Currently hidden behind green tarps, the Tiffany mosaics displayed on they historic Ayer Mansion at 395 Commonwealth Ave. will soon be revealed after 10 years of fundraising, planning, and painstaking restoration.
The only known example of Tiffany public artwork will once again stand out amongst the brownstones along the Back Bay residential street.The scaffolding is expected to come down this week, revealing the restoration work of the mosaics.
“It is the only example of Tiffany artwork in the public realm,” said Jeanne Pelletier, preservation advisor for Campaign for the Ayer Mansion. “Most of his work you have to go inside a building to see it. This is a very unique example of Tiffany’s work that anyone can see.”
When the Ayer Mansion was completed in 1902, it caused a dramatic stir in Boston because it stood out next to Victorian brownstone and brick buildings. The Tiffany-designed-mosaic-clad white-granite and limestone facade was an exotic interloper.
Over the last 110 years, however, water infiltration and acid rain damaged — and in some cases completely destroyed — many of the facade’s colorful mosaics. The restoration worked to bring the back the mosaics as close as possible to how Tiffany originally imagined them.
“We cleaned off the pollution damage on the building,” said Pelletier. “Acid rain reacted with the limestone that made an orange and yellow wash on the building, and the restoration removed that. Since we don’t have the same types of air pollution (such as from coal) we won’t have the same accumulation in the tiles. This will probably bring us 50 to 100 years before anything else has to be done.”
Designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany for the house, and likely constructed at his facilities in New York and New Jersey, the intricate mosaics are made up of just five, different-colored stones set in more than 30 geometric designs.
You can find the mosaics in every aspect of the house – from the corbels that support the overhanging roof, to the second-floor balcony parapet wall, to the inset column above the entryway, right down to the house number at the front door.
The Campaign for the Ayer Mansion, Inc. (CAM), a non-profit, that has been carefully restoring the house since 1998, began working on the facade mosaics in 2009, when it hired the architectural firm of Goody Clancy to prepare a conditions assessment and restoration plan for each mosaic panel.
“If it was deteriorated, we want to keep the original materials as much as possible before it would be replaced,” said Pelletier. “It was the call of the conservator who went stone by stone cleaning them, sometimes using dental tools – it was a very arduous process.”
With the economic downturn, fundraising for the restoration was slow, and it wasn’t until spring 2013 that work began in earnest.
Phase I, completed in December 2013, included restoration and recreation of missing mosaics on the balcony and the upper reaches of the building, but due to lack of funds, left the entryway mosaics untouched.
In late 2017, through the George B. Henderson Foundation and a matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund, CAM was at last able to begin restoration of those final mosaics.
“We are tremendously pleased by the outcome of the project and that we were finally able to complete the work,” said Scott C. Steward, president of the campaign in a statement. “We’re particularly grateful to all our funders and supporters who made this critical work possible.”
The Ayer Mansion Facade Restoration Phase I & II were funded through the the George B. Henderson Foundation; the Massachusetts Historical Commission Preservation Projects Fund; the National Park Service, Save America’s Treasures grant program; the Browne Fund; and Bayridge Residence & Cultural Center, Inc., as well as grants from several anonymous foundations and private contributors.
Up next, the inside interior of the front entranceway needs some help after prior office tenants covered up the green marble. In addition the columns and floor tile need some help after years of people walking over them to enter the building.
“That is our next step in trying to get funding,” said Pelletier. “Especially because it is also public and visible from the street.”