Some Back Bay houses

121-129 Commonwealth Avenue, ca. 1875, viewed from the steeple of the Brattle Street Church. (The house into which the family moved in 1922 was just around the corner on Dartmouth Street.) Courtesy of the Print Department, Boston Public Library

When my grandmother[1] was a girl, she could walk down the front steps of her parents’ house in Boston and along Commonwealth Avenue into the houses of her paternal grandparents and her father’s sisters nearby. Using the Back Bay Houses database, I can trace the staggered arrivals of her father’s family in Boston; in the process, I find I’m encountering a number of family and contemporary friends.

My great-grandfather[2] seems to have been the first member of the Ayer family to move to Boston, soon after his graduation from Harvard in 1887. Next came his father (my great-great-grandfather) and stepmother, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Ayer of Lowell,[3] who rented 232 Beacon Street in 1899-1900[4] while building their new house at 395 Commonwealth Avenue.[5] The family[6] was occupying the house by the end of 1900, although it appears that work continued for sometime thereafter.

A fanciful Christmas card from the 1950s, when the Hearthstone Insurance Company had its headquarters at 395 Commonwealth Avenue. Courtesy of Helen and Dante “Joe” Balboni

My great-great-aunt,[7] Frederick Ayer’s eldest daughter, was then living in Andover, but in February 1900 she bought a house (since demolished) at 100 Beacon Street.[8] Perhaps the comparative conventionality of the Beacon Street house did not appeal to the Woods, as Aunt Ellen bought the “modern Gothic” house at 21 Fairfield Street in June 1903 and lived there for the next quarter-century.

After their marriage in 1904, my great-grandparents lived at 161 Bay State Road, at some remove from the Ayers on Commonwealth Avenue and the Woods on Fairfield Street. (Perhaps the house combined a city address with quick access to the countryside – hard to imagine today!) In May 1906, my great-grandfather bought 127 Commonwealth Avenue, two blocks from the Woods and several blocks away from his father’s house.

I am struck by the list of owners at 127 Commonwealth, as several of them are mentioned in the Gray diary. The land on which the house stood was purchased by Harriet and Elizabeth Chipman Gray, Regina Shober Gray’s husband’s first cousins, but they – like others in the volatile Boston real estate market – quickly sold the land to George Langdon Pratt and his wife Sarah Motley Weld, daughter (and step-daughter) of Mrs. Gray’s near neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. William Fletcher Weld, who then built a house. (For another mention of the Welds, see yesterday’s blog post.) The Pratts’ granddaughter Mrs. James Lawrence and the next owners (Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Tucker Burr) were family friends of my grandparents’ generation.

315 Dartmouth Street, at the corner of Marlborough Street. Courtesy of Back Bay Houses

My grandmother and her sister were brought up at 127 Commonwealth Avenue, but in April 1922 their parents bought an even more storied house, around the corner, at 315 Dartmouth Street. The house was built for Mr. and Mrs. Hollis Hunnewell in 1870 and later owned by the Hunnewells’ son and his wife. It then passed to T. Jefferson Coolidge, Thomas Jefferson’s great-grandson and a former U.S. Minister to France – where he had befriended Frederick Ayer’s sister-in-law, Mrs. J. C. Ayer,[9] an eye-catching member of the American colony in Paris.[10] Mr. Coolidge died in 1920, and the Ayers – with two daughters to introduce to society – bought the Dartmouth Street house for its entertaining possibilities. (My grandfather was at one time a trustee of the real estate trust which sold the house in 1951.)

Nearby, on Gloucester Street, Ellen Wood and Chilly Ayer’s sister[11] and brother-in-law had first rented 11 Gloucester Street during the 1903-4 season. The Gordons liked their rented house so much they bought its mirror twin, 9 Gloucester Street, from the estate of J. Montgomery Sears[12] in August 1907. (One attractive feature of the new house was its placement on the corner of Marlborough Street, giving it a range of windows and a garden on one side.)

