400-416 Commonwealth

400-416 Commonwealth (2014)

400-416 Commonwealth (2014)

Irregular Lot: 233' on Commonwealth, 231' on Charlesgate East (42,373 sf)

Irregular Lot: 233′ on Commonwealth, 231′ on Charlesgate East (42,373 sf)

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.

The original portion of the Hotel Somerset, located on Charlesgate East between Commonwealth and Newbury, was built in 1897-1899, with a 231 foot frontage on Charlesgate East and a 133 foot frontage on Commonwealth. The addition to the east, at 400 Commonwealth, was built in 1901-1902 with a 100 foot frontage on Commonwealth. Both were designed by Arthur H. Bowditch.

The original portion of the Somerset was built on two lots purchased on September 18, 1897, by Francis Peabody, Jr., and Henry Williams, as trustees for the Somerset Trust: the lot at the southeast corner of Commonwealth and Charlesgate East, with a frontage of 133 feet on each street, which they purchased from Nathaniel Thayer and Eugene Van Rensselaer Thayer, and the lot at the northeast corner of Newbury and Charlesgate East, with a frontage of 125 feet on Newbury and 98 feet on Charlesgate East, which they purchased from the estate of Abbott Lawrence. Both lots originally were part of one of four parcels purchased from the Boston Water Power Company on October 15, 1880, by Henry Melville Whitney, Grenville Temple Winthrop Braman, and Henry Dwight Hyde, trustees of The Park Entrance Lands Trust.

Drawing of the Hotel Somerset prior to the beginning of construction; Boston Herald, 17Oct1897

Prior to the Somerset Trust’s purchase of the land, both lots had been acquired by Alan Arthur and Gardiner H. Shaw, real estate dealers. They purchased the lot at the corner of Newbury on December 1, 1896, in their own names, and the lot at the corner of Commonwealth on January 1, 1897, through George S. Daniell, acting on their behalf.  On January 16, 1897, the Boston Journal reported on Arthur & Shaw’s plans to build “the largest and finest fireproof family hotel in Boston,” to be designed by Arthur Bowditch. In June and August of 1897, the sellers of the land foreclosed on the mortgages entered into with Alan & Shaw and George Daniell, and resold the lots to the Somerset Trust, which undertook essentially the same project with Arthur Bowditch continuing as the architect.

Click here for an index to the deeds for 400-416 Commonwealth, and click here for further information on the land on the south side of Commonwealth between Massachusetts Avenue and Charlesgate East.

The permit for the original building was filed on October 14, 1897, with the Webb Granite & Construction Company of Worcester shown as the builder. On October 17, 1897, the Boston Herald commented that “the building will be constructed on three sides of a court, 110 feet by 60 feet, and dominating feature of the design. The structure will be six stories in height, with a hip roof of red Spanish tile, and will be a steel frame, fire-proof building, with exterior walls entirely of Indiana limestone.”

Boston Evening Transcript, 9Jul1898

On July 1, 1898, the Boston Daily Advertiser reported that the Somerset Trust had leased the hotel to Charles A. Gleason, who also was the proprietor of the Victoria Hotel at 273 Dartmouth.

The hotel originally was advertised to open on November 1, 1898, and then in December of 1898.  The official opening, however, was delayed until March 1, 1899. Like the Hotel Vendome further east on Commonwealth, The Somerset accepted both travelers and permanent guests.

On February 26, 1899, the Boston Herald’s “About Town” column discussed the major contractors for the building, noting that Angus MacDonald, a building contractor, had been responsible for “all the carpentering and woodwork, the painting, plastering, plumbing, metal work, heating, elevators, and some minor matters.”

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.”

Drawing of the Hotel Somerset at the time of its opening in 1899

Drawing of the Hotel Somerset at the time of its opening in 1899; Boston Globe, 1Mar1899

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.”

Expanded Hotel Somerset: Commonwealth Avenue Annex. On March 4, 1901, Francis Peabody, Jr., and Henry M. Williams established a new trust, the Somerset Hotel Trust, to which they subsequently transferred the hotel, and on May 27, 1901, the new trust purchased the vacant lot immediately to the east on Commonwealth, with a frontage of 100 feet, from John C. Haynes.

The lot also originally had been part of the land purchased on October 15, 1880, from the Boston Water Power Company by The Park Entrance Lands Trust.  It subsequently had changed hands and on February 13, 1886, was purchased by Charles Elliott Perkins, president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.  He and his wife, Edith (Forbes) Perkins, lived at 223 Commonwealth and in Burlington, Iowa.

On October 18, 1892, the Boston Globe reported that the Church of the Unity (Unitarian) on West Newton (between Tremont and Shawmut) had agreed to purchase the land on Commonwealth from Charles Perkins and would build a new church on it in association with the Benevolent Fraternity of Churches, which owned the Parker Memorial Hall at the northeast corner of Berkeley and Appleton.  Both the Parker Memorial Hall and the church on West Newton would be sold, and the new church would be called the Parker Memorial in memory of Rev. Theodore Parker.  On November 4, 1892, the Boston Herald reported that the new church building would be “a purely classical structure” similar to the design of the Church of the Unity on West Newton.

