Below Stairs at the Ayer Mansion

February 2, 2018
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Standing out amongst the Victorian-styled, brick row-houses in the Back Bay, the Ayer Mansion, located at 395 Commonwealth Ave., sticks out like a sore thumb with it’s white, marble exterior and mosaic stained-glass.

At a special event hosted by the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB), Jeanne Pelletier, preservation advisor for the Ayer Mansion, gave a presentation on what it was like to be a servant working in this exquisite house in the early 20th century.

In 1903, a housekeeper carefully recorded every item found in the Ayer Mansion, shortly after the Ayers family moved in. The 352-page inventory reveals a wealth of information about not only what the Ayers owned, but also about the everyday lives of those who worked for them.

“Normally people aren’t interested in knowing how the servants lived, and we typically don’t focus on them,” said Pelletier. “But we will take a look at what it was like to live ‘Below Stairs’ at the Ayer Mansion.”

The preservationists don’t have any plans for the house, because they were lost when the Boston Inspectional Service Department (ISD) throw out bins of plans without realizing it 40 to 50 years ago.

But they do have the floor plans of the A.J. Manning House, a similar house designed around the same time. In addition, they have exterior photographs that have been critical in the restoration of the façade.

The owner, Frederick Ayer, made his fortune in patent medicines and textiles and originally lived in Lowell. At the turn of the 20th century, Frederick (then in his 70s) and his second wife, Ellen Banning Ayer, marked their recent return form Europe and the Far East by commissioning Louis Comfort Tiffany to design an Art Nouveau-influenced mansion for them on upper Commonwealth Avenue.

The house was completed in 1902, and the Ayers brought their younger children, including Beatrice Banning Ayer who would become engaged to a young Army lieutenant – the future Gen. George Smith Patton Jr.

Pelletier said Ellen, who was 30 years the junior of Frederick, wanted him to move closer to work to have an easier commute. When they moved to Boston, Pelletier said they came with the attitude, “Well if we can’t join you – we’ll beat you,” which sparked the unique design behind the mansion.

The Ayer Mansion is a surviving example of the residential work of Tiffany. A master of surface ornament and color, Tiffany helped pioneer the interior design profession and revolutionize the art of stained glass. The Ayer Mansion is one of three surviving Tiffany residential commissions.

Both the interior and exterior of the Ayer Mansion were unusually progressive for turn-of-the-century Boston, and would have distinguished the Ayers from their contemporaries as forward-looking and worldly patrons.

“There are no other houses in the world designed the way this one is,” said Pelletier. “Even in our time, it sticks out.”

Through the census, Pelletier said they were able to ascertain the amount of servants at the Ayers’ Beverly summerhouse, that included two men and six women servants. With the help of the New England Historical Genealogical Society (NEGHS), they were able to track some of the servants who worked in the house.

Examples include a young woman who went back to Ireland to retrieve her younger sister and then started a boarding house in Boston, and a butler who served and died in World War II.

Through the inventory, Pelletier said they were able to figure out what kind of decorations and lifestyle the servants had when they lived there.

She noted the servants’ staircase, which, upon first look, is quite elegant looking, but must have been exhausting to climb the five-stories to the women servants’ corridor on the top floor at the end of each day.

“The basement was where the servants worked and had a long, wooden table and chairs and even a sewing machine – which is actually very similar to the way ‘Downton Abbey’ was laid out,” said Pelletier.

The kitchen was similar to the ones seen on the tours in the Breakers Mansion in Rhode Island, with a huge wood fire stove and a butler’s pantry that stored numerous sets of silverware and dishes.

“I counted 42 finger bowls just in the downstairs butler pantry,” said Pelletier.

While the main rooms were highly decorated with exotic goods from around the world, the servant’s corridor had everyday items, which could be easily bought in the U.S.

The Ayer Mansion has served numerous owners and uses since the death of Frederick and Ellen Ayer in 1918. In the 1940s, 16 spaces within the building were leased as offices. An insurance company bought the Ayer Mansion and adjacent building at 397/399 Commonwealth Ave. in 1958.

The Hearthstone Insurance Company sold the buildings in 1964 to the present owner, the Trimount Foundation and Bayridge Residence and Cultural Center.

The Bayridge Residence and Cultural Center is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing a nurturing and inspiring residence for single women attending undergraduate and graduate programs in the Boston area.

Although the insurance company and doctors’ offices occupied the space and modified many of the rooms on the upper floors, many of the original details on the first and second floors were untouched, preserving it for future restoration efforts, which Bayridge undertook in 2001.

Bayridge and its parent organization Trimount Foundation, Inc., have worked together with Campaign for the Ayer Mansion, leading the preservation and restoration efforts, and donating countless hours and funds towards the project.

As the evening concluded, many members of NABB said this was their first time here, and “We’ll have to come back for the tour.”

Tours of the Ayer Mansion are offered at least one Saturday and one Wednesday a month, and are posted two months in advance. Reservations are required for all public tours as space is limited. Visit ayermansion.org for more information.

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