The block on the north side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter is 528 feet in length and 124 feet 6 inches from Commonwealth to Alley 425.
The land was part of the approximately 108 acres of land in the Back Bay owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The Commonwealth sold its land starting in 1857. The earliest transactions were by private sales negotiated by the Commissioners on the Back Bay. In 1860, the legislature required that all future sales be made through public auctions. The first auction was held on October 24, 1860, and they continued until March of 1872, when they were suspended due to depressed real estate values. In 1879, the legislature authorized the Harbor and Land Commissioners (successors to the Commissioners on the Back Bay) to sell lots with frontages of up to 100 feet by privately negotiated sale. The land sales resumed in May of 1879 and the last of the remaining land was sold in 1886.
The land on the north side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter was sold by the Commonwealth at its auctions on December 27, 1870, October 5, 1871, and March 2, 1872, in nineteen lots: a 32 foot lot at the corner of Dartmouth (Lot 1), eleven 28 foot lots to the west of the corner lot (Lots 2-12), six 26 foot lots to the west of those (Lots 13-18), and a 32 foot lot at the corner of Exeter (Lot 19).
The Commonwealth offered the ten lots on the eastern end of the block at its auction on December 27, 1870. The Boston Herald on December 28, 1870, reported that the corner lot and the two west of it (Lots 1-3) were purchased by wholesale and retail clothing merchant Leopold Morse, the next five (Lots 4-8) by investment banker Henry C. Wainwright, and the two west of them that (Lots 9-10) by real estate dealer Henry Whitwell.
The next five lots were offered at the October 5, 1871, auction, and the October 6, 1871, reports in the Boston Herald and the Boston Journal indicated that Franklin Evans, a merchant, purchased the two 28 foot lots to the east (Lots 11 and 12), and building contractor George Wheatland, Jr., purchased the three 26 foot lots to the west (Lots 13-15).
The remaining four lots were sold at the March 2, 1872, auction. The Boston Herald reported that George Wheatland, Jr., purchased Lots 16-17 (to the west of those he bought at the October 5, 1871, auction), T. J. Edmands purchased Lot 18, and Thomas J. Lee and Alfred B. Hill, bankers and brokers, purchased the 32 foot corner lot at Exeter (Lot 19).
Eastern Parcels. Leopold Morse, the successful bidder for the lots at the corner of Dartmouth, sold or transferred his right to purchase the land, and the lot was subsequently sold by the Commonwealth in two 88 foot wide (east-west) parcels, a southern parcel with a frontage on Dartmouth of 50 feet, and a northern parcel with a frontage on Dartmouth of 74.5 feet.
The Commonwealth sold the southern lot on January 20, 1871, to Stephen Van Rensselaer Thayer, who built 306 Dartmouth as his home. He died in October of 1871, while the house was still under construction and it was sold by his estate on May 29, 1872, to banker James Henry Blake. At the same time, James Blake also purchased the northern lot from the Commonwealth. On May 1, 1874, he sold both the house at 306 Dartmouth and the northern lot to lumber dealer and real estate investor Charles Whitney. The northern lot remained vacant until 1881-1882, when the owners at that time, Frederick Lothrop Ames and his wife, Rebecca Caroline (Blair) Ames, built a new wing with a porte-cochere.
The five 28 foot lots to the west of 306 Dartmouth (Lots 4-8) had been purchased by Henry C. Wainwright at the December 27, 1870, auction. He sold or transferred his right to purchase the land.
On May 20, 1873, the Commonwealth sold the 28 foot lot furthest west (Lot 8) to attorney John C. Ropes, who conveyed it that same day to commission merchant Charles Lowell Andrews. He and his wife, Sarah Augusta (Jeffries) Andrews, lived at 175 Marlborough and in Milton. On November 21, 1878, they sold the lot to Joseph Story Fay, Jr., who built his home at 169 Commonwealth.
