It was said that men who came face-to-face with the Tiffany Chapel at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (a.k.a. the World’s Columbian Exposition) doffed their hats in reverence. Whether the chapel’s mosaic columns and stained glass windows had that effect on Frederick Ayer is unknown, but his wife Ellie–a famed horticulturalist in the Boston area–undoubtedly would have been equally impressed with Tiffany’s ability to showcase the diverse flora of the United States in a vase. The Magnolia Vase, also shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition, depicted pinecones and needles to symbolize the North and East, cacti to symbolize the Southwest, and magnolias to symbolize the South and West.
When the Ayers moved from Lowell to Boston at the turn of the century, they commissioned Alfred John Manning and Louis Comfort Tiffany to build their dream home at 395 Commonwealth Avenue. Neither Frederick nor Ellie “made any pretense of being ‘Proper Bostonians,’” and the five-story mansion was a slap in the face of the Boston Brahmins, the traditional upper class who ruled Commonwealth Avenue. The home was “unusually progressive for turn-of-the-century Boston,” not surprising since Frederick’s “thoughts were always of the future.” Commissioning Manning and Tiffany to build an Art Nouveau-influenced home inspired by the family’s recent travels to Europe and the Orient came as easy to him as investing in Alexander Bell’s telephone and the New York subway.
The Ayer-Tiffany Mansion lies west of Massachusetts Avenue, and its white-marbled exterior with colorful mosaics and stained glass windows still stands out among the red brick townhouses prevalent along Commonwealth Avenue. Tiffany specified almost every detail of the house, from walls to light fixtures, and even designed custom furniture. His favorite motif throughout the house was the lotus, a detail that blended well with the Ayers’ exotic decorations they brought back from their grand tour. Ellie’s style and personality were reflected throughout the house, nowhere more so than in the foyer staircase, which doubled as a stage. The wall was a mosaic trompe l’oeil of an ancient Greek temple, the columns “composed of semi-transparent glass backed by gold foil.”
Forty-three years later–on the day General Patton returned victorious from the war in Europe and Boston welcomed him as a hero–Beatrice Ayer Patton’s mind filled with memories as the motorcade drove by 395 Commonwealth Avenue. Her family had sold the home a long time ago, but the memories remained: the living room with the grand piano she played with remarkable skill; the foyer, which acted like a stage; the library where George had finally admitted his love; and the third-floor bedroom in which she had locked herself when her father was reluctant to give his permission to marry.