The block on the south side of Commonwealth between Arlington and Berkeley is 596 feet in length and 124 feet 6 inches from Commonwealth to Alley 437.
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 Commonwealth sold its land on the south side of Commonwealth between Arlington and Berkeley in several transactions during 1858, 1859, and 1860.
Eastern Parcels. On November 27, 1858, the Commonwealth sold the corner lot at Commonwealth and Arlington, with a 35 foot frontage on Commonwealth, to Peleg W. Chandler and William S. Whitwell.
Peleg Whitman Chandler was an attorney and publisher of the Law Reporter, which he established in 1838. He and his wife, Martha Ann Bush (Cleaveland) Chandler, lived at 99 Mt. Vernon and later at 154 Beacon. William Scollay Whitwell was a civil engineer and served as president and then treasurer of the Boston Water Power Company, and then as treasurer of the Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation. He and his wife, Mary Greene (Hubbard) Whitwell, lived in Jamaica Plain.
The lot changed hands and on January 27, 1863, was purchased by James Lovell Little, who built his home at 2 Commonwealth.
On January 13, 1859, the Commonwealth sold the lot at 4 Commonwealth to William Brown, a retail druggist, and on May 16, 1859, it sold the lot at 6 Commonwealth to Dr. Alanson Abbe, a physician. They each built their homes on the lots.
On March 27, 1860, the Commonwealth sold Horace E. Armington, a merchant tailor, the two lots at 8-10 Commonwealth, each with a frontage of 28 feet. The lots subsequently changed hands and were acquired on January 21, 1863, by Erastus Brigham Bigelow. On March 23, 1863, he subdivided the land into a 29-foot wide lot at 8 Commonwealth, which he retained, and a 27-foot wide lot at 10 Commonwealth, which he sold to Thomas Gold Appleton. They subsequently built their homes at 8-10 Commonwealth.
On May 2, 1860, the Commonwealth sold Edward Warren Saunders, a boot and shoe dealer, the lot at 12 Commonwealth. It subsequently changed hands and was purchased on May 28, 1870, by Samuel Henry Gookin, who built his home there.
Also on May 2, 1860, the Commonwealth sold real estate dealer Henry Whitwell the parcel at 14-18 Commonwealth, with a frontage of 63 feet. He transferred it to himself as trustee for his benefit and the benefit of his brother and partner, Samuel Horatio Whitwell.
Henry Whitwell sold the western 39 feet to Charles Woodbury, a mason and builder, in two transactions on June 23, 1862, and June 19, 1863. Charles Woodbury built his home at 16 Commonwealth on the eastern 20 feet and resold the the remainder to the west, with a frontage of 19 feet, to Lydia (Gray) Ward, the widow of Thomas Wren Ward. She had 18 Commonwealth built as the home of her son-in-law and daughter, Charles Hazen Dorr and Mary Gray (Ward) Dorr.
Henry Whitwell sold the eastern 24 feet of his lot on December 11, 1865, to Frederick S. Nichols. It remained vacant and was purchased from him on September 30, 1871, by architect and building contractor Charles K. Kirby, who built 14 Commonwealth for speculative sale.
Central and Western Parcels. The land from where 20 Commonwealth would be built to the corner of Berkeley, with a frontage of 358 feet, was purchased by shipping merchant and US Congressman Samuel Hooper. He purchased a 78 foot parcel and a 220 foot parcel from the Commonwealth on May 2, 1860, and the 60 foot lot between his two parcels from Nathan Bourne Gibbs, Jr., on June 22, 1860 (Nathan Gibbs had purchased it from the Commonwealth on May 2, 1860).
Also on May 2, 1860, Samuel Hooper purchased the central and western portion of the north side of Commonwealth between Arlington and Berkeley, where 11-27 Commonwealth would be built. He and his wife, Anne (Sturgis) Hooper, built their home at 27 Commonwealth.
On July 1-2,1860, Samuel Hooper sold nine lots at the eastern end of his land on the south side of Commonwealth to individual purchasers who then had houses built at 20-22-24-26-28-30-32-34-36 Commonwealth, designed as a single block by Gridley J. F. Bryant and Arthur D. Gilman.
On October 24-25, 1861, Samuel Hooper sold a 40 foot wide lot at 38 Commonwealth to Nathan B. Gibbs (from whom he had previously purchased the 60 foot lot further east) and a 20 foot wide lot at 40 Commonwealth to Dr. John Cauldwell Sharp, a physician. They had 38-40 Commonwealth built as their homes.
