Back Bay Land: South Side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter

The block on the south side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter is 528 feet in length and 124 feet 6 inches from Commonwealth to Alley 434.

The land was part of the approximately 108 acres of land in the Back Bay owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Plan of Commonwealth lands, 5Dec1856 (Suffolk Co. Deed Registry, Book 743, end of book)

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.

Click here for more information on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts land in the Back Bay

The land on the south side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter was sold by the Commonwealth at its auctions on February 5, 1870, March 7, 1871, 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).

Excerpt from plan of land sales through 1879, showing price paid per s.f.; 1879 Harbor and Land Commissioners Report

On February 5, 1870, the Commonwealth offered the ten eastern lots for sale, but only the 32 foot corner lot at Dartmouth (Lot 1) and the three 28 foot lots to the west (Lots 2-4) were sold. The Boston Traveller reported that the buyer was Charles A. Wood.

The six unsold 28 foot lots were offered at the Commonwealth’s auction on March 7, 1871. The Boston Herald and Boston Journal reported that Charles A. Wood was the successful bidder for the four furthest east (Lots 5-8), abutting those he had purchased at the first auction, and William Tenant Hart was the successful bidder for the two furthest west (Lots 9-10).

On October 5, 1871, the Commonwealth offered the next five lots to the west, two 28 foot lots (Lots 11-12) and three 26 foot lots (Lots 13-15). The Boston Herald and the Boston Journal reported that the three lots to the east (Lots 11-13) were purchased by dry goods merchant Richard Hall Stearns and D. W. Luce (probably Samuel Waterman Luce, who was his business associate in R. H. Stearns & Co.). The two lots to the west (Lots 14-15) were purchased by Franklin Evans.

The last four lots were auctioned on March 2, 1872. The Boston Herald reported that Franklin Evans was the successful bidder for Lot 16, abutting the two lots he previously had purchased, and that D. Townsend had purchased the two 26 foot lots further west (Lots 17-18). The 32 foot corner lot (Lot 19) was purchased by Sarah Louise (Prentiss) Hubbell, the widow of brick manufacturer Peter Hubbell.

Eastern Parcels: The eastern 228 feet of the block were purchased by Charles Austin Wood, an insurance agent and real estate investor, who had been the successful bidder on the eight lots at the February 5, 1870, and March 7, 1871, auctions. The Commonwealth conveyed the land to him as three parcels: the eastern 74 feet on November 29, 1870, the western 112 feet on September 29, 1871, and the 42 feet between the two other parcels on November 16, 1871. He built the Hotel Vendôme on the property.

Central Parcels. On April 8, 1874, the Commonwealth sold the next two 28 foot lots to the west (Lots 9-10) to William Tenant Hart, who had been the successful bidder for them at the March 7, 1871, auction. He was president of the New York & New England Railroad, and later served as president of the Continental National Bank. He and his wife, Caroline Frances (Samson/Sampson) Hart, lived at 6 Brookline. After her death in April of 1878, he married again, in February of 1884, to Emma E. Porter, and they subsequently made their home at 315 Commonwealth.

On June 27, 1883, Sarah Kimball (Bradley) Whitney, the wife of Charles Whitney, purchased the 56 foot parcel from William T. Hart. Charles Whitney was a lumber merchant and real estate investor, and had purchased the Hotel Vendôme in 1879 and had significantly expanded the hotel. He incorporated the eastern 14 feet of the lot with the Hotel Vendôme’s land, and sold the remaining land.

On May 6, 1885, Charles Whitney sold the 20 foot lot west of the Hotel Vendôme to Annie Maria (Brazer) Bartlett, the wife of Dr. Charles Samuel Bartlett, and they built their home at 172 Commonwealth.

On January 29, 1866, Charles Whitney sold the remaining 22 foot lot to architect William G. Preston, who had designed the original portion of the Hotel Vendôme. On April 5, 1893, he sold the land to building contractor Luther Merrill, who built 174 Commonwealth for speculative sale.

On June 5, 1883, the Commonwealth sold the next two 28 foot lots to the west (Lots 11-12) to Richard Hall Stearns, who had been the successful bidder for them at the October 5, 1871, auction. One week later, on June 14, 1883, he sold the land to Dr. James Batchelder Bell and Dr. William Palmer Wesselhoeft, who built their homes and medical offices at 176 Commonwealth and 178 Commonwealth.

On June 29, 1882, the Commonwealth sold the 26 foot lot to the west (Lot 13) to Edmund Hatch Bennett. The lot had been purchased by Richard H. Stearns at the October 5, 1871, auction, and he had sold or transferred his right to purchase it. Edmund H. Bennett was a lawyer and judge, the first Mayor of Taunton, and dean of the Boston University Law School. On April 19, 1883, he sold the land to building contractor William Seavey Rand, and purchased the newly-completed house at 130 Commonwealth from him, which he and his wife, Sally (Crocker) Bennett, made their home. William Rand subsequently built 180 Commonwealth for speculative sale.

Six years earlier, on June 11, 1874, the Commonwealth had sold the two 26 foot lots to the west (Lots 14-15) for which Franklin Evans had been the successful bidder at the October 5, 1871, auction, and had subsequently sold or transferred his right to purchase the land.

