400-416 Commonwealth is located on the SE corner of Commonwealth and Charlesgate East (and the NE corner of Charlesgate East and Newbury), with 390 Commonwealth to the east, and 24 Charlesgate East (419 Commonwealth) to the north, across Commonwealth.
400-416 Commonwealth (30 Charlesgate East) was designed by architect Arthur H. Bowditch and built in 1897-1899 as a six story hotel, The Somerset. It was built for the Somerset Trust, organized by Francis Peabody, Jr., and William H. M. Williams. Francis Peabody, Jr., et al, trustees of the Somerset Trust, are shown as the owners on the 1898 Bromley map.
Construction started in October of 1897 and the hotel opened on March 1, 1899. Like the Hotel Vendôme further east on Commonwealth, The Somerset accepted both travelers and permanent guests.
A March 1, 1899, Boston Globe article on the hotel’s opening described it as “among the distinctively magnificent hotels of the world.”
“It is built on three sides of a quadrangle, facing Charlesgate-east, with a large court yard in front. It is six stories high, with exterior walls of grey sandstone, and a roof of red tiles, and it is nearly fireproof as modern construction can approach it.”
“Above the first floor there are 250 rooms, every one of which some time during the day gets the sun. .. Electricity is used throughout the building for lighting, and no gas or gas piping has been put into the building. Steam is used for heating purposes. All the rooms have not been furnished because such rooms as are to be leased to permanent guests will in all probability be furnished by the occupants to their own tastes, unless furnished apartments are desired.”
“The upper floor of the hotel is arranged for the maids of the guests and for the servants of the hotel. … All the wood finish above the first floor is in sycamore and all the doors are of an exclusive and new pattern. Each door contains but two large panels, a square panel at the top and a large oblong panel below it.”
The article described the public rooms at length, noting that “the frontage on Charlesgate-east is over 200 feet, and with the exception of the easterly wing all of this floor is utilized for public rooms.”
“From the easterly to the westerly wings runs the main corridor, a pure reproduction of the Louis XIV style, as portrayed in the palace of Versailles” with a vaulted ceiling, columns, and walls “paneled in gold and silver damask. … In the middle of the grand corridor, opposite the entrance to the palm room, is the grand stairway. It is 12 feet wide, of white marble, with a solid balustrade of in white and a broad railing of mahogany.”
“The breakfast room, or palm room, occupies the central position of the main building. The ribbed ceiling is worked in an early English design, Around the walls is a paneled wainscoting rising to within three feet of the ceiling and colored in olive green enamel.”
“The main dining room, at the corner of Commonwealth av and Charlesgate-east, is furnished after the style of the Jacobean period. In size, the room is 45 by 60 feet, without a pillar or other intervening support for the ceiling. Two massive mahogany beams, 30 inches deep, divide the ceiling into three bays. These beams, as well as the panels framing the spaces between the windows, all bear the lavish decoration of the Jacobean period.”
“From the easterly end of the grand corridor the stairway leads to the ballroom, which is located in the basement. A marble staircase with sides of Parian marble leads from Newbury st. The ballroom is 40 by 60 feet in dimensions, and is finished in crimson, gold, and white. The ceiling is divided by massive beams, supported by columns of parian marble.”
When it was built, The Somerset occupied the end of the block between Commonwealth and Newbury, with a frontage of approximately 130 feet on Commonwealth and 231 on Charlesgate East.
In the spring of 1901, the hotel purchased the lot immediately to the east on Commonwealth with a frontage of 100 feet. The transaction was reported in the Boston Globe on May 29, 1901. The hotel constructed an annex on the new property, increasing the total number of rooms from 250 to 350. The Boston Globe noted that the addition would “conform in style and architecture with the original building,” and that the plans “have been prepared in the office of Arthur H. Bowditch and Roland G. Hart will be the superintending architect.”
Francis Peabody, Jr., et al, trustees of the Somerset Hotel Trust are shown as the owners on the 1908, 1917, and 1928 Bromley maps. The Somerset Hotel Company is shown as the owner on the 1938 Bromley map.
The Somerset rapidly became one of Boston’s premier hotels, the locus for balls, cotillions, and weddings as well as the hotel of choice for visitors from the political, social, and entertainment worlds, ranging from Gloria Swanson to the Beetles.