9 and 11 Gloucester Street. Courtesy of Back Bay Houses

Aunt Louise and Uncle Donald moved to Lincoln in 1915, but for a number of years there were four family households in Boston: the Chilly Ayers on Commonwealth near Dartmouth, the Woods on Fairfield and Commonwealth, the Gordons at Gloucester and Marlborough (one block in from Commonwealth Avenue), and the Frederick Ayers on Commonwealth, in the block between Massachusetts Avenue and Charlesgate East.[13]

My great-aunt’s[14] diary describes an idyllic, quasi-rural childhood in Back Bay, driving a pony cart to and from Miss Winsor’s School in the Fenway accompanied by a footman (to return the cart in school hours). Another family story concerns Frederick Ayer’s concern about his granddaughters’ backs being weakened by riding side saddle – a problem he addressed by buying his granddaughters left- and right-facing side saddles, to be used on alternating rides. It makes a quaint picture: Frederick, already over 90 years of age, riding sedately with his grandchildren along an unpaved Commonwealth Avenue, only occasionally bothered by a passing automobile!

Continued here.


[1] Anne Beekman Ayer (1908-1947) married Gilbert Livingston Steward in 1927.

[2] Charles Fanning Ayer (1865-1956) was married to Theodora Ilsley 1904-45 and to Anne Phillips in 1946.

[3] Frederick Ayer (1822-1918) was married to Cornelia Wheaton 1858-78 and to Ellen Barrows Banning in 1884.

[4] After the Ayers rented 232 Beacon Street, the house was owned by Richard Dudley Sears and his wife Eleanor Mary Cochrane 1901-49. Members of the Ayer and Sears families were friends on the North Shore of Boston, although I’m not sure anyone made this particular connection.

[5] The house is the last surviving domestic commission designed in consultation with Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933); a restoration effort focused on the Tiffany features (and encompassing further engagement with the building’s fabric) is under way.

[6] Presumably including my great-grandfather as well as his half-siblings Beatrice Banning Ayer (1886-1953), who was married to General George Smith Patton Jr. 1910-45; Frederick Ayer (1888-1969), who married Hilda Proctor Rice in 1914; and Mary Katharine Ayer (1890-1981), who was married to Keith Merrill 1917-59.

[7] Ellen Wheaton Ayer (1859-1951) was married to William Madison Wood 1888-1926.

[8] Aunt Ellen sold the house to William Stuart Spaulding and Dudley Leavitt Pickman in 1901. Her niece, Hilda Rice Ayer, would marry Mr. Spaulding’s great-nephew John Spaulding King in 1948.

[9] Josephine Mellen Southwick (1827-1898) was married to Dr. James Cook Ayer 1850-78.

[10] Scott C. Steward, The Sarsaparilla Kings: A Biography of Dr. James Cook Ayer and Frederick Ayer, with a record of their family (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 33-34.

[11] Louise Raynor Ayer (1876-1955) was married to Donald Gordon 1900-23 and to Conrad Perkins Hatheway 1925-37.

[12] I grew up with several members of this family in Southborough, Massachusetts.

[13] The eldest Ayer son, Dr. James Cook Ayer (1862-1939), who married May Hancock Boyd in 1907, lived in New York.

[14] Theodora Ayer (1905-1996) was married to Robert Winthrop 1928-42 and Dr. Archibald Cary Randolph 1942-60.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

5 thoughts on “Some Back Bay houses

  1. I used parts of the Back Bay Houses website recently. It is great if you have a result there. Unfortunately for me it was only for siblings/cousins of my ancestry line. But it added a good deal to my limited knowledge of them.

    I also enjoyed the irony of seeing relatives on one ancestry line buying property built as investment property for a later employer of an ancestor on a different line, when the two lines connected in another state.

  2. Scott – what a great source of information. Our families tread the same sidewalks. My family genealogy lists 19, 146, 291, 287, 303 and 379 Commonwealth along with 41 Chestnut and 36 Beacon Street (previous generation). And the pictures are great too.

  3. Several years ago I visited Boston and used the Back Bay Houses website to walk by some of the houses on Commonwealth, Fairfield, Newbury and Beacon streets that my Great Grandfather, George Alden Avery, was the architect for and his father Alden Avery was the builder.

  4. Scott, I really enjoyed this post!! My 3x great-grandfather, Elias Gilbert Merwin (1821-1891) and his wife Anne Childs Merwin (1819-1891) built and lived at 126 Commonwealth Avenue from about 1872 until his death in March 1891 and her death in December 1891. A short biographical history is documented at this link:

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