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Tiffany mansion a jewel in the Back Bay

Committee works to restore Ayer home

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / June 19, 2010

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Frederick Ayer wasn’t like other Bostonians. He was not even from the city.

But when the Lowell tycoon decided to build his Commonwealth Avenue home at the turn of the 1900s, he wanted to let the other Back Bay residents know that he had arrived.

The Ayer mansion sits today in a nook on Commonwealth Avenue, near Massachusetts Avenue. It is believed to be the only surviving residential property designed entirely by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Art Nouveau titan.

Tiffany gave the Ayers a five-story house in a design different from what Boston had ever seen. Its limestone and granite facade stood in stark contrast to the brownstones that lined the avenue. Mosaic tiles with Moorish influences popped with color. Inside, a grand hall features a rounded staircase and an archway of lights.

“Like others who acquired some wealth and sophistication, the Ayers were eager to join the party,’’ said William S. Young, senior preservation planner for the city. “This was their gesture to say that they had arrived.’’

The Ayer mansion has been a source of intrigue and fascination for scholars, preservationists, and descendants of the Ayer family who have worked to restore the house and revive the Tiffany legacy. Now, a group called the Campaign for the Ayer Mansion is raising money to repair its façade, including stabilizing the balcony and the mosaic tiles that have been decaying and falling down.

Ayer made his fortune in patent medicines and textiles. A wealthy man by age 61, he picked the Back Bay as home for his second wife Ellen, who was 30 years his junior. The two had just completed a tour of Europe and the Far East when Ayer commissioned Tiffany in 1899 to design a place to display the artwork and furnishings they collected on their world trip.

At the time, Tiffany was in high demand and had crafted decorations for Mark Twain’s home and the White House.

“He had an impressive dossier,’’ said Arlie Sulka, a Tiffany expert and dealer in New York.

Ayer was probably impressed with Tiffany’s experiments with colors and geometric patterns that Tiffany had seen on travels across Africa and Asia.

The Back Bay, accustomed to identical traditional brownstones, must have been stunned by his creation. While the rest of the buildings then and now had Northern Europe influences, the Islamic geometric patterns were “pretty novel,’’ said Young.

The house was indeed a showpiece. Ellen Ayer gave recitals and theatrical performances in the main hall. There was a smoking room and a grand parlor. In the library, the future General George Patton proposed to one of Ayer’s daughters.

After the Ayers died in 1918 — Frederick died first, then Ellen three weeks later — the mansion was sold in 1924 and converted to an office for dentists. It was sold again after that and for many years was an insurance company, which used drop ceilings and walls to cover up remnants of the house’s past life.

The Bayridge Residence and Cultural Center, a home for women who attend area colleges, has been leasing the mansion since the 1960s. But 15 years ago, the heating and air condition system malfunctioned, inadvertently opening a window on the legacy of the house.

As crews began repairing the water damage, it dawned on preservationists and descendents of the Ayer family that there was more to uncover about the house. They formed a committee to raise money to restore it and began crafting the house after a picture of a parlor provided by a great-granddaughter of Frederick Ayer.

“This house was sort of the unknown to the Tiffany scholars, and it was largely unknown to the architectural scholars in Boston,’’ said Scott Steward, a great-great-grandson of Ayer and president of the restoration campaign. “It couldn’t have been more obvious on Commonwealth Avenue, but no one noticed it.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.

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