Highlands Methodist Episcopal Church, Holyoke, Mass

The Highlands Methodist Episcopal Church, at the corner of Lincoln and Nonotuck Streets in Holyoke, arounn 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

Holyoke’s First Methodist Church was established in 1853, and met in various locations in the downtown area until 1869, when its first permanent church building was completed on Main Street. However, in the following years, the city steadily grew westward and northward, away from Main Street, and by the 1880s there was a need for a church here in the newly-developed Highlands neighborhood. As a result, this church was built in 1886, at the corner of Lincoln and Nonotuck Streets, and it originally served as a branch of the downtown Methodist church. The pastor of the downtown church, Gilbert C. Osgood, would preach here on Sunday afternoons, and this arrangement continued until 1889, when the Highlands church was organized as a separate congregation.

The Highlands Methodist Episcopal Church remained here in this building until around 1926, when it was sold to a Christian Scientist congregation, which would worship here until at least the mid-20th century. Today, this scene remains much the same as it did 125 years ago, with the church as well as the houses in the distance still standing. The exterior of the church remains particularly well-preserved, although the interior is dramatically different. It has not been used as a church since at least the 1970s or early 1980s, when it was converted into a house, and more than 40 years later it is still a private residence. However, it did recently gain national attention when, in 2016, the church-turned-house was labeled as a Pokémon GO gym, resulting in dozens of people showing up around the house every day.

Casper Ranger House, Holyoke, Mass

The house at 507 Appleton Street, at the corner of Sycamore Street in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The house in 2017:

This elegant Queen Anne-style house was built around 1890, and was the home of Casper Ranger, a prominent local contractor. Born in 1850 in the French city of Mulhouse, Ranger came to the United States with his parents when he was six. He grew up in the Holyoke area, and apprenticed as a carpenter before becoming a workman and, later, a foreman for Holyoke builder Watson Ely. During this time, Ranger was involved in projects such as the construction of City Hall and the Opera House, but in 1877 he left Ely’s company and went into business for himself.

Ranger would later establish both the Casper Ranger Lumber Company and the Casper Ranger Construction Company, and he played an important role in Holyoke’s development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A 1917 biographical sketch estimated that his companies had built 70 percent of all the mill buildings in Holyoke, and he also built mills and commercial buildings in Springfield, many of the buildings on the campus of Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, and several mansions in Holyoke. These included his own house here on Appleton Street, which had a highly ornate, eclectic Queen Anne design and, as the first photo shows, enjoyed a prominent location overlooking the city.

Ranger and his first wife Katherine had nine children, six of whom lived to adulthood. However, Katherine died in 1886 at the age of 39, and the following year he remarried to Ellen E. McDonnell. They moved into this house several years after their marriage, and they had three more children of their own. The 1900 census shows a crowded house, with the Rangers living here with seven children plus a servant, although by the 1910 census there were just three children living here with them, along with two servants. Casper died in 1912, and Ellen remained here for about five more years, before moving to Brookline in 1917.

The house was subsequently sold to the Holy Cross Church, and served as the rectory until around 1940, when it became a parish hall. Today, it is no longer owned by the church, but its exterior has remained well-preserved over the years, with few noticeable changes aside from a shortened chimney. The surroundings have changed somewhat, though, and the Holyoke skyline is hidden by trees. However, probably the most notable change in the foreground is the small park, located in the triangle of land between Suffolk, Appleton, and Sycamore Streets. Once known as Ranger Park, it is now the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza, and includes a granite bust of Kennedy, which is visible on the left side of the photo.

House of Providence Hospital, Holyoke, Mass

The House of Providence Hospital, at the corner of Elm and Dwight Streets in Holyoke, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

The origins of the present-day Sisters of Providence Health System date back to 1873, when four women from the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul in Kingston, Ontario arrived in the Holyoke area, in order to serve the needs of the largely Catholic, immigrant workforce in Holyoke. Originally, they were located across the river in South Hadley, but in 1874 the Sisters of Providence moved to Holyoke, and built a hospital here at the corner of Dwight and Elm Streets. This became the first public hospital in Holyoke, and served the needs of rapidly-growing city over the next few decades.