From 1942 to 1945, the Hotel Somerset was used by the US Navy to house sailors who were studying at the naval training school at Wentworth Institute. An August 30, 1942, article from the Milwaukee Sentinel described the hotel’s use:
“‘The ‘U.S.S. Somersault’ — formerly the Somerset hotel — has demonstrated what smooth sailing means to a navy that is temporarily land-locked. When the navy took over the hotel to house several hundred sailors, while they studied at nearby Wentworth Institute, the hotel staff undertook the task of keeping them happy. Menus were changed, rooms stripped of unnecessary furnishings and tiers of double bunks installed, and a WPA band moved in to furnish dinner music.”
By 1946, Edward Bryce Bell became managing director and undertook renovating and refurbishing it so that it could return to use as a hotel.
In 1947, Edward Bell acquired the Hotel Lafayette at 333 Commonwealth and A. M. Sonnabend purchased the Hotel Somerset. Based in Boston, Sonnabend Operated Hotels grew to national and international scale, becoming the Hotel Corporation of America in 1956 and Sonesta International Hotels in 1979.
In 1952, the Hotel Somerset absorbed the Hotel Puritan, located immediately to the east at 390 Commonwealth, and the two were operated as an integrated property.
In its October 31, 1952, article on the opening of the new, expanded hotel, the Boston Globe wrote: “The Somerset Hotel took on a ‘new look’ yesterday with the official opening of its new lobby and entrance. The consolidation of the Somerset with the Hotel Puritan has made possible one large hostelry containing 524 rooms. The main lobby, constructed with a coral terrazzo floor, plastered green walls, and a ceiling of the latest acoustical material, has a 33-foot curved desk of green Italian marble and two tone plate glass. “Iron trim stairways connect with the terrace lobby, formerly the street level of the Puritan, and with the lower level of the Puritan, where a dining room, cocktail lounge and coffee shop are located. Smart shops open off the terrace lobby.”
In 1955, the Hotel Somerset installed an outdoor swimming pool in the patio area facing Charlesgate East.
In November of 1957, the hotel applied for (and subsequently received) permission to install a “macademized open-air parking lot for use by the Hotel Somerset” on the vacant lot at 388 Commonwealth.
In the fall of 1960, the Sonnabend family’s Hotel Corporation of America sold the Hotel Somerset to the International Hotel Corporation of Detroit. As reported by the Boston Globe on October 20, 1960, the sale “stems from the fact that the contract which H. C. A. has with Prudential Insurance Company to run the 1000-room hotel in its huge Back Bay development requires H. C. A. to confine its local hotel activities to the Prudential operation.”
In 1966, the Hotel Somerset built a multi-story parking garage on Newbury Street, behind the hotel.
In 1972, real estate developer Pasquale Franchi purchased the Hotel Somerset. He also had recently acquired the Hotel Vendôme and was in the process of converting it into apartments and commercial uses.
The Hotel Somerset closed on March 31, 1972.
Pasquale Franchi’s company, Somerset Building, Inc., remodeled the buildings, converting them from a hotel into 187 apartments, a nightclub, shops, and offices. The entirety of 390 Commonwealth (the former Hotel Puritan) was devoted to office and commercial space.
In 1976, the Savings Banks Trust Company of New York City foreclosed on its mortgage to Somerset Building Company. It was the only bidder at the foreclosure auction and took possession of 390-400 Commonwealth.
The properties subsequently changed hands, including going through foreclosure again, and in January of 1982 were acquired by the 400 Commonwealth Avenue Apartments LP.
In August of 1981, the 400 Commonwealth Avenue Apartments LP filed for (and subsequently received) permission to remodel the apartments on the north side of the building, noting that this was Phase I of its remodeling. The legal occupancy of the building remained “187 apartments, coffee shop, flower shop, keyboard lounge, rib room restaurant, music halls I and II, and restaurant.”
In March of 1983, 400 Commonwealth Avenue Apartments LP sold 390 Commonwealth (including the vacant lot at 388 Commonwealth) to Frederic W. Rust, trustee of the Puritan Investment Trust. He subsequently remodeled 390 Commonwealth into residential units and built a new building at 388 Commonwealth, joined with 390 Commonwealth, and converted them into the Windsor Place Condominium.
In May of 1983, 400 Commonwealth Avenue Apartments LP converted 400-416 Commonwealth into 93 residential condominium units and four commercial condominium units, the Somerset Condominium.
In March of 1984, 400 Commonwealth Avenue Apartments LP filed for (and subsequently received) permission to remodel the units on the south and west sides of the building, noting that this was Phase II of the remodeling. It also applied for (and received) permission to increase the legal occupancy to 117 units, a private health club, and offices.
In February of 1985, the condominium association amended the master deed to conform it with the legal occupancy, specifying 117 residential units and 4 commercial units.