On May 28, 1874, the Commonwealth sold Lots 6 and 7 to John Heard and his brother, Albert Farley Heard. They were associated with their family’s shipping firm, Augustine Heard & Co., tea importers. In April of 1875, the firm declared bankruptcy. On March 6, 1879, the lot was purchased from the Heards’ assignees in bankruptcy by banker and broker Eben Rollins Morse. On December 1, 1879, he sold the eastern 26 feet to Charles Henry Masury, a bookkeeper. He purchased the land on behalf of his employer, boot and shoe merchant John Erskine, who had 165 Commonwealth built as his home (and to whom Charles Masury transferred the property after the house was completed). E. Rollins Morse built his home at 167 Commonwealth on the remaining 30 feet of the lot.
On October 15, 1874, the Commonwealth sold Lots 4 and 5, the two lots between 306 Dartmouth and the land at 165 Commonwealth, to shipping merchant John Douglas Bates, Jr. He subdivided them into two irregularly shaped lots, with 161 Commonwealth having a frontage on Commonwealth of 37.71 feet and 163 Commonwealth having a frontage of 18.29 feet. He made his home at 161 Commonwealth and sold 163 Commonwealth on October 28, 1880, to William A. Tower.
Central Parcels. On May 9, 1879, the Commonwealth sold Lots 9-10, west of 169 Commonwealth, to textile manufacturer Augustus Lowell. The lots had originally been purchased at the December 27, 1870, auction by real estate dealer Henry Whitwell, who sold or transferred his rights to purchase them. Augustus Lowell built his home at 171 Commonwealth on the eastern 30 feet of the land and sold the western 26 feet on September 13, 1879, to Roger Wolcott, who built his home at 173 Commonwealth.
Lots 11-12, the two 28 foot lots to the west of where 173 Commonwealth would be built, had been purchased at the October 5, 1871, auction by Franklin Evans. He either sold or transferred his rights to purchase them, and the Commonwealth sold them to sisters in 1874: the western lot on October 9, 1874, to Fanny Cadwallader (Crowninshield) Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, and the eastern lot on December 29, 1874, to Cora Crowninshield. She married in February of 1879 to Charles Boyden and sold her lot on November 8, 1880, to Charles Merriam, who also purchased the eastern one foot of the Adams’s lot on November 13, 1880. He built his home at 175 Commonwealth on the eastern 29 feet of the land and John and Fanny Adams built their home on the remaining 27 feet at 177 Commonwealth.
The next five lots (Lots 13-17), all 26 feet wide, had been purchased by George Wheatland, Jr., three (Lots 13-15) at the October 5, 1871, auction, and two more (Lots 16-17) at the March 2, 1872, auction. He either sold or transferred his rights to purchase all five.
On November 30, 1874, the Commonwealth sold Lot 13 to Frederic Sears Grand d’Hauteville. He and his wife, Susan Watts (Macomb) Grand d’Hauteville, lived in Newport. On February 3, 1881, he sold the lot to Robert Stow Bradley, whose parents, William Lambert Bradley and Frances Marina (Coe) Bradley, built their home at 179 Commonwealth.
On June 13, 1876, the Commonwealth sold Lot 14 to Franklin Haven, Jr. He was Assistant US Treasurer for Boston and lived with his parents, Franklin Haven and Sarah Ann (Curtis) Haven, at 97 Mt. Vernon. His father was president of the Merchant’s National Bank and one of the three Commissioners on Public Lands responsible for the sale of the Commonwealth’s Back Bay land. On February 19, 1878, Franklin Haven, Jr., sold the lot to Charles Whitney, who built his home at 181 Commonwealth (the Charles Whitney who lived at 181 Commonwealth does not appear to be closely related to the Charles Whitney who lived at 306 Dartmouth).
On March 7, 1878, the Commonwealth sold a 27 foot lot to Frank Merriam, comprising Lot 15 and one foot of Lot 16. Frank Merriam built his home at 183 Commonwealth.
