A rare Tiffany building owned by a nonprofit may be sold

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A rare Tiffany building owned by a nonprofit may be sold
Inside the Ayer Mansion in Boston. Preservationists fear that the Ayer Mansion, a “national treasure” with landmark status, which has been painstakingly preserved, may be cut off from public access. Richard Cheek via The New York Times.

by Colin Moynihan

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A granite-faced town house in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston was designed more than 100 years ago by artist Louis Comfort Tiffany and is seen today as the most comprehensive surviving example of his residential vision.

Its pale facade, with mosaic panels set in limestone and a stained-glass window over copper-clad double doors, is one of only two exteriors known to have been designed by Tiffany and the only one that remains intact.

The interior, featuring an oval staircase and an entrance with white marble wainscoting and mosaic stair risers, is equally striking.

For decades, the building, known as the Ayer Mansion, has been owned by nonprofit organizations connected to the Roman Catholic group Opus Dei and has functioned as part of a cultural center and a residence for women attending nearby colleges. During that time, its doors have periodically been opened to the public for tours, lectures and concerts.

All that could soon change.

The mansion was recently listed for sale — along with an adjoining building — with a $22.5 million asking price. That worries some people who have worked for years to restore what they regard as a crucial monument to Tiffany’s genius.

Among them is Jeanne Pelletier, preservation adviser for the nonprofit group Campaign for the Ayer Mansion, which has raised public and private money and worked with the mansion’s owner to repair and restore some of its features. Pelletier said she and others were concerned that a sale could halt or lower the standards of those efforts and make the mansion, which is a National Historic Landmark, inaccessible to scholars and other visitors.

“Our biggest fear is that these nationally landmarked historic interiors will never be seen again by the public,” she said in an email, adding that it would be “a travesty” for the public to lose access to the building’s “museum-quality” features.

Marie Oates, a spokesperson for the Trimount Foundation, which owns the mansion and the adjoining building that make up the residence and cultural center, said the listing was for both properties and was prompted by the pandemic-induced decrease of student fees that help fund the buildings’ operation.

Trimount, along with a group that runs the residence and center, wants to see what potential buyers might emerge but would be prepared to hold onto the property if it did not receive an acceptable offer, Oates said.

Beyond that, Trimount would like to find a buyer who values the mansion’s history, Oates said, and hoped any new owner would make the premises accessible to the public, although that would be difficult to guarantee.

“We would like to give priority to a buyer or an offer where there’s going to be an interest in preserving what is a national treasure,” she said. “If we can find a buyer who is going to allow public access that would be awesome; we would be thrilled.”

Pelletier said Trimount’s director had told her that the mansion and the adjoining building could be sold separately.

Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, an expert on Tiffany who is the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang curator of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said that the Ayer house was remarkable largely because nearly all of its original elements have been preserved.

Frelinghuysen said those included the modernist entrance hall, dramatic stairway, gold mosaic ceilings, Favrile glass vases and a trompe l’oeil temple on a stair landing that combine to form a unified ensemble.

“The Ayer Mansion is an extraordinarily important surviving interior by Louis Tiffany,” she said. “It was all conceived as an entire work of art.”

The mansion was built between 1899 and 1902 for businessman and art collector Frederick Ayer, according to the Campaign for the Ayer Mansion.

Since 1964, it has been owned at different periods by two separate nonprofit organizations associated with Opus Dei, an influential group historically connected to right-wing causes that was founded on the premise that ordinary life and daily work are paths to sanctity and service to society.

The building has been used during that entire time by a third nonprofit, the Bayridge Residence and Cultural Center, which also has a connection to Opus Dei and promotes “moral and ethical integrity.”

Bayridge began a restoration effort in 1997, first hiring an architecture firm to study the mansion and prepare a preservation plan.

Since 1998, the restoration has been organized by the Campaign for the Ayer Mansion and a similarly named predecessor group, which obtained grants from the City of Boston, the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the federal Save America’s Treasures program, as well as from private foundations and donors.

With the cooperation of Trimount and Bayridge, the Ayer Mansion campaign has undertaken close to $3 million worth of interior and exterior restoration. The campaign has restored mosaic panels on the facade and repaired stained-glass screens from the mansion’s library.

It also restored a 20-foot-long Tiffany laylight above a set of marble stairs, using existing glass and replacing missing pieces with rare surviving glass from the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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