The History of the Ayer Mansion:

A Rare Surviving Tiffany Gem

T​he Ayer Mansion at 395 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts is a rare surviving example of the residential work of artist Louis Comfort Tiffany. A master of surface ornament and color, Tiffany helped pioneer the interior design profession and revolutionize the art of stained glass. He was the "most fashionable purveyor of taste" during America's Gilded Age at the turn of the twentieth century. His influence extended beyond the American home, to every type of public and private institution. It also reached beyond the United States to Europe where he was praised for his "dumbfounding versatility."

 

The Ayer Mansion is one of only three surviving Tiffany intact residential commissions, which include the interiors of the Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) House in Hartford, Connecticut (1881) and the Pierre Ferry House in Seattle, Washington (1903–1906), both of which are actually redesigns by Tiffany.  The Ayer Mansion stands alone as the sole example of a house designed from its inception by the artist.

 

The Ayer Mansion also displays the only known example of surviving Tiffany exterior decoration in situ. While Tiffany is known to have designed dozens of interiors during his 50-year career, he rarely undertook exterior ornamentation. His own house, Laurelton Hall in Oyster Bay, Long Island and the Ayer Mansion are the only two known exceptions. Of these two, only the Ayer Mansion survives intact; Laurelton Hall burned to the ground in the 1950s and individual components of its exterior can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida.

 

The Ayer Mansion exemplifies several of Tiffany's innovative contributions to American design. The façade and entrance hall comprise a coherent, integrated composition. This continuity of design resulted in a total, unified work of art, a concept that "Tiffany heralded in America." Within the composition, Tiffany included art glass and mosaic surfaces using convention-breaking techniques and materials pioneered decades earlier by Tiffany himself. For example, the interior includes opalescent glass, semi-transparent glass backed by metallic foil, and "plated" surfaces.

 

In addition to founding the interior design profession, Tiffany also established and popularized new tastes for interior spaces. In the 1870s, influenced by his own extended travel, he and his fellow Associated Artists helped create widespread interest in Orientalism: the art of Persia, India, Byzantium, Japan, and North Africa. The art of the East remained a dominant influence in his designs throughout his career. At the Ayer Mansion, austere architectural forms and smooth surfaces provide a foil for the rich Near Eastern patterns and color combinations and for his experimental glass.

 

Both the exterior and interior 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. The street elevation of the light-colored granite-faced house, with its smooth, flat surfaces ornamented by bands of mosaic panels set in limestone, introduced a modernizing aesthetic to Boston's Back Bay. The Back Bay, an area studied by Bainbridge Bunting, contained "after 1895 only one large… house, 395 Commonwealth Avenue,… built in a nonhistoric style." Architectural historian Douglass Shand-Tucci also concluded that the building was the first in the area to display "progressive" tendencies. The austere, white form, with smooth surfaces punctuated by windows devoid of surrounds, but accented with mosaics of brilliant color, resembles more closely designs by Joseph Olbrich in Austria and Germany or Charles H. Townsend in England than anything in Boston at the time.

 

In the entrance hall of the Ayer Mansion, Tiffany combines mosaics and art glass to transform an ordinary hall into a sumptuous, luminous stage set, intended for amateur theatricals. Although Tiffany’s firm employed dozens of craftsmen and designers, Tiffany himself remained very much involved in the conceptual design and in design review. As in his earliest work, the artist had a hand in each component as well as in the overall composition. Visitors to the Ayer Mansion entrance hall are surrounded by what Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum, has described as "a visual feast of color, light and texture."

 

The Ayer Mansion entrance hall, with its white marble wainscoting, mosaic stair risers, and glass mosaics in the apse-like stair, recalls Tiffany's famous chapel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Originally intended as an advertisement for his mosaic glass work, Tiffany "came to regard (the chapel) as his artistic chef d'ouvre." This chapel, seen by 1.4 million visitors and awarded 54 medals, was the "pinnacle of his work" in the genre of mosaic. Some of the chapel elements are on display at the Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida. At the Ayer Mansion, a comparable interior can be experienced in its entirety.

