Back Bay Land: South Side of Commonwealth between Hereford and Massachusetts Avenue

The block on the south side of Commonwealth between Hereford and Massachusetts Avenue (formerly West Chester Park) is 640 feet in length and 124 feet 6 inches from Commonwealth to Alley 430.

The original land was divided between the Boston Water Power Company, which owned the land to the west, and the David Sears family, which owned the land to the east. The boundary between the parcels ran southwest at approximately a 45 degree angle from a point on the south side of Commonwealth 134.66 feet west of Hereford (324 Commonwealth straddles the line). The boundary was parallel to Parker Street (above the Cross Dam) further west, which crossed Commonwealth at Massachusetts Avenue.

Detail from plan by J. F. Fuller showing lands purchased by David Skillings on 19Apr1870; Suffolk County Deed Registry, Book 997, p. 73 (color added)

The land ran from the south side of Commonwealth to the north side of Newbury, including the area which later would become Alley 430.

The Boston Water Power Company sold its land in 1870, in two transactions, to lumber dealer David Nelson Skillings of Winchester as trustee of a real estate investment trust composed of himself, Lawrence Barnes of Burlington, Vermont, Charles Whitney of Lowell, and David Whitney, Jr.. of Detroit.

David Skillings’s first purchase was on April 19, 1870, when he  acquired a parcel on the east side of Parker Street with a frontage on Commonwealth of 327.56 feet.  At the same time, he also purchased a smaller parcel on the west side of Parker Street.

David Skillings’s second purchase was on December 16, 1870, when he acquired the land to the east of the first parcel, with a frontage on 177.44 feet Commonwealth, running to the Sears family land. The combined tract had a frontage of 505 feet on Commonwealth.

Detail from plan by J. F. Fuller showing lands purchased by David Skillings on 16Dec1870; Suffolk Co, Deed Registry, Book 1032, p. 98

On May 3, 1873, David Skillings, as trustee, sold the land to Horace M. Bearce and Ira T. Drew, who entered into a mortgage with the trust to finance the purchase.  On January 5, 1878, David Skillings, on behalf of the trust, foreclosed on the mortgage and sold the property at public auction.  It was purchased by his son, David N. Skillings, Jr., who then transferred it to his father on January 12, 1878.  Through these transactions, the trust received the auction value of the property and David Skillings became the sole owner.

On February 7, 1878, David Skillings acquired the road bed and land for Parker Street that previously had divided the eastern portion of his land.

The David Sears family sold its land on January 2, 1871, to Nathan Matthews. In addition to the eastern 135 feet of the block between Hereford and Massachusetts Avenue, the tract also included all of the land further east on the south side of Commonwealth, extending to the lands owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at a line 262 feet west of Exeter (at about the western wall of 214 Commonwealth).

Nathan Matthews’s land subsequently changed hands several times.

On January 4, 1877, the lot at the southwest corner of Commonwealth and Hereford, with a frontage of 90.25 feet, came into the possession of Caleb H. Warner and Charles F. Smith, trustees for the benefit of Nathan Matthews’s creditors (they also had possession of Nathan Matthew’s land running 261.625 feet east from the southeast corner of Commonwealth and Hereford).

On October 22, 1877, John Worster acquired the lot between Caleb Warner’s and John Smith’s lot to the east and David Skillings’s land to the west. It had a frontage of 44.75 feet.

Detail from plan by Henry W. Wilson showing triangular lots exchanged between David Skillings and John Worster on 17Dec1878; Suffolk Co, Deed Registry, Book 1443, p. 190

The boundary between John Worster’s and David Skillings’s land continued to run at an angle, and on December 17, 1878, they exchanged triangular shaped lots to “square off” their respective holdings so that the north-south boundary ran in a straight line rather than at an angle, creating rectangular lots on both Commonwealth and Newbury. The boundary of the triangular lot on Commonwealth was 40.66 feet wide and, when combined with John Worster’s other land, created a rectangular lot 85.41 feet wide. David Skillings’s remaining land on Commonwealth had a frontage of 464.34 feet.

Caleb Warner and John Smith sold the 28 foot lot at the southwest corner of Commonwealth and Hereford on April 1, 1879, to Sumner Mead, and on the same day they sold the remaining 62.25 foot lot to the west to Frank N. Thayer and William H. Lincoln. On October 23, 1879, Frank Thayer and William Lincoln purchased the western 13.41 feet of John Worster’s lot, leaving him with a 72 foot wide lot. Frank Thayer purchased Sumner Mead’s corner lot on November 1, 1879. On March 21, 1881, Frank Thayer and William Lincoln sold the western 48 feet of their land to John W. Shapleigh, who built 318-320 Commonwealth on it. On the same day, Frank Thayer acquired William Lincoln’s interest in the remained of the land. He built 316 Commonwealth on it, leaving the corner lot vacant (316 Commonwealth subsequently was razed and 314 Commonwealth was built on the vacant lot and on the lot where 316 Commonwealth had been located).

John Worster sold his remaining lot, with a 72 foot frontage, on April 19, 1880, to George Wheatland, Jr., who built 322-324-326 Commonwealth on the land.

David Skillings sold his land between December of 1878 and January of 1880.

He sold the lots where 328-334 Commonwealth later would be built to individual purchasers, and sold the land to the west in three transactions: in March of 1879, he sold the Amory family the three lots at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue with a total frontage of 86 feet (where 362-366 Commonwealth later would be built); in October of 1879 he sold Charles Merriam a 50 foot lot in the middle of the block (where 336-338 Commonwealth later would be be built); and in January of 1880, he sold the land between Charles Merriam’s and the Amorys’ lots, with a 231 foot frontage, to Jacob Rogers.

Building contractor George Wheatland, Jr., entered into agreements with Charles Merriam and Jacob Rogers under which he constructed houses on their land at 336-360 Commonwealth and, after they were completed, purchased the land and houses from them and then resold them to individual buyers.

Evolution of the early land ownership on the south side of Commonwealth between Hereford and Massachusetts Avenue.

Building Restrictions in Original Land Deeds

Neither of the deeds from the Boston Water Power Company to David Skillings included any building restrictions, nor did the Sears Family deed to Nathan Matthews.

On December 7, 1878, David Skillings, John Worster, and Caleb H. Warner and Charles F. Smith, trustees, as owners of all of the land between Hereford and Massachusetts Avenue and between Commonwealth and Newbury, entered into an agreement establishing a uniform setback requirement comparable to the restrictions contained in the deeds from Commonwealth of Massachusetts conveying its lands on Commonwealth. The agreement specified that buildings were to be set back twenty feet from Commonwealth, but provided that doors, porticos, windows, and roof cornices were allowed to project into the reserved space with depth and dimensional limitations similar to those required by the Commonwealth deeds (as expanded upon by the regulations of the Commissioners on Public Lands). No setback requirement was established for Newbury.

The agreement also provided for the establishment of a sixteen foot wide passageway between Commonwealth and Newbury (later Alley 430).

The agreement did not include any of the other restrictions often included in deeds for Back Bay lands, such as language specifying that the buildings must be built of brick, stone, or iron; must be of a minimum height; and may not be used for livery stables nor for mechanical or manufacturing purposes.