420 Beacon was designed by Peabody and Stearns, architects, and built in 1892-1893 by McNeil Brothers, builders, as the home of Miss Emily Esther Sears. She previously had lived at 86 Beacon. She is shown as the owner of 420 Beacon on the original building permit application, dated November 22, 1892. In his Houses of Boston’s Back Bay, Bainbridge Bunting indicates that it may have been the first fireproof residence built in the Back Bay.
Emily Sears lived at 420 Beacon with her brothers, David Sears IV and Henry Francis Sears.
She died in December of 1902. David and Henry Sears continued to live at 420 Beacon. David Sears spent most of his time traveling and, after Emily Sears’s death, made his primary residence in Paris. He was unmarried.
Henry Sears was a retired physician. He married in September of 1904 to Jean Irvine Struthers. After their marriage they lived at 420 Beacon.
Henry and Jean Sears continued to live at 420 Beacon until about 1907, after which they made their home in Beverly. David Sears maintained his Boston residence with them.
By the 1907-1908 winter season, 420 Beacon was the home of William H. Wellington, a dry goods merchant and cotton manufacturer. He was a widower and his daughter, Anna F. Wellington, lived with him. They previously had lived in Roxbury. William Wellington is shown as the owner of 420 Beacon on the 1908 and 1917 Bromley maps.
Anna Wellington married in June of 1914 to Dr. Simon Burt Wolbach, a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School specializing in pathology. After their marriage, they lived at 420 Beacon with her father. Dr. Wolbach previously had lived at 356 Marlborough.
In November of 1915, William Wellington applied for (and subsequently received) permission to add a small penthouse located towards the front of the building at the center and east side, in front of the skylights, constructed with a steel frame filled in with terra cotta blocks. Plans for the addition, designed by architects Peabody and Stearns, are included in the City of Boston Blueprints Collection in the Boston Public Library’s Arts Department (reference BIN C-23).
William Wellington died in February of 1925. S. Burt and Anna Wolbach continued to live at 420 Beacon. They also maintained a home in Ipswich and later in South Sudbury. William Wellington’s Heirs are shown as the owners of 420 Beacon on the 1928 Bromley map.
The Wolbachs continued to live at 420 Beacon until about 1936, when they moved to their home in South Sudbury.
In late 1936, 420 Beacon was purchased from Anna Wolbach by the Vedanta Centre, sponsored by the Ramakrishna Mission of India. The transaction was reported in the Boston Globe on December 31, 1936.
In December of 1936, the Vedanta Centre applied for (and subsequently received) permission to convert the property from a single-family dwelling into a church on the first floor and dwellings above. On January 26, 1937, it dedicated the Temple of the Universal Spirit at 420 Beacon.
The Vedanta Centre and Temple of the Universal Spirit continued to be located there until about 1952.
By 1952, 420 Beacon was owned by Andrew D. MacLachlan. In June of 1952, A. D. and Murial A. Maclachlan applied for (and subsequently received) permission to convert the property from a church and dwelling into a church, seven apartments, and one lodging unit.
Although the designation of a church remained in the legal occupancy, it appears that the property was occupied entirely as a multiple dwelling. By 1967, there were nine apartments listed in the Boston City Directory.
In June of 1968, it applied for (and subsequently received) permission to convert 420 Beacon from a church, 7 apartments, and one lodging unit into a library, 7 apartments, and a lodging unit. It subsequently operated its school library on the first floor, and rented apartments on the upper floors.
In 1971, 420-422–424–426 Beacon were acquired by the New England College of Optometry (known originally as the Massachusetts College of Optometry). It continued to use 420 Beacon as a library and the rent apartments on the upper floors.
In 1983, it acquired 418 Beacon, which it used as a dormitory.
In April of 1992, it applied for (and subsequently received) permission to consolidate 422 and 424 Beacon into one property, with the address of 424 Beacon.
In August of 1996, it applied for (and subsequently received) permission to consolidate 420 Beacon, 424 Beacon, and 426 Beacon into one property, with the address of 424 Beacon. 420 Beacon was used for the library, classrooms, and other college facilities.
In August of 1997, it applied for (and subsequently received) permission to convert 418 Beacon and a separate former stable at the rear from a dormitory into classrooms and other college functions.
In October of 2006, the College applied for (and subsequently received) permission to consolidate 418 Beacon into one property with 424 Beacon, making a single property composed of 418-420-422-424-426 Beacon, with the address of 424 Beacon.
The New England College of Optometry continued to be located there in 2014.