Western Parcels. Five years earlier, on March 17, 1873, the Commonwealth had sold the corner lot at Exeter and (Lot 19) and the two 26 foot lots to the east of it (Lots 17-18) to George Higginson, Henry Lee Higginson, and Alexander Agassiz. The lots had been sold to three separate bidders at the March 2, 1872 auction (the corner lot to Thomas J. Lee and Alfred B. Hill, Lot 18 to T. J. Edmands, and Lot 17 to George Wheatland, Jr), and the Higginsons and Alexander Agassiz acquired their rights to purchase the land soon thereafter. They built the Hotel Agassiz at 191 Commonwealth.
On March 12, 1878, the Commonwealth sold George Higginson a 25 foot lot to the east (the western portion of Lot 16). George Higginson had 185 Commonwealth built as an annex to the Hotel Agassiz.
Original Construction. All of the buildings on the north side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter had been built by 1883.
The plans below illustrate when the land on the block was first sold at auction by the Commonwealth, when the Commonwealth conveyed the land (based on the dates of the deeds), and when houses were first constructed (based on building permit applications, news reports, and dates provided in Bainbridge Bunting’s Houses of Boston’s Back Bay).
Building Restrictions in Original Land Deeds
The deeds from the Commonwealth included identical language specifying that any building on the land was to be “at least three stories high for the main part thereof and shall not in any event be used for a stable, or for any mechanical, mercantile, or manufacturing purposes;” that the front walls were to be set back twenty feet from Commonwealth, with “steps, windows, porticos, and other usual projections appurtenant thereto” allowed in the reserved space subject to dimensional limitations enumerated in the deed; and that “no cellar or lower floor of any building shall be placed more than four feet below the level of the mill-dam, as fixed by the top surface of the hammered stone at the south-easterly corner of the emptying sluices.” The deed also provided that the owners of the land would have the right to “cultivate trees on the side walks” in front of their land provided that they left a distance of ten feet between the front boundary of their lots and the trees.
In November of 1858, the Commissioners on the Back Bay had voted to clarify that the prohibition on stables would not be enforced “in such a manner as to prevent the erection and use of private stables by gentlemen as appurtenances to their own dwelling homes; provided, such stables are so constructed and used as not to be justly offensive to the occupants of the surrounding buildings.” This clarification was subsequently published in the auction catalogues issued by the Commissioners, but usually was not included in the deeds.
Original Land Deeds
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts conveyed the land on the north side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter by the following deeds:
|306 Dartmouth||20Jan1871||88’||50’||S. V. R. Thayer||1034||97|
|306 Dartmouth||31May1872||88’||74.5’||James H. Blake||1110||97|
|161-163 Commonwealth||15Oct1874||56’||124.5’||John D. Bates||1242||67|
|165-167 Commonwealth||28May1874||56’||124.5’||John Heard and Albert F. Heard||1215||125|
|169 Commonwealth||20May1873||28’||124.5’||John C. Ropes||1160||75|
|171-173 Commonwealth||09May1879||56’||124.5’||Augustus Lowell||1456||46|
|175-177 Commonwealth||29Dec1874||28’||124.5’||Cora Crowninshield||1251||293|
|177 Commonwealth||09Oct1874||28’||124.5’||Fanny C. Adams||1239||58|
|179 Commonwealth||30Nov1874||26’||124.5’||F. S. Grand d’Hauteville||1246||298|
|181 Commonwealth||13Jun1876||26’||124.5’||Franklin Haven, Jr.||1363||185|
|183 Commonwealth||07Mar1878||27’||124.5’||Frank Merriam||1412||3|
|185-191 Commonwealth||12Mar1878||25’||124.5’||George Higginson||1412||131|
|191 Commonwealth||17Mar1873||84’||124.5’||Henry L. Higginson, Alexander Agassiz, and George Higginson||1150||1|