On June 13, 1862, Samuel Hooper sold the 25 foot wide lot to the west to a trust established for the benefit of Laura Larned Sayles under the will of her father, Francis Willard Sayles. The trust had 42 Commonwealth built for her and her mother, Jane Hereford (Hallett) Sayles.
On October 31, 1862, Samuel Hooper sold the corner lot at Berkeley Street, with a frontage of 47 feet on Commonwealth, to attorney Henry Larned Hallett, the brother of Jane (Hallett) Sayles. On February 6, 1863, Samuel Hooper sold the lot to the east (between the lot he sold Henry Hallett and 42 Commonwealth) to Franklin Haven, who was president of the Merchants Bank and one of three Commissioners on the Back Bay responsible for the sale of the Commonwealth’s lands.
On February 14, 1863, Franklin Haven sold the western 11 feet of his lot to Henry Hallett, who combined it with the corner lot he had purchased from Samuel Hooper. On April 29, 1863, Franklin Haven sold the eastern 29 feet of his land to Royal Elisha Robbins, who had his home built at 44 Commonwealth.
Henry Hallett sold his land to William Chadbourne in three transactions in September and October of 1863. William Chadbourne built his home on the corner lot, at 48 Commonwealth, with a frontage on Commonwealth of 30 feet, and sold the remaining 28 foot lot on Samuel Henry Gookin, who built his home at 46 Commonwealth.
Original Construction. All of the houses on the south side of Commonwealth between Arlington and Berkeley had been built by 1871.
The plans below illustrate when the land on the block was first purchased from the Commonwealth (based on the dates of the deeds) and when houses were first constructed (based on news reports and on dates provided in Bainbridge Bunting’s Houses of Boston’s Back Bay).
Building Restrictions in Original Land Deeds
With two exceptions, the deeds from the Commonwealth (Suffolk Co. Deed Registry Book Book 748, p. 179; Book 761, p. 98; Book 777, p. 129, p. 172, and p. 173; Book 783, p. 145 and p. 146; and Book 795, p. 78) specified 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; 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 deeds 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.
The language of the two deeds to Samuel Hooper (Suffolk Co. Deed Registry Book 777, p. 145 and p. 154) varied slightly in that the height of the buildings was required to be “at least three stories high for the main part thereof (or two stories with a Mansard Roof).” The addition of the language about mansard roofs does not appear in most other earlier or later deeds from the Commonwealth. It was, however, also included in the Commonwealth’s May 2, 1860, deeds to Samuel Hooper, Samuel Ward, and Abbott Lawrence for land on the north side of Commonwealth between Arlington and Berkeley. Samuel Hooper’s home at 27 Commonwealth was two stories with a mansard roof, and he may have requested that the language be included in the deeds.
The deeds to Samuel Hooper (and the deeds to Samuel Hooper, Samuel Ward, and Abbott Lawrence for land on the north side of Commonwealth) also include language clarifying that the prohibition against stables did not include private stables. This language reflected a November 1858 decision by the Commissioners on the Back Bay 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.
Samuel Hooper built a large stable at 27 Commonwealth and, again, the inclusion of the language in the deeds may have reflected his wish to make the Commissioners’ policy explicit in the deed.
The twenty foot setback requirement was identical in all of the deeds. In January of 1863, the Commissioners on Public Lands (successors to the Commissioners on the Back Bay) adopted dimensional limitations on the projections allowed in the setback area. These applied to the deeds previously executed by the Commonwealth, including the land on the south side of Commonwealth between Arlington and Berkeley.
Original Land Deeds
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts conveyed the land on the south side of Commonwealth between Arlington and Berkeley by the following deeds:
|2 Commonwealth||27Nov1858||35’||124.5’||William S. Whitwell and Peleg W. Chandler||748||179|
|4 Commonwealth||13Jan1859||28’||124.5’||William Brown||795||78|
|6 Commonwealth||16May1859||28’||124.5’||Alanson Abbe||761||98|
|8 Commonwealth||27Mar1860||28’||124.5’||Horace E. Armington||783||145|
|10 Commonwealth||27Mar1860||28’||124.5’||Horace E. Armington||783||146|
|12 Commonwealth||02May1860||28’||124.5’||Edward W. Saunders||777||173|
|14-18 Commonwealth||02May1860||63’||124.5’||Henry Whitwell||777||129|
|20-26 Commonwealth||02May1860||78’||124.5’||Samuel Hooper||777||145|
|26-34 Commonwealth||02May1860||60’||124.5’||Nathan Gibbs||777||172|
|34-48 Commonwealth||02May1860||220’||124.5’||Samuel Hooper||777||154|