The lot to the east (Lot 14) was purchased by Elizabeth Waterman (Hicks) Harding, the wife of wool and cotton merchant William H. Harding. The lot to the west (Lot 15) was purchased by dry goods merchant Moses W. Richardson. He and his wife, Rosa (Baker) Richardson Richardson, lived at 580 Tremont.

On April 7, 1875, Elizabeth Harding sold her lot to wholesale dry goods merchant and banker James Brown Case, having purchased from him (two days earlier) the newly-completed house at 118 Commonwealth, which she and her husband made their home. On October 1, 1879, Oliver M. Wentworth purchased the land from James B. Case and built his home at 182 Commonwealth.

On April 16, 1889, Moses Richardson sold his lot to Jane Ludlow (Ross) Smith Palmer, the widow of Holland Smith and of Dr. Frederic N. Palmer. She had a six unit apartment building built on the lot at 184 Commonwealth. It was the first of three contiguous apartment buildings designed by Jane Palmer’s son, Frank Warren Smith, and Henry S. McKay (Mackay).

The two lots further west had been sold at the March 2, 1872, auction, the one to the east (Lot 16) to Franklin Evans, and the one to the west (Lot 17) to D. Townsend, both of whom sold or transferred their rights to purchase the property.

The Commonwealth sold Lot 17 first, on March 5, 1875, to George Walker Weld. It subsequently changed hands and was purchased on June 18, 1890, by Albert Ivins Croll, a yarn merchant and investor in real estate.

The Commonwealth sold Lot 16 on January 19, 1886, to Ellen A. (Larrabee) Johnson, the wife of Henry M. Johnson. It also subsequently changed hands and was purchased on December 18, 1889, by Jane Palmer, who then sold it to her son, Frank W. Smith and Henry S. McKay on May 22, 1890. Frank Smith purchased Henry McKay’s interest one year later.

Two matching apartment buildings were built at 186-188 Commonwealth on the two lots, operated jointly as The Abbotsford, but with Frank Smith as owner of 186 Commonwealth and Albert Ivans Croll the owner of 188 Commonwealth.

Ellen Johnson, who purchased the lot at 186 Commonwealth from the Commonwealth, also owned land at 270 Commonwealth and at 333 Commonwealth. In the mid-1890s, Henry S. Mckay purchased the land and designed and built the Hotel Tuileries at 270 Commonwealth and the Hotel Empire at 333 Commonwealth.

Western Parcels. On March 5, 1875, the Commonwealth sold the 26 foot lot (Lot 18) next to the corner to the estate of Richard Baker, Jr. The lot had been one of two for which D. Townsend had been the successful bidder at the March 2, 1872, auction, and had subsequently sold or transferred his deed bond. On November 20, 1879, the estate sold the land to real estate dealer Samuel Horatio Whitwell. He and his brother (and business partner) Henry Whitwell built 190 Commonwealth for speculative sale.

Sarah Louise (Prentiss) Hubbell, the widow of brick manufacturer Peter Hubbell was the successful bidder at the March 2, 1872, auction for the 32 foot corner lot at Exeter. She subsequently had her home built at 192 Commonwealth, but died in September of 1873, before the house was completed and before taking title to the land. On January 1, 1875, it was purchased from the Commonwealth by her estate.

Original Construction. All of the buildings on the south side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter had been built by 1893.

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).

Original land sales on the south side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter

Original deeds conveying land on the south side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter

Original construction on the south side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter

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.

Click here for more information on the restrictions contained in deeds of Back Bay land.

Original Land Deeds

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts conveyed the land on the south side of Commonwealth between Dartmouth and Exeter by the following deeds:

Address Date E-W N-S Grantee Book Page
160 Commonwealth 29Nov1870 74’ 124.5’ Charles A. Wood 1027 78
160 Commonwealth 16Nov1871 42’ 124.5’ Charles A. Wood 1142 9
160 Commonwealth 29Sep1871 112’ 124.5’ Charles A. Wood 1074 126
172-174 Commonwealth 07Apr1874 56’ 124.5’ William T. Hart 1244 65
176 Commonwealth 05Jun1883 28’ 124.5’ Richard H. Stearns 1602 106
178 Commonwealth 05Jun1883 28’ 124.5’ Richard H. Stearns 1602 113
180 Commonwealth 29Jun1882 26’ 124.5’ Edmund H. Bennett 1566 625
182 Commonwealth 11Jun1874 26’ 124.5’ Elizabeth W. Harding 1339 153
184 Commonwealth 11Jun1874 26’ 124.5’ Moses W. Richardson 1331 138
186 Commonwealth 19Jan1886 26’ 124.5’ Ellen A. Johnson, wife of Henry M. Johnson 1709 353
186 Commonwealth 05Mar1875 26’ 124.5’ George W. Weld 1260 50
190 Commonwealth 05Mar1875 26’ 124.5’ Edward Lawrence and Ellen M. Baker, executors of the will of Richard Baker, Jr. 1259 241
192 Commonwealth 01Jan1875 32’ 124.5’ Edward S. Rand and Warren Sanger, administrators of the estate of Sarah Louise Hubbell 1364 60