Willys-Overland Block, Springfield, Mass

The Willys-Overland Block at the corner of Chestnut and Winter Streets in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The building in 2016:

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As mentioned in the previous post, Chestnut Street was once home to some of Springfield’s wealthiest residents. However, by the early 1900s the city’s commercial center was growing east from Main Street, and this area around the corners of Chestnut, Bridge, and Pearl Streets became the center of the city’s automotive business. Springfield played a pioneering role in early automobile manufacturing, starting with Charles and Frank Duryea. In the 1890s, they developed the country’s first gasoline-powered car here in Springfield, just a few blocks away on Taylor Street. In the years that followed, other automobile companies came to the city, drawn by its manufacturing tradition and large pool of skilled workers.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, Springfield was home to many car manufacturers. The Knox Automobile Company was headquartered in the city, and other companies had branches, including Rolls-Royce and Willys-Overland. Unlike Rolls-Royce, the Toledo-based Willys-Overland no longer exists, but its legacy in Springfield lives on in this building, which they built in 1916. The first floor housed their showroom, and the rest of the building had a service station along with a thousand-car garage.

The company remained here for just five years, but the building continued to be used for automotive-related purposes. In the first photo, the upper floors were the Kimball Garage, serving the Hotel Kimball, which is located diagonally across Chestnut Street from here. However, it has since been neglected for many years. It was damaged in a November 2012 natural gas explosion that leveled an adjacent building and shattered most of the windows in the Willys-Overland Block. Although listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building’s future is uncertain, and in 2015 the City Council established it as a one-building historic district, in an effort to protect it from possible demolition.

Daniel L. Harris House, Springfield, Mass

The Daniel L. Harris House at the corner of Chestnut and Pearl Streets, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

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The scene in 2016:

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In the mid-19th century, Chestnut Street was Springfield’s most prestigious residential street. Running parallel to Main Street on a bluff overlooking downtown Springfield and the Connecticut River, it was lined with mansions of many prominent residents. Many of these homes were originally owned by members of the Dwight family, and this particular house, located at what would later become the corner of Pearl Street, was built in 1835 by William Dwight (1805-1880). He and his wife Eliza lived here with their seven sons, four of whom would go on to serve in the Civil War. Two, Wilder and Howard, died during the war, and another, General William Dwight, was badly wounded and left for dead after the Battle of Williamsburg. He survived, but was captured and spent time in a Confederate prison.

At some point before 1851, the house was moved slightly to the left of its original location in order to open Pearl Street through the property. At this point, the house was owned by Daniel L. Harris (1818-1879), a civil engineer who built railroads and bridges. He served as the president of the Connecticut River Railroad, and in 1859 he traveled to Russia as a consultant for the St. Petersburg and Moscow Railway. The following year, he served a term as mayor of Springfield, and at this point he was one of the wealthiest men in the rapidly-growing city. In 1866, the Springfield Republican published a list of the taxable income of residents from the previous year, and Harris had the ninth highest income, earning $24,117, or about $377,000 in 2016.

Harris lived here until his death in 1879, and the house remained in his family for nearly 50 more years. By the early 1920s, though, Chestnut Street was no longer the city’s preeminent neighborhood. Springfield’s commercial center had spread up the hill from Main Street, and one by one the 19th century mansions were replaced by 20th century development. Most of these homes disappeared during the 1920s, including the Harris house.

The land became the Apremont Triangle, a small park bounded by Chestnut, Pearl, and Bridge Streets, but the house itself was not completely lost to history. In 1923, it was dismantled and moved to Westerly, Rhode Island, where it was rebuilt to its original design. Today, it is still standing, although it is essentially unrecognizable in its current appearance because of a dramatic 1970 renovation that removed most of the second floor. This article on the Westerly Sun website provides photographs as well as more details about the building’s highly varied history.

Public Library, Worcester, Mass

The Worcester Public Library on Elm Street, around 1905-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

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Prior to the mid-19th century, public libraries were almost unheard of in the United States. However, by the late 1850s many cities were establishing their own libraries, including Worcester in 1859. It began with about 10,000 books, donated from the Worcester Lyceum and the private collection of Dr. John Green, and was originally housed on the third floor of a commercial block at the corner of Main and Foster Streets.

