281 Dartmouth was built ca. 1871 by building contractor James M. Standish, one of three contiguous houses (279-281-283 Dartmouth). He and his wife, Sarah (Grant) Standish, lived at 283 Dartmouth and sold the other two houses.
By 1873, 281 Dartmouth was the home of Dolly (Whitney) Beals, the widow of William Beals, co-founder and publisher of the Boston Post. In 1872, she had lived at 45 Hancock. She is shown as the owner of 281 Dartmouth on the 1874 Hopkins map.
She continued to live there until her death in January of 1876.
By 1877, it was the home of Benjamin Sewall, a cordage manufacturer and shipping merchant. He was a widower, and living with him were his grand-daughter and her husband: Louisa Sewall (Hubbard) Jackson and John Cotton Jackson. John Jackson was an officer and General Agent of the American Linen Thread Company.
Both Benjamin Sewell and the Jacksons made their primary home in Weston.
Benjamin Sewall died in October of 1879 and the Jacksons moved soon thereafter, traveling to Europe where John Jackson studied metallurgical engineering.
By the 1880-1881 winter season, 281 Dartmouth was the home of Dexter Townsend Mills and his wife, Lavinia Frances (Barnet) Mills. They previously had lived at 50 Worcester. He is shown as the owner of 281 Dartmouth on the 1883, 1888, and 1895 Bromley maps.
Dexter Mills was an importer, distiller, and dealer in commercial alcohol and liquor.
He died in March of 1896 and his family moved from 281 Dartmouth soon thereafter.
In his will, he specified that his property be held in trust for his wife and three daughters until their death, and sold thereafter for the benefit of various charities, notably the Museum of Fine Arts. Accordingly, his trustees, Arthur P. Mills et al, are shown as the owners of 281 Dartmouth on the 1898, 1908, 1917, and 1928 Bromley maps.
By 1898, 281 Dartouth was the home of Mrs. Mary (May) Adeline (Bradbury) Estes, the former wife of Prince Joseph Estes, who rented the house from the Mills Estate. She operated it as a lodging house and provided offices for doctors.
By 1900, she also had rented 279 Dartmouth from Mary Amanda (Greene) Smith, the widow of Dr. J. Heber Smith. The Smiths had lived there until his death in October of 1898. From 1900, Mrs. Estes listed both 279 and 281 Dartmouth as her residence in the Blue Books, and expanded her lodging house to include both buildings.
Among Mrs. Estes’s lodgers at 281 Dartmouth were William G. Ward and his wife, May (Alden) Ward, who lived there from about 1900 through 1905. He was a professor at Emerson College of Oratory, and she was an author, primarily of biographies, and a lecturer. Their daughter, Helen Ward, a teacher, lived with them. In 1898, they had lived in Syracuse, New York, where he was a professor of English literature at Syracuse University. By 1906, they had moved to Brookline.
In 1907, Mary Estes rented 277 Dartmouth from the estate of Harriet (Upham) Putnam and extended her lodging house into the third building.
In 1910, Mrs. Mary (Ruby) Morrison, the wife of architect William Langley Morrison, purchased 277 Dartmouth. It became the home of her mother, Anne Ruby (the widow of James Ruby), and also the location of Mrs. Morrison’s import and dressmaking shop, Mary Ruby, Inc.
Mrs. Estes continued to operate her lodging house at 279-281 Dartmouth, but by the 1912-1913 winter season, 279 Dartmouth also had been purchased by Mrs. Morrison, who moved there with her husband.
By 1917, the Boston Society for Decorative Arts had leased a storefront at 279 Newbury and additional rooms at 281 Dartmouth. In March of 1917, it applied for (and subsequently received) permission to cut a door between 279 and 281 Dartmouth. The Society continued to be located at 279 Dartmouth in 1920, but was no longer there by 1922.
Mrs. Estes continued to live (and operate a lodging house) at 281 Dartmouth until about 1923, when she purchased and moved to 25 Marlborough.
By 1924, 281 Dartmouth was the location of Helen Crosby, Inc., ladies’ furnishings. There continued to be two apartments on the upper floors.
In July of 1928, G. U. Crocker applied for (and subsequently received) permission to remodel portions of the building, including removing a bay window at the rear. The property remained a store with one apartment above.
G. G. Crocker et al, trustees, are shown as the owners of 281 Dartmouth on the 1938 Bromley map.
By 1946, 281 Beacon was owned by the Museum of Fine Arts.
In mid-1946, 281 Dartmouth was purchased from the Museum by Lola Baker Butts.
By 1952, Lola Baker Butts operated a women’s clothing store in the previous Helen Crosby Shop space. Her store remained until about 1956, when she applied for (and subsequently received) permission to convert the commercial space to a restaurant, with three apartments on the upper floors. Joseph’s Restaurant, which had been located at 277-279 Dartmouth since the late 1940s, expanded into the new restaurant space. It remained until about 1979, when it was replaced by Joe’s American Bar and Grill.
Lola Baker Butts continued to operate a clothing store from her apartment at 281 Dartmouth. An April 28, 1959, Boston Globe article described her “upstairs shop” as “probably the most unusual place of business in Boston. Here. in the informal atmosphere of Miss Butts’ own living room, our most fashionable and elite enjoy a cup of tea and friendly chatter, while selecting their coats, suits, costume dresses, and custom-made hats.”
In October of 1964, 281 Dartmouth was acquired by Uptown Realty, Inc., which had owned 277-279 Dartmouth since 1950.
The property subsequently changed hands and in April of 1991, 277-279-281 Dartmouth were combined into one property, with the lower level remaining a restaurant and the upper floors used for offices.
Below is a panoramic view taken ca. 1903, with 277-281 Dartmouth on the left and the Hotel Victoria at 273 Dartmouth in the center; photograph by E. Chickering & Co., provided courtesy of the Library of Congress.