On February 8, 1893, John Cummings Haynes, a music publisher and dealer in musical instruments, took title to the land on Commonwealth on behalf of the Church of the Unity. The Church of the Unity subsequently decided not to move. In an interview published in the Boston Post on October 8, 1893, Rev. Minot Judson Savage, Pastor of the Church of the Unity, commented that ” ’the plan of going to the Back Bay … has been abandoned for the present, at least.  A majority of the pewholders decided it would be better to remain here.’ ” The church organization continued to pursue the plan, however, and on December 24, 1895, the Boston Evening Transcript reported that the pewholders had voted unanimously to proceed. The article noted that the pewholders’ decision was prompted by Rev. Savage, who had been offered the position of assistant pastor at the Church of the Messiah in New York City but “wishes to stay in Boston, and will do so if the Society of the Church of the Unity will build a new church at the Back Bay.” The church was unable to raise the funds necessary, however, and in January of 1896 formally abandoned its efforts and, at the same time, accepted Rev. Savage’s resignation. John C. Haynes continued to own the vacant land until it was acquired by the Somerset Hotel Trust in 1901.

First floor plan of the Hotel Somerset and proposed annex; Boston Herald, 24May1901

The Somerset Hotel Trust constructed an annex at 400 Commonwealth on the newly acquired land.

The Boston Herald’s May 24, 1901, article on the Trust’s plans reported that the annex would add about 100 rooms, increasing the hotel’s total number of rooms to 350, and would feature a ballroom “which will rival in completeness and appointments that of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, and  … will be three stories in height, 85 by 60 feet, and will have galleries for musicians and spectators.” The Boston Globe’s May 29, 1901, report 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.”

The Boston Evening Transcript’s article on the expansion noted that “the hotel thus enlarged will contain about 350 rentable rooms, 130 bathrooms, one large and two small dining-rooms, palm room, library, three large drawing-rooms, writing room, three private dining-rooms, a modern ballroom, with large cloak-rooms, and a complete arrangement of service rooms in the basement.”

The annex originally was planned to be completed by January 1, 1902, and the ballroom to be debuted with a gala “Hunt Ball.” It was delayed, however, due in large part (according to the Transcript on February 1, 1902) to delays in the availability of steel for construction.

Advertisement for the Hotel Somerset; Boston Evening Transcript, 25May1903

The annex was completed in late 1902. On December 6, 1902, the ballroom was opened with a “private inspection” hosted by manager Charles Gleason. As described in a December 7, 1902, Boston Globe report, the room was 100 by 70 feet and 35 feet high. “At the end of the room is a balcony, which has the appearance of three adjoining opera boxes, and there the orchestra will be stationed.  A door at the opposite end of the room opens into the palm room, where supper will be served whenever a ball takes place.”  The Boston Evening Transcript’s December 8, 1902, article described the décor in detail, noting that ”the ballroom, in architectural design as well as in its appointments, is in strict accordance with the style of the Louis XV period.”

On June 30, 1903, Charles Gleason filed for bankruptcy.  He had resigned as manager of the Somerset the month before, and had been replaced by Alfred S. Amer. By 1905, Charles Gleason was manager of the Hotel Lenox at 61 Exeter.

In December of 1904, the Somerset Hotel Company was organized to operate the hotel under a lease from the Somerset Hotel Trust, with Arthur Edward Childs as president. He and his wife, Alice Grant (Moen) Childs, lived at 121 Bay State Road. He later also served as president of the Columbian National Life Insurance Company and the Light, Heat, and Power Corporation (later the Massachusetts Lighting Company).

Boston Globe, 26May1904

In June of 1905, Alfred Amer was replaced by Frank C. Hall, who previously had managed the Hotel Ericson at 373 Commonwealth. He and his wife, Alwildia (Chase) Hall, lived at the Hotel Somerset. He remained as manager until his death in July of 1926.

The Hotel 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.

On May 29, 1936, the Hotel Somerset was acquired from the Somerset Hotel Trust by the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank, which held two mortgages on the property.

On August 7, 1936, the property was acquired from the bank by the Somerset Hotel Company. Glenwood J. Sherrard, who also owned the Parker House hotel and the Bellevue Hotel, was president of the company. A July 28, 1936, Boston Globe article on the impending sale noted that “An extensive program of improvements and rehabilitation involving an expenditure of close to $200,000 designed to make the Somerset one of the most modern hotels in the city, is scheduled to begin immediately.”

On June 30, 1942, the Somerset Hotel Company transferred the property back to the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank.