 

Tiffany's daring experiments in glass technologies and materials beginning in the 1870s resulted in entirely new products that revolutionized the glass industry in the Western world. His opalescent glass, patented by 1881 and utilized in the Ayer Mansion "proved to be among the most important advances in decorative windows since the Middle Ages." The mosaics of the apse-like stair opening are composed of semitransparent glass backed by gold foil to reflect light. The iridescent effects created by Tiffany in a similar commission proved to a contemporary critic that "a Yankee brain can outdo nature." The three-dimensional effect of the tromp l'oeil temple on the stair landing was created through Tiffany's characteristic use of "plating" or layering clear and opaque glasses to add depth of color and three dimensionality. The adjoining columns, raised on a slightly projecting plane, further add to the optical illusion.

 

Two contemporary sources link Louis Comfort Tiffany to the design of the Ayer Mansion. American Architect and Building News illustrated the newly-completed house in December 21, 1901, and described Tiffany's involvement. "In carrying out his design, the architect [the little known A.J. Manning] had the benefit of association with Mr. Louis Comfort Tiffany, who designed the exterior mosaic-work, which makes the house so notable on a Boston street, as well as decorated the interesting main staircase…" Secondly, a sketch titled "Smoking Room at the Ayer Mansion, Boston," and owned by an Ayer descendant is signed by Rene de Quelin, Tiffany's head designer. The Turkish Smoking Room is reminiscent of Tiffany's own studio, now destroyed. It is not known whether the smoking room was ever built, but architectural remnants suggests that it may have been.

 

The New York architect of the Ayer Mansion to which American Architect and Building News and the building permit refer was A.J. Manning, about whom little is known. Manning worked for New York architect Robert H. Robertson beginning in 1884, and became his partner, head draftsman, and office manager in 1887. About 1900, when the Ayer Mansion was designed, Manning broke from Robertson and practiced independently in New York until 1914. His association with Tiffany may have begun while in the office with his mentor. During the 1870s, Robertson worked in the firms of George B. Post, Edward T. Potter, and William A. Potter. Post and the Potters were frequent collaborators with L.C. Tiffany. While Manning went on to design a handful of residential and municipal buildings, they never showed any of the modernism or exotic influences seen at the Ayer Mansion, suggesting that Tiffany played a lead role in the Ayer Mansion commission.

 

The patrons Frederick and Ellen Banning Ayer were also undoubtedly involved in the decision to hire Louis Comfort Tiffany. Frederick (1822–1918) had amassed a fortune over a long and varied career as a businessman and investor in patent medicine, dry goods, textiles, railroads, canals, and real estate. While Mr. Ayer’s office was in Boston, he lived in Lowell. Soon after marrying his second wife, Ellen, who was nearly 30 years his junior, Frederick, his wife, and four of their children took an extended trip to Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. A 1903 inventory of the Ayer Mansion suggests that the Ayers collected exotic furnishings and decorative arts during this trip between 1896 and 1898.

 

In April 1899, soon after returning from their trip, the Ayers purchased three lots on Commonwealth Avenue. The decision to relocate from Lowell to Boston may have been made while abroad. By December 1899 they commissioned Manning—who had already worked with Frederick on several manufacturing facilities—to design the house and filed a building permit for 395 Commonwealth Avenue. In planning their new Boston home, the Ayers may well have desired an appropriate setting for their new, exotic purchases. Tiffany, who was well known for his “orientalizing” interior designs, would have been the logical choice to create such a setting.

 

According to his reminiscences, Mr. Ayer personally "devoted much time to the planning of all details (of the mansion). As a result, the construction and equipment of the house was practically perfect, though the architectural results were a disappointment to him." One senses that his second wife Ellen Ayer, who was a trained actress and fond of travel, and was still a young woman in her early 40s, was also quite influential in the decision-making. She may well have advocated for the trip abroad, relocating to Boston, and for the oriental theme and theatrical setting of the entrance hall at 395 Commonwealth Avenue.

