Armory of the First Corps of Cadets, Boston

The armory at the corner of Arlington Street and Columbus Avenue in Boston, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

Mixed in with modern high-rise buildings, this building looks more like it belongs in medieval Europe than in Boston, but it once served an important role in the city’s history.  It was one of many National Guard armories built across the state in the late 1800s, and it bears some resemblance to Springfield’s state armory, which was built around the same time.  The Armory of the First Corps of Cadets was built between 1891 and 1897, and like many other prominent civic buildings in late 19th century Boston it was designed by William Gibbons Preston, whose other works included Mechanics Hall and the Museum of Natural History.  Although the castle-like building seems somewhat whimsical in appearance, it actually served a very practical purpose; in the event of riots or other civil unrest, it would be able to withstand any attacks.  The tower could even be used to exchange signals with officials at the Massachusetts State House, which is located on the other side of Boston Common.

Over a hundred years after its construction, the armory is relatively unchanged on the exterior, although it has gone through several different uses over the years.  In the mid-20th century it was used for several different military-related museums, and in 1966 it was sold to a private owner.  It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and went through several different uses, including as a library and as an exhibition hall.  Today, it is owned by the Boston Park Plaza Hotel and is rented as a banquet and conference facility.

Arlington Station, Boston

The entrance to the Arlington subway station, taken from the Boston Public Garden in front of the Arlington Street Church, on March 17, 1937. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.


The scene in 2015:

When the present-day Green Line subway tunnel was built in 1897, it only went as far west as Arlington Street; from here, the trolleys came to the surface (as seen in this post) and traveled along the center of Boylston Street through the Back Bay.  However, in 1914 the subway was extended west to Kenmore Square, and from here the closest stations were either a third of a mile to the east at Boylston, or an equal distance to the west at Copley Square.  This gap was resolved in 1921 when Arlington station opened here, with the original entrance being located in the Public Garden at the corner of Arlington and Boylston Streets.

The station has been renovated over the years, and the Public Garden entrance no longer exists, but many of the surrounding buildings from nearly 80 years ago are still standing.  The most prominent is the 1861 Arlington Street Church, which is partially blocked in both photos by the back of a statue and monument honoring William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian minister who was once the pastor of the congregation that later built the church.  Many of the buildings along Boylston Street in the distance are also still there today, but the skyline behind them has dramatically increased; some of the skyscrapers visible today include the old John Hancock Building, the new John Hancock Tower, and the Prudential Tower.

Mechanics Hall, Boston

The Mechanics Hall building on Huntington Avenue in Boston, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The site in 2015:

Mechanics Hall was a convention center and civic arena located in Boston’s Back Bay, in a triangular-shaped lot between Huntington Avenue to the south, the Boston & Albany rail yard to the north, and West Newton Street to the west.  It was completed in 1881, and was designed by William Gibbons Preston, whose other works in Boston included the Rogers Building on the original MIT campus, and the old Museum of Natural History building.

The building was owned by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, and included a large auditorium that was used for various conventions, shows, track meets, wrestling matches, and other events.  It was even briefly home to Boston’s first professional basketball team: the 1925-1926 Boston Whirlwinds of the American Basketball League, who began their only season in the Matthews Arena before moving their home games here and then later to a Knights of Columbus Hall in Somerville. The team ended up disbanding partway through the season, after playing just 16 games.

The first photo shows the trolley line running down the median of Huntington Avenue.  This section of the trolley was put underground in 1941, and Mechanics station was built here to serve the building.  However, Mechanics Hall was becoming obsolete, and by the 1950s the neighboring rail yard was being eyed for redevelopment as the Prudential Center.  As part of the project, Mechanics Hall was demolished in 1959, and today the skyscraper at 111 Huntington Avenue occupies part of the former building’s location, as seen to the right in the 2015 photo.

