Real Estate News

A renovation brought this Back Bay building back to its stately, classical self

The buildings at 7 and 9 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay, just steps from the Public Garden, were built as mirror images of each other in 1861.

Except for the color, the pilasters flanking the balustrade are an exact replica of the pilaster on No. 7 to its right. Peter Vanderwarker

They started out as identical twins. The buildings at 7 and 9 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay, just steps from the Public Garden, were built as mirror images of each other in 1861. Both five-story residences flashed copper-colored braided roping on the scalloped slate of their mansard roofs, intricately carved capitals atop pilasters flanking the two front doors, ornate iron grillwork, and stone balustrades. All came together against a backdrop of exceptional Nova Scotia limestone.

Fast-forward to 1937, when the family that had owned the house at 9 Commonwealth Avenue since 1870 sold the building and a real estate company turned the private house into a 13-unit apartment building. Out went the beautifully crafted mansard roof, the ornate entryway featuring exquisitely wrought details in stone and metal, and the now-extinct Nova Scotia limestone, which was replaced by brick and precast concrete. Additionally, seven stories were squeezed into what had been five, with ceiling heights lowered to accommodate the extra floors. The result was a building fabricated of undistinguished materials with an underscaled entryway and awkward window proportions, unfortunate changes in a neighborhood of architectural trophies.


“The structure … was a much despised eyesore” with “tiny windows now out of alignment and scale with the neighbors” and a “ridiculously high elevator head house” that stuck up incongruously from the roofline, says architect John Meyer, principal of Meyer & Meyer Architecture and Interiors, whose office is also on Commonwealth Avenue.

Architectural legerdemain visually reunified 9 Commonwealth Avenue with the building next door. – Peter Vanderwarker

Happily for Meyer, he was brought in to redesign the building’s facade as well as its interior in 2013, when developers Michael Durand and Kevin Ahearn applied for permission to remodel the property. “It’s the rarest of all opportunities:  to be able to do what is essentially a brand new building on the first block of Commonwealth Avenue,” says the architect.

The trickiest part of the process was not winning the necessary approvals from the Back Bay Architectural Commission or Boston’s Inspectional Services Department — both entities were glad for the promise of having the building returned to its former glory — it was producing an aesthetically spectacular building for what Meyer calls a “no-nonsense developer” on a 16-month construction schedule. As such, says Meyer, “we were always fighting a tactical battle to see how much we could get for what we had to work with.”


What his team got is nothing short of magnificent.

The mansard roof was restored with scalloped slate and copper-colored roping. The iron grillwork, the balustrade, and the intricately carved stone capitals all are back, with some added flourishes for effect, including carved panels below some of the building’s windows and a new elevator tower that is considerably shorter and less visible from the street.

The staircase at 9 Commonwealth Avenue was not replaced, but the new balustrade and fanlight above the existing entry help reinforce the similarities with the building next door. – Peter Vanderwarker

The result is more a fraternal than identical twin to number 7. (The new version of the old building, which houses six residential units, including a two-story penthouse, remains seven stories.) Still, at first glance, the two buildings look enough alike to intrigue and delight the eye.   

Consider that Meyer elongated the windows on the middle floors to give the effect of fewer stories. By using newer, thinner materials to reinforce floors and ceilings, he was able to restore much of the original height to each story. The front exterior staircase was not replaced, but a new balustrade handsomely reinstates some of the staircase’s anchoring heft. On the upper floors, cornices and other architectural details from 7 Commonwealth were visually continued, creating a horizontal banding of sorts that further unifies the buildings. Both front doors now have a fan of intricately carved wrought iron over them and detailed pilasters are back in place.


“We had to confuse things just enough so that you couldn’t really get a grip on the differences between the two buildings,” Meyer says. The complex exterior aiding the illusion that the buildings are basically the same couldn’t be “so busy that it gets noisy,” he adds.

The “balance between budget and intention,” says Meyer, did necessitate certain sleights of hand. For example, the braided rope on the roof, the beautiful “limestone” panels under one set of windows, and “bronze” panels under another are all made of cast resin.

An earlier renovation had stripped the house of its 1861 detail and charm. – Peter Vanderwarker

In addition, says Meyer & Meyer project manager Nancy Sadecki, “John pulled in a lot of favors with his artisan friends.” The intricate wrought-iron work, the painting of the gold-leaf  “9” on the pendant light at the building’s front door, and other finely crafted details happened in part because of talented people’s good will toward the architect.

Instead of extinct Nova Scotia limestone, Meyer used a creamy Fine Buff limestone from Vermont. Since the color didn’t exactly match, he reasoned, “if we miss, let’s miss on the light side. That’ll be the prettiest way to go.”

The wrought-iron fan above the doorway is also not an exact match for the one next door, nor are the balusters underlining the third-story windows, but the differences are so subtle that they go unnoticed at first (or at all), and such necessary edits and judgment calls actually add visual interest that piques the imagination rather than overwhelms it.


It’s not just the architect, the developers, the Back Bay Architectural Commission, and the City of Boston that like the new look. Neighbors do, too. The Reverend Barbara Nielsen, who lives next door at number 11, says, “The place was very institutional, very drab.” Now “it’s much better.” She’s happy, too, that the look is more in keeping with that of the other buildings on lower Commonwealth Avenue. After all, she says, “this is a neighborhood. It may not look like it, but it is.”

The ornamental braided roping on the restored mansard roof is made of cast resin instead of the original wood detail, which remains on the neighboring building. The crown of intricate wrought iron stretches across both rooftops, further unifying the two buildings. – Peter Vanderwarker


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