Meet a Back Bay Landmark

Located on the corner of Exeter and Newbury Street, this elaborate granite and sandstone structure is a fine example of Romanesque design. Its symmetrical, clearly defined forms, thick walls, round arches, sturdy pillars, and decorative arcading are a striking contrast to the more traditional brick townhouses surrounding it. The building has had a rich, varied history as a church, a theater, a furniture store, a restaurant, a bookstore, and, most recently, a school.

The Working Union of Progressive Spiritualists, later renamed to The Spiritual Fraternity, was founded in 1883 by former wholesale grocer Marcellus Seth Ayer. Ayer presented his plans for a church, the First Spiritual Temple, to architects Hartwell and Richardson, who designed the actual building. Henry Hobson Richardson, well-known for prominent projects like Boston’s Trinity Church, Harvard University’s Sever Hall, and the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane (now known as the Richardson Olmsted Complex), completed the building in 1885. A copper time capsule was placed in the Exeter and Newbury Street cornerstone during construction. It was opened in a 1985 celebration attended by then Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, various historians, and pastors and members of the Church. The capsule contained a vial of baptismal oil, letters from the Church's founders, local newspapers, fliers and leaflets, copies of the original Church bulletin, coins, and other memorabilia. A new capsule replaced the old one, to be opened in September 2085, on the building’s 200th anniversary.

The church had a short life in its intended purpose and, in 1914, Marcellus and his wife Hattie (Dodge) Ayer turned it into a movie theater. The Exeter Street Theater was a popular movie haunt for decades until declining attendance caused it to quietly shut down in 1984. Since then, the building has housed a flurry of modern-day businesses, including Conran’s furniture store, Waterstone’s Booksellers, T.G.I. Friday’s, and technology incubator and startup studio Idealab.

In 2005, the former church-turned-theater reopened as a kindergarten and elementary school campus for the Kingsley Montessori School. Commodore Builders and Paradigm Properties transformed the 23,000 square feet on the first three floors of the building. The newly reconfigured space is a blend of beautifully preserved elements, such as the stunning stained glass windows that date back to the building’s early days, and unique modern touches, as it contains no plastic, square rooms, teacher's desks, or white walls. The building also adheres to green design principles, emphasizing state-of-the-art strategies for sustainable site development, materials, and indoor air quality. 

Source: First Spiritual Temple, Business Wire, Back Bay Houses