Museum of Natural History, Boston

The Museum of Natural History building on Berkeley Street in Boston, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

This historic building on Berkeley Street is one of the oldest buildings in the Back Bay neighborhood.  It was constructed in 1863 on a block that was set aside for the Museum of Natural History and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Eventually, two MIT buildings would be built in this block between Berkeley and Clarendon Streets, the first of which was the 1866 Rogers Building.  The Rogers Building’s architecture matched the Museum of Natural History, and it can be clearly seen in the distance in the first photo.

MIT remained here until 1916, when they relocated to their much larger campus across the Charles River in Cambridge.  The Rogers Building, along with the neighboring Walker Memorial Building, were demolished in 1939 to build the New England Mutual Life Insurance Building, which is still standing in the distance in the 2015 photo.  The museum was located in this building until 1951, when it was renamed the Boston Museum of Science and moved to its present location on the Charles River.  After the museum left, it has been used by several different companies as a retail store, including Bonwit Teller and Louis Boston.  In 2013, the home furnishing company Restoration Hardware opened their Boston gallery in the building, which still remains well-preserved and relatively unchanged after over 150 years and a number of ownership changes.

Hotel Bristol, Boston

The Hotel Bristol on Boylston Street, just west of Clarendon Street, on October 4, 1912. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

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The scene in 2015:

The Hotel Bristol was built at the corner of Boylston and Clarendon Streets sometime in the 1870s, probably soon after the land was filled in as part of the massive Back Bay landfill project.  I couldn’t find too much information on the hotel, and it does not appear to have been one of the city’s top hotels.  It was probably more of a residential hotel, catering to long-term occupants as opposed to temporary visitors.  In the 1912 photo, there were also several businesses on the ground floor, including an auto supply company on the left and a drugstore, T. Metcalf Co., to the right.  Barely visible on the extreme right is the Walker Memorial Building, part of the original Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus before the school moved across the river to Cambridge.  That building was demolished in 1939, but I don’t know how long the Hotel Bristol survived.  It was still listed on the 1938 city atlas, but today the site is occupied by a modern office building.

Copley Plaza Hotel, Boston

The Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, sometime between 1912 and 1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The hotel in 2015:

These photos were taken from about the same spot as the ones in the previous post, just facing to the left of Huntington Avenue.  This view shows the Copley Plaza Hotel, which has had few exterior changes in the past century, and remains a prominent Boston hotel today.  This site was once home to the Museum of Fine Arts, before they relocated to their present site further down Huntington Avenue.  The hotel was completed in 1912, and since then has hosted a number of distinguished guests, including most U.S. presidents as well as many foreign dignitaries and heads of state.

Boston mayor John F. Fitzgerald presided over the opening ceremonies, five years before his grandson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was born.  The hotel also has another, more tragic connection to the grandfather of a prominent national politician; in 1921, the grandfather of present Secretary of State John Kerry committed suicide in a bathroom here.  Less than 20 years later, another notable suicide occurred here when Cincinnati Reds catcher Willard Hershberger became the only Major League Baseball player to commit suicide during the baseball season, on August 3, 1940.  Normally the team’s backup catcher, he had to play full-time in the middle of a pennant race after the starting catcher was injured, but became distraught after blaming himself for several poor games, including a 4-3 loss to the Boston Bees the day before.  The Red would ultimately go on to win the World Series that year, in part out of a desire to honor Hershberger’s memory.

By the mid-1900s, the hotel had begun to decline, and it was rebranded as the Sheraton Plaza hotel, complete with a tacky neon sign on the roof.  For some time it was more of a budget hotel than the grand hotel that it had once been, but in 1972 it was purchased by John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company, the same company that was building the John Hancock Tower next door.  They restored the historic building, and today it is operated by Fairmont Hotels and Resorts as the Fairmont Copley Plaza.  More than a century after it opened, it is still one of the city’s premiere hotels, and probably its most recent notable visitor was President Obama, who gave a Labor Day speech here earlier this month.