 

The Ayer Mansion has served numerous owners and uses since the death of Frederick and Ellen Ayer in 1918. In the 1940s, sixteen spaces within the building were leased as offices. The Ayer Mansion and adjacent building at 397/399 Commonwealth Avenue were bought by an insurance company in 1958. The Hearthstone Insurance Company sold the buildings in 1964 to the present owner, the Trimount Foundation and Bayridge Residence and Cultural Center.

PHOTO: PAUL SANTOS

PHOTO: DAMIANOS PHOTOGRAPHY

PHOTO: PAUL SANTOS

PHOTO: RICHARD CHEEK

PHOTO: RICHARD CHEEK

PHOTO: RICHARD CHEEK

PHOTO: RICHARD CHEEK

PHOTO: PAUL SANTOS

The Ayer Family

​Although Frederick Ayer ultimately made his fortune in patent medicines and textiles (as well as in mining and real estate), as a young man sleeping under the counter of a drygoods store in Baldwinsville, New York, he dreamed of becoming a jockey. With his brother, the flamboyant Dr. J. C. Ayer, Frederick pioneered new marketing strategies to promote the Ayers’ patent medicines, which included Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral, Sarsaparilla, and Ague Cure. At a later stage, with his son-in-law William M. Wood, Frederick helped create the “woolen trust”: their American Woolen Company had the exclusive rights to produce fabric for the U.S. Army’s uniforms from the Spanish-American War through the Korean Conflict.

 

At the turn of the twentieth century, Frederick (then in his 70s) and his second wife, Ellen Banning Ayer (1853-1918), marked their recent return from Europe and the Far East by commissioning architect AJ Manning and artist Louis Comfort Tiffany to design an Art Nouveau-influenced mansion for them on upper Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. To this house, completed in 1902, the Ayers brought their younger children, including Beatrice Banning Ayer (1886-1953), who would become engaged to a young Army lieutenant – the future General George Smith Patton, Jr. – in the library of 395 Commonwealth Avenue in December 1909. 

 

In 1918, both Frederick and Ellen died, and the house was sold out of the estate in 1924.

Frederick Ayer (1822-1918)

​Ellen Barrows Banning Ayer (1853-1918)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

American Architect and Building News 74 (December 21, 1901): 94.

​Ayer, Frederick, The Reminiscences of Frederick Ayer, Boston: Privately Published, 1923.

​Bunting Bainbridge, Houses of Boston's Back Bay: An Architectural History, 1840 – 1917, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, MA, 1967.

​De Kay, Charles. The Art Work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1914. Poughkeepsie, NY, 1987.

​Duncan, Alistair, Martin Eidelberg and Neil Harris. Masterworks of L.C. Tiffany. New York: Abrams, 1989.

​Faude, Wilson H. "Associated Artists and the American Renaissance in the Decorative Arts." Winterthur Portfolio 10 (1975) 101–130.

​Frelinghuysen, Alice Cooney. “Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Metropolitan Museum of Art." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 56 (Summer 1998): 3–100.

​"Inventory of Household Effects of the Residence of Frederick Ayer, Esq. 395 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Mass. June 1, 1903."

​Jean Carroon Architects, Inc. “Ayer Mansion Comprehensive Assessment, April 1999.”

Koch, Robert. Louis Comfort Tiffany: Rebel in Glass. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1965.

​Maxwell, Rollins. "The Interiors of Louis Comfort Tiffany." Social Register Observer (Summer 1999): 42–48.

​Mayer, Roberta A. and Carolyn K. Lane. "Disassociating the 'Associated Artists': The Early Business Ventures of Louis C. Tiffany, Candace T. Wheeler, and Lockwood de Forest. Studies in Decorative Arts 8 (Spring/Summer, 2001): 2–36.

​L.C. Tiffany: Masterwerke des Americkanschen Jungendstils. Koln: Dumont, 1999.

​Shand-Tucci, Douglas. Built in Boston City and Suburb, 1800–1950. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1978.

​Steward, Scott C. The Sarsaparilla Kings: A Biography of Dr. James Cook Ayer and Frederick Ayer with a Record of their Family. Cambridge, MA, 1993.

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