for speculative sale, one of six contiguous houses built in the same style: 271-273-275-277 Beacon built ca. 1876 and 279-281 Beacon built in 1881. 271-277 Beacon, which were built first, form a symmetrical group, with the bays of 271-273 Beacon on the west side of each house, and the bays of 275-277 Beacon on the east side of each house. Both 279-281 Beacon have bays on the east side of the house.
The original permit for 279-281 Beacon was submitted on March 15, 1877, but was abandoned on June 19, 1880, and then refiled on April 14, 1881.
In his Houses of Boston’s Back Bay, Bainbridge Bunting indicates that all six houses were built for G. W. Freeland, but the permits for 273, 275, 277, 279, and 281 Beacon confirm that the developer was Charles W. Freeland. He also is shown as the owner of 279-281 Beacon on the 1883 Bromley map.
281 Beacon was not listed in the 1881-1884 Blue Books.
By the 1885-1885 winter season, it was the home of Miss Mary H. Bartlett and Miss Caroline Bartlett. They had lived at the Hotel Vendôme in 1884. Mary Bartlett is shown as the owner on the 1888 Bromley map.
Mary and Caroline Bartlett were the daughters of Enoch Bartlett, a Boston shipping and dry goods merchant and horticulturalist, after whom the Bartlett pear was named.
Caroline Bartlett died in February of 1890. By 1892, Mary Bartlett had moved back to the Hotel Vendôme.
By the 1891-1892 winter season, 281 Beacon was the home of Richard Montgomery Field and his wife, Cynthia A. (Endicott) Field. They previously had lived at The Thorndike at 91-92 Boylston. He is shown as the owner of 281 Beacon on the 1895 Bromley map.
Richard M. Field was manager of the Boston Museum on Tremont Street. It was primarily a theatre, but also featured a wax museum, natural history museum, and fine arts gallery.
They continued to live at 281 Beacon during the 1895-1896 winter season, but moved soon thereafter to an apartment at The Tuileries at 270 Commonwealth.
In the spring of 1896, 281 Beacon was purchased from Richard Field by Alfred Perkins Rockwell and his wife, Katharine Virginia (Foote) Rockwell. The sale was reported by the Boston Globe on May 1, 1895. He is shown as the owner of 281 Beacon on the 1898 Bromley map. They also maintained a home in Manchester.
A former professor of mining at MIT, he served as Chairman of the Boston Fire Commission from about 1873 to 1875, president of the Eastern Railroad from 1876 to 1879, and treasurer of the Great Falls Manufacturing Company, a textile firm, from 1879 to 1886, when he retired.
During the 1900-1901 winter season, the Rockwells were living elsewhere and 281 Beacon was the home of Col. Henry Sturgis Russell and his wife, Mary Hathaway (Forbes) Russell. They previously had lived at 403 Beacon. They also maintained a residence, Home Farm, in Milton. Col. Russell was Boston Fire Commissioner; he formerly had been a shipping merchant in the East India and China trade in his father-in-law’s firm, John Murray Forbes & Co., and had served as president of the Continental Telephone Company.
By late 1901 the Russells had moved to 217 Beacon and 281 Beacon was once again the Rockwells’ home.
Katharine Virginia Rockwell died in March of 1902 and Alfred Rockwell died in December of 1903. Their daughter, Katharine Diana Ward Rockwell, continued to make 281 Beacon her Boston home until her marriage in August of 1907 to Eliot Sumner. Alfred Rockwell’s Heirs are shown as the owners of 281 Beacon on the 1908 Bromley map.
The house was not listed in the 1908 Blue Book.
By 1909, it was the home of wholesale dry goods merchant George Lewis, Jr., and his wife, Marion (Gray) Lewis. They previously had lived in Chestnut Hill. George Lewis, trustee, is shown as the owner of 281 Beacon on the 1912, 1917, 1928, and 1938 Bromley maps.
They also maintained a summer home in Dark Harbor, Maine.
By 1963, 281 Beacon was owned by Marguerite (Moranian) Dinjian, wife of Nubar J. Dinjian. She also owned 279 Beacon. Both properties were managed by Penwood Realty, of which Nubar Dinjian was treasurer.
In October of 1963, Penwood Realty applied for (and subsequently received) permission to convert 281 Beacon from a single-family dwelling into ten apartments. It similarly had remodeled 279 Beacon the previous year. In January of 1964, it amended the plans dor 281 Beacon to remove the second floor and build two floors between the current first and third floors, making it a five story building. Plans for the remodeling, drawn by architect Leon Furr, are included in the City of Boston Blueprints Collection in the Boston Public Library’s Arts Department (reference BIN R-254).
In February of 1979, Malcolm MacPhail and Peter A. Mead, trustees of the 279-281 Beacon Street Realty Trust, purchased 279-281 Beacon from Marguerite Dinjian. In June of 1979, they converted the properties into 19 condominiums: nine at 279 Beacon and ten at 281 Beacon.