World War II. 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:

Hotel Somerset (ca. 1908), courtesy of Historic New England

Hotel Somerset (ca. 1908), courtesy of Historic New England

“‘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.”

On December 1, 1944, the Hotel Somerset was acquired from the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank by Somerset Hotel, Inc. Edward Bryce Bell was president and managing director, and undertook renovating and refurbishing the property so that it could return to use as a hotel.

Combined Operation with the Hotel Puritan. In mid-1947, Edward Bell became general manager of the Hotel Lafayette at 333 Commonwealth and Abraham M. Sonnabend assumed management of the Hotel Somerset. In July of 1947, he acquired the Hotel Puritan (388-390 Commonwealth and 425 Newbury) and transferred it to Hotel Puritan, Inc. (of which he was the treasurer), and on October 11, 1951, his Cleveland Hotel Corporation purchased the Hotel Somerset. Thereafter, the Hotel Somerset and the Hotel Puritan were operated as an integrated property as the Somerset Hotel by Sonnabend Operated Hotels, which became the Hotel Corporation of America in 1956 and Sonesta International Hotels in 1979.

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.”

Advertisement for the Hotel Somerset, 1910 Automobile Blue Book

Advertisement for the Hotel Somerset, 1910 Automobile Blue Book

In 1955, the Somerset Hotel 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” on the vacant lot at 388 Commonwealth.

On July 1, 1958, Puritan, Inc., transferred the Hotel Puritan property (388-390 Commonwealth and 425 Newbury) to Abraham Sonnabend and Reuben B. Gryzmish as trustees of the Puritan Realty Trust.  The Cleveland Hotel Corporation retained the Hotel Somerset property (400-416 Commonwealth), and both properties continued to be operated by the Hotel Corporation of America.

On November 1, 1960, the Cleveland Hotel Corporation sold the Hotel Somerset property (400-416 Commonwealth) to Louis Berry, George D. Seyburn, and Benjamin J. Tager of the International Hotel Corporation, located in Detroit. On the same day, the Puritan Realty Trust, sold the Hotel Puritan property (388-390 Commonwealth and 425 Newbury) to the same purchasers.

An October 20, 1960, Boston Globe article on the impending sale indicated that it “stems from the fact that the contract which H. C. A. [Hotel Corporation of America] 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.”

The Hotel Corporation of America subsequently withdrew from its agreement with Prudential in favor of the Sheraton Corporation, and on August 27, 1964, the Boston Globe reported that “Negotiations are underway by Boston’s Sonnabend and Gryzmish families to repurchase or otherwise operate the city’s well known Somerset Hotel on Commonwealth av. The two families sold the hotel some four years ago to Detroit interests. When the hotel was owned by the Sonnabend and Gryzmish families it was operated by the Hotel Corporation of America, now headed by Roger P. Sonnabend. If the present transaction works out, Hotel Corporation of America would again operate the hotel.”

On January 31, 1966, the re-acquisition of the properties was achieved through a foreclosure of the mortgage given by Louis Berry and his partners to the Cleveland Hotel Corporation, which took possession of the properties and transferred them on the same day to the S. H. Corp.

The Hotel Corporation of America resumed operation of the properties and in 1966-1967 it constructed a 352 car garage at 425 Newbury.

Advertisement for the Hotel Somerset, 1922 Automobile Blue Book

Advertisement for the Hotel Somerset, 1922 Automobile Blue Book

On October 15, 1971, the Boston Globe reported that a “preliminary understanding” had been reached to sell the Somerset Hotel to real estate developer Pasquale Franchi, “who reportedly plans to renovate the Somerset into a luxury apartment building.” He also was in the process of renovating the Hotel Vendome.

On December 13, 1971, the Somerset Hotel (388-390 Commonwealth, 400-416 Commonwealth, and 425 Newbury) was purchased from S. H. Inc. by Pasquale Franchi through the Westcliffe Realty Trust.

The Somerset Hotel closed on March 31, 1972.

Conversion into Apartments. Over the next three years, Pasquale Franchi converted the buildings into 187 apartments, a night club, shops, and offices. The entirety of 390 Commonwealth was devoted to office and commercial space.  425 Newbury remained a garage.

On June 16, 1975, 388-390 Commonwealth, 400-416 Commonwealth, and 425 Newbury were acquired from the Westcliffe Realty Trust by The Somerset Building, Inc. (Charles A. Pappas, president).

On July 19, 1976, the Savings Bank Trust Company foreclosed on a mortgage given by The Somerset Building, Inc., and took possession of the property.

The properties subsequently changed hands, including going through foreclosure again, and on January 29, 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 388-390 Commonwealth to Frederic W. Rust, trustee of the Puritan Investment Trust. The purchase included an interest in the Somerset garage at 425 Newbury. 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.

The Somerset Condominium. On May 27, 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.

On February 12, 1985, the condominium association amended the master deed to conform it with the legal occupancy, specifying 117 residential units and 4 commercial units.