The Sisters of Providence remained a mission of the Kingston congregation until 1892, when it became an independent congregation, and two years later a new, larger House of Providence Hospital building was completed here on the site. The first photo shows the building about a decade later, with the Father Harkins’ Home for Aged Women just beyond it on the left. At the time, this area had a number of Catholic institutions, including the Immaculate Conception School, the Convent of Notre Dame, the Convent of St. Vincent de Paul, the St. Jerome Institute, and St. Jerome’s Church, all of which where located within a block of here.

More than a century after the first photo was taken, Holyoke has undergone some significant changes, and today there are no recognizable landmarks from the first photo. In 1958, the hospital moved to its current location in Ingleside, in the southern part of the city, and it is now the Providence Behavioral Health Hospital. The old building was subsequently demolished, and today the site is a vacant lot, although the old Immaculate Conception School – later home of Holyoke Catholic High School – is still standing in the distance on the left.

Beech Street from Cabot Street, Holyoke, Mass

Looking north on Beech Street from the corner of Cabot Street in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

Holyoke is one of the few New England cities to have a regular street grid, which was a result of its planned development in the mid-19th century. The downtown area consists of rectangular blocks, with some streets running roughly north to south, parallel to the canals along the Connecticut River, and perpendicular streets running east to west, up and down the hills to the west of the river. West of High Street, the north-south streets are all named for trees (Maple, Elm, Walnut, etc.), while the east-west streets alternate between those named for Massachusetts counties (Franklin, Hampshire, Essex, etc.) and those named for early Holyoke industrialists (Jackson, Sargeant, Cabot, etc.).

By the late 19th century, houses in Holyoke were, in general, more desirable the further up the hill that they were located. Beech Street, which is seen here around 1892, is six blocks to the west of High Street, and at the time it largely consisted of upper middle class, single-family homes. At the time, the neighborhood had not yet been fully developed. Most of the houses were new, having been built around the 1880s, and there were still vacant lots on this block, including some in the foreground on the left side.

The 1900 census gives some insight into the people who lived here on this section of Beech Street. On the far right, at the corner of Cabot Street, was the home of Lewis E. Bellows, the treasurer and manager of the Barlow Manufacturing Company, which produced store and window display fixtures. Just beyond his house, at 232 Beech, was the home of William Mauer, a German immigrant who worked as secretary and manager of Germania Mills, which produced woolen and worsted textiles. Further down the street, at 226 Beech, was the home of William Judd, who worked as a traveling salesman for a paper mill.

In the years after the first photo was taken, the vacant lots on either side of the street were developed, and new houses were built around the early 20th century. Since then, there have not been any significant changes, and most of these turn-of-the-century homes are still standing, although many have been altered with enclosed porches, artificial siding, and other changes. Only one house – the one on the right at 232 Beech – appears to have been demolished, but it has since been replaced by a modern house on the same site.

National Guard Armory, Holyoke, Mass

The National Guard Armory at the corner of Sargeant and Pine Streets in Holyoke, around 1907-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2017:

Around the turn of the 20th century, the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia – later known as the Massachusetts National Guard – built a number of similar, castle-style armories across the state, including ones in Boston, Springfield, and Worcester. The armories were designed to look imposing, and to represent the strength of the state militia, but the architecture was not entirely for looks. At least in the case of the Boston armory, the building was designed to withstand riots and other civil unrest, and its tower could be used to transmit signals to government leaders at the State House.

Here in Holyoke, the armory was smaller than those in the larger cities, but it had similar architecture, with turrets, narrow windows, and a crenellated parapet atop the building. It was designed by local architect William J. Howe and completed in 1907, and was supposedly based on the design of the 18th century Hawarden Castle in Wales. The building included the castle-like structure in the front, along with a drill hall in the back, and it was the home of the 1st Battalion, 104th Infantry Regiment. Only about a decade after the first photo was taken, the 104th Infantry went on to serve with distinction during World War I, suffering heavy casualties and earning the Croix de Guerre from the French government, marking the first time that an American military unit was honored for bravery by a foreign country.

The armory remained in use for much of the 20h century, and in 1990 it took on an usual role as a temporary prison. At the time, the old York Street Jail in Springfield was dangerously overcrowded, to the point where inmates were being released early in order to make room for newly-convicted prisoners. Despite pleas from Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe, county and state officials were slow in responding to the problem, so in February 1990, Ashe took a dramatic step to call attention to the situation. Invoking an obscure 1696 state law that empowered sheriffs to do whatever was necessary to restore order in times of “imminent danger of a breach of the peace”, Ashe commandeered the National Guard armory in Springfield, over the objections of the armory commander, and housed 17 prisoners in the facility.

