BLC Approves Further Study of Petition to Landmark Interior Sections of the Back Bay’s Ayer Mansion

The Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) voted to accept for further study the petition to landmark sections of the interior of the Ayer Mansion, located at 395 Commonwealth Ave. in the Back Bay.

Jeanne Pelletier, the preservation advisor to the Campaign for the Ayer Mansion, said she submitted this petition to the BLC “solely as an individual.”

She said to the BLC, “we are requesting that the interior of the Ayer Mansion be landmarked to ensure its protection.”

Currently, the exterior of the building is protected as it is located in the the Back Bay Archi-tectural District

The building was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, an artist famed for his stained glass art, as well as vases and lamps.

“Very few people know that he pioneered the profession of interior design,” Pelletier said. “He student art as a young man and traveled through northern Africa and Spain.”

She said that early on, he focused on “embellishing existing interiors,” but “as he got more ambitious, he took on more interior design and architectural work.”

Pelletier also said that many interiors designed by Tiffany no longer exist, and she said that his “masterpiece,” a mansion on Long Island named Laurelton Hall, burned down in 1957.

“The only surviving parts of that house can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Morse Museum in Florida,” Pelletier said. “The only surviving intact residen-tial commission in the united States, actually in the world, is the Ayer Mansion at 395 Comm. Ave.”

She said that both the interior and the exterior of the house are still “intact,” and the house was built in 1902 for Frederick Ayer, who worked in patent medicine, and his wife, Ellen Ban-ning Ayer, who was an actress in Boston.

“The house from the get-go was really quite dramatic and was totally different from any other architecture going on in Boston at the time,” Pelletier said. The house is “clad in really striking granite and limestone detailing,” she added, and includes mosaic designs on the facade of the building and on the interior as well.

She described some of the patterns and designs, saying that the copper clad wooden doors also feature the Tiffany glass designs, and are in the process of being restored as part of the ongoing facade restoration.

Pelletier also explained that Tiffany designed all of the mansion’s lighting as well. She also spoke about an inventory of the house that includes some of the features and the way Tiffany decorated the house.

She said the landing is an area that “we’d like to see protected,” and would like the inside and the outside of the building to continue “working in concert” with additional protection.

During the public comment period, Irene Dorgan, Director of the Campaign for the Ayer Man-sion, said that “this is news to the board,” and they were not aware of the petition being sub-mitted to the BLC.

Stephanie O’Neill, Treasurer and Clerk for the Campaign for the Ayer Mansion, added that “it is not the intention of the Campaign to landmark the interior,” and reiterated that there was no knowledge if the submission of the petition by the board. 

Tona Varela, Vice President of the Trimount Foundation, the owner of the building, said that the building has been used for student housing “for several decades.” She added that it is “an absolutely stunning building,” and the Trimount Foundation has worked with the Campaign for the Ayer Mansion on the restoration work for portions of the publicly accessible area within the mansion.

“We signed the preservation agreement,” she added, and “I would like to understand as the owner of the building what is being proposed. What are the consequences of this petition?”

BLC Chair Lynn Smiledge said that “this petition is to landmark certain elements of the interior that I think are delineated in the petition.” She explained the steps that would follow an ap-proval to further study the petition.

First, a study report would be created, “which is a comprehensive kind of report or assess-ment on the interior only,” which will be made publicly available.

“Ultimately, at a subsequent meeting should the Commission vote to landmark the interior, this means that any changes to the interior; portions that had been designated would be sub-ject to design review by this body.”

Marie Oates, who said she works with Varela and also started the Campaign for the Ayer Mansion in 1997 and hired Jeanna Pelletier, said that she is “a little stunned” to see this peti-tion put forth, and that she believes this is a “conflict of interest” for Pelletier.

Smiledge said that it is “not at all uncommon; for a petition to be submitted to the BLC “with-out the participation of the building owner,” and said that this is an issue that is outside of the BLC’s purview, reiterating that submitting the petition is “the first step in a process.”

Greg Galer of the Boston Preservation Alliance also spoke, saying that “the bar is relatively low to accept the petition.” He added that “I don’t think there’s any doubt about the significance of this building.”

The BLC voted to accept the petition for further study for pieces of the building’s interior.

Following the news of the vote, Elliott Laffer, Chair of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB), told the Sun that “we’re very pleased and we hope that everything succeeds …and the building is preserved and that everybody ends up thrilled.” He also said that NABB hopes that “some degree of public access to the interior” will remain.

Though it was not the focus of this BLC hearing, a recent New York Times article also outlined the possibility of the Ayer Mansion being sold.

The article reported that the Ayer Mansion and an “adjoining building” are listed for sale for $22.5 million, and that the Trimount Foundation is in search of a purchaser who will respect the history of the building. The article added that the Trimount Foundation “would be prepared to hold onto the property if it did not receive an offer it was pleased with.”

Suzanne Letso, who lives two doors down from the mansion, told the Sun in an email that she does not believe the building was properly cared for by the owners prior to the Trimount Foundation.

“The current owners have done some restoration but I fear that if it isn’t protected now then the next owners will again not care for the property, and won’t retain the one-of-a-kind fea-tures of the building,” she said. “The building is actively on the market and from what I have heard, it is most likely to sell to a private company for redevelopment into condos. While a designation as a historical site will not prevent that from happening, or enable the general pub-lic to enjoy the fabulous interior, at least this could keep the property from being renovated in a way that does not preserve the unique features of the mansion. Ideally, someone will buy it who will turn it into a proper museum.”

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