Only a small group of preservationists gathered on the sidewalk to watch conservators in a cherry picker gingerly pluck priceless mosaics from the balcony of a historic Commonwealth Avenue mansion. They understood the significance of what they were seeing.
Finally, one of the most historically important grand dames of Boston architecture was getting the attention she deserved. Once an imposing Moorish-style mansion, the five-story building has for years been a private, nonprofit women’s dorm called Bayridge Residence & Cultural Center, and the students who live there are getting a firsthand lesson in Boston history.
“I remember when I first moved in, I was blown away by how lovely it is,” said Rachel Fisher, a Boston University PhD student. “Honestly, it’s my house, so like any other house you get used to the features.” Still, she added: “This is no ordinary dorm.”
Indeed, historians have determined that 395 Commonwealth Ave., known as the Ayer Mansion, is the country’s sole surviving intact home designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the acclaimed decorative artist best known for his magnificent stained-glass windows and lamps, ceramics, and jewelry. Tiffany, son of the founder of Tiffany & Company jewelers and the company’s first design director, did interior design work for a variety of wealthy patrons in the late 1800s. Other homes still showcase Tiffany’s interiors — including the Mark Twain house in West Hartford — but the Ayer Mansion, completed in 1902, is the only complete work.
“This is so bloody important,” said Richard Guy Wilson of the University of Virginia School of Architecture. “It’s really one of those rare treasures.”
Still, it’s unlikely the building was seen as a treasure when construction began in 1899, according to Jeanne Pelletier, preservation adviser to the nonprofit Campaign for the Ayer Mansion. It stands in stark contrast to the traditional red-brick and sandstone homes along Commonwealth Avenue. With its Eastern Byzantine influences, it was, and still is, an anomaly in the Back Bay.
The home was commissioned by Lowell textile magnate Frederick Ayer, who’d be described at the time of his death two decades later as the region’s richest man. Ayer lived in the mansion with his second wife, Ellen Barrows Banning, a theater buff who loved the bustle of the city. Pelletier thinks the couple went with Tiffany’s unique — and uniquely conspicuous — design as a statement to Boston society.
“We think they hired Tiffany because they wanted to have something really different,” she said. “They weren’t Brahmin, and they weren’t going to fit in, so they figured they would do something cutting edge.”
The building has seen better days. The mosaics on the facade, made up of 500,000 dime-size pieces of hand-cut stone, have faded and crumbled in some areas, eroded by weather and pollution. Four of seven panels affixed to the mansion’s balcony have decayed completely and must be re-created. The once-resplendent granite and limestone exterior has dulled to the color of an ocean-tumbled seashell. Rehab to the facade alone will cost an estimated $3 million.
The interior, meanwhile, is filled with Tiffany-designed glass mosaics, bold skylights, Tiffany’s signature Favrile glass vases, custom furniture, and, of course, stunning light fixtures. Work to preserve the interior began in 2000, and the building was named a National Historic Landmark in 2005.
“Tiffany’s studio was so prolific, but I think this is unique to their overall work,” said Ivan Myjer, the Arlington-based stone and building conservator who is leading the project together with the architectural firm Goody Clancy. “The workmanship [of the exterior mosaics] is of a very, very high order.”
The undergraduate and graduate students who call the mansion home live on the upper floors, and in the adjoining building, but they freely use the historic portions of the first and second floors, albeit carefully.
The theatrical Ellen Barrows Banning would be happy to hear that the more than 50 women who live there fill the house with music and performances. Skits are acted out on the dramatic semicircular stairs under the proscenium arch where it is said Mrs. Ayer performed.
And the acoustics in the grand, tile-covered foyer are ideal for singing.
“You always hear music in the parlor,” said Bayridge resident Sara Machado, who lives in a room which was once part of the mansion’s conservatory. “There are Berklee students here. It’s such an amazing space.”
These young women feel at home, but a home that is also a National Landmark does have some minor restrictions. They avoid heavy use of the grand staircase to keep wear-and-tear to a minimum, and they are required to use sticky tacks on the wall to hang posters rather than conventional push pins.
Amazing is probably the most accurate way to describe the interior. The grand foyer features glass tile work backed by gold foil. Intricate tile work lines the floors and walls. Several stained glass windows and a massive stained glass skylight cast warm, natural light which fills the first and second floors.
After both Frederick and Ellen died in 1918, the mansion was sold and eventually divided up and leased as offices to insurance companies.
By the 1930s, Tiffany’s art nouveau work had fallen out of favor, and the insurance companies renting the space were eager to cover up the outdated details. Intricate plaster work in the drawing room and the beautiful skylight were covered up by false walls and drop ceilings so the space would look more modern.
“For so long no one knew it was there,” said Wilson, of the University of Virginia. “You go back and look at some of the architecture books of the 1960s, and it’s not even mentioned.”
Most heart-breaking for admirers of Tiffany’s work are tales of passersby stopping in and asking for light fixtures and other stained glass work from the building, and the new occupants of the building simply giving them away.
Still, covering up the detailed interior work unwittingly helped preserve it. When the drop ceilings came down in the 1990s, it was clear this was no ordinary office building. Bayridge, which has occupied the building since the early 1960s, called in experts to look at the space.
There is a long list of projects remaining, but the Campaign is currently working to preserve and conserve remaining parts of the house, such as windows made up of 10,000 pieces of tiny glass, with the money it raises through grants and donations. The public can see some of this work; tours take place the second Saturday of each month.
Visitors will also have a chance to see the restored exterior mosaics, which will be reassembled at the end of November.
“It’s something no one else has,” Pelletier said, “and that’s worth celebrating.”
Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.