In 1862, the library moved into its first permanent home on Elm Street, the building on the right side of the first photo. In the following decades, though, the library’s collections outgrew this original space, and in 1891 it was expanded to the east with the massive addition on the left side of the photo. This addition was designed by Worcester architect Stephen Earle, with a Romanesque style design that bore no relation to the more Italianate-based style of the original building.

The Worcester Public Library remained here until 1964, when it moved to its current location on Salem Street. The century-old building here on Elm Street, along with its 1891 addition, were then demolished, and the site was redeveloped as a parking garage.

Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Mass

Mechanics Hall on Main Street in Worcester, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The building in 2016:

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Mechanics Hall is a concert hall and a prominent landmark in Worcester. It was built in 1857 by the city’s Mechanics Association, with prominent local architect Elbridge Boyden designing the Italianate structure. With a seating capacity of nearly 2,000, it was by far the largest public hall in the city during the second half of the 19th century, and it attracted many prominent speakers and performers.

In 1868, Mechanics Hall was a stop on Charles Dickens’s tour of the United States. He had previously visited Worcester in 1842, when he was still a young writer, but when he returned to America for his 1867-1868 tour he was an international celebrity. His tour featured sell-out crowds in venues across the northeast, and when he visited Boston there were even people who out overnight on the sidewalk to buy tickets. Here in Worcester, he probably had a similar reception, and in his March 23 performance at Mechanics Hall his audience heard him read A Christmas Carol and part of The Pickwick Papers.

Over the years, the concert hall has seen many other notable performers. It fell into decline in the mid-20th century, though, and was threatened with the possibility of demolition. All of the surrounding buildings from the first photo have since disappeared, but Mechanics Hall has survived. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and later in the decade it was restored to its former appearance. Today, the third-floor hall remains in use for a variety of events, including, appropriately enough, a 2012 reading of A Christmas Carol by Gerald Dickens, the great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens.

Main and Foster Streets, Worcester, Mass

The southeast corner of Main and Foster Streets, around 1895. Image from Picturesque Worcester (1895).

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The scene in 2016:

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The building on the left side of the photo, at the corner of Main and Foster Streets, was built in the early 1840s as the first meeting house for the Universalist church. The congregation had been established in 1841, and after nearly 30 years in this building they moved into a new, larger one on Pleasant Street in 1871. After they left, the building became Continental Hall, and stood here until 1906, when it was demolished to build the present Worcester County Institution for Savings building.

Just to the right of the old church site is the oldest surviving structure in the 2016 scene, although it is hard to tell from its current appearance. Built around 1855 as home to the People’s Mutual Fire Insurance Company, it has undergone some significant changes over the years. Its original tenant went out of business after sustaining heavy losses from fires in Boston and Chicago in the early 1870s, and in 1873 the Worcester Mutual Fire Insurance Company purchased and renovating it, adding a mansard roof in keeping with Second Empire style architecture of the time. It was again altered around 1935 with a new facade, and today there is little visible evidence left of the original structure.

Next to the People’s Block is another historic building, which has survived far more intact from its late 19th century appearance. Known as Grout’s Block, the five-story Second Empire structure was built in 1871 by local businessman Jonathan Grout. Nearly 150 years later, it is still standing. Despite some changes to the exterior of the first two floors, it otherwise remains well-preserved and is easily recognizable from the first photo.

City Hall, Worcester, Mass

Worcester’s City Hall, seen from the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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City Hall in 2016:

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This site on the western end of the Common has been the center of Worcester’s government for many years. In colonial days, the meetinghouse was situated here, and in 1825, a plain Greek Revival style town hall was built here. After Worcester became a city in 1848, this building served as City Hall for another 50 years, until it was finally replaced in 1898 by a much larger and more elaborate building on the same spot.

Designed by the prominent Boston firm of Peabody & Stearns, it reflects the Renaissance Revival architecture that was gaining popularity in public buildings at the turn of the 20th century. City Hall bears some resemblance to the Boston Public Library, which had been completed several years earlier, but it also includes a 205-foot tower in the center of the Main Street facade.

City Hall was not quite 10 years old when the first photo was taken, and not much has changed to its exterior appearance since then. Nearly 120 years after its completion, it remains the fourth tallest building in the city, and it remains in use as the seat of the city government. Along with the Worcester Common, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.