The bold move quickly gained the attention of state officials, and the news story made headlines across the country. Although Ashe was threatened with criminal trespass charges, a judge ruled that the prisoners could remain in the armory, and the state soon made arrangements for the prisoners to be moved here to the Holyoke armory. The building served as a prison annex for most of 1990, housing nearly 70 inmates, but it had to close in late November after governor Michael Dukakis refused to provide more funding. This closure required the early release of dozens of convicts, but the armory annex was reopened the following year when the newly-elected governor, Bill Weld, authorized funding.

The armory would remain in use as a jail annex until 1992, when the current Hampden County House of Correction opened in Ludlow. The historic building has remained vacant since then, and it is now owned by the city. Over the years, it has been the subject of various redevelopment proposals, but none have come to fruition and the building has steadily deteriorated. In early 2016, the drill shed in the rear of the building collapsed, requiring emergency demolition of the ruins. The front portion of the building survived the collapse, and it is still standing, but it is still vacant, despite efforts by the city to find a buyer for the property.

Park Street School, Holyoke, Mass

The Park Street School at the corner of Park and Hamilton Streets in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

The caption in Picturesque Hampden identifies this as the Hamilton Street School, but it is actually the Park Street School, which is located just across the street from where the Hamilton Street School once stood. It is perhaps the oldest surviving school building in the city, and dates back to 1868 when it opened as a public school. Like many other buildings of this period, it had Italianate architecture, and it featured a symmetrical front facade with a tower in the center. Just beyond the school, on the left side of the first photo, was the Precious Blood Church, a High Victorian Gothic-style French Catholic church that was completed in 1878.

In 1875, the Park Street School played a grisly role in one of the deadliest, yet also one of the least-known disasters in Massachusetts history. At the time, the Precious Blood Church was under construction, and the parishioners, largely French-Canadian immigrants, worshiped in a temporary wooden church, located behind the right side of the school at the corner of Cabot and South East Streets. The wooden church, built in just a month in December 1869, had a capacity of about 800, and included a large balcony that could seat about 400. On May 27, 1875, the church was filled with some 600 to 700 worshipers for an evening Corpus Christi mass, but toward the end of the service a lace curtain, blown by a stiff breeze through the open windows, touched a lighted candle and caught fire.

The fire on the curtain quickly spread to the wall, and within minutes the building was engulfed in flames. Those on the ground floor of the sanctuary had a fairly easy escape route, through any of the three front doors of the church. However, those in the balcony had only a narrow stairway that led down to the front entrances, where the crowds from the ground floor were also trying to escape. One of the doors eventually became blocked by people who had tripped over each other, and firemen worked desperately to free people from this pile in what little time they had. In particular, future fire chief John J. Lynch – namesake of the former John J. Lynch Middle School – was noted for his bravery in rescuing survivors, and thanks to the efforts of Lynch and other firemen, the death toll was not as high as it otherwise may have been.

Within just 20 minutes of the curtain brushing against the candle, both the church and the adjacent rectory were completely destroyed. The next step was to recover and identify the bodies of the victims, and the Park Street School was converted into a morgue. The bodies were laid out here in the basement by the following morning, and friends and family members of the victims arrived to identify their loved ones. Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, and were only able to be identified by clothing, shoes, jewelry, and other personal effects.

The total number of deaths in the fire has been variously listed as low as 74 and as high as 97, although the lower figure is probably closer to the true count. The language barrier likely contributed to some of the discrepancies, and in some cases spelling variations of the same name were apparently recorded as two different people. Either way, though, it ranks among the deadliest fires in the history of the state. By way of comparison, the Great Boston Fire of 1872, which occurred less than three years earlier, destroyed 776 buildings in densely-populated Boston, yet had a death toll of about 20 to 30, only about a third of that of the Precious Blood Church.

At the time of the fire, the new Precious Blood Church was already under construction, but work had not progressed much further than the basement. Nonetheless, two days after the fire a funeral mass was held for the victims, and about 2,500 people crowded into the still-unfinished basement, which had been hastily roofed with boards for the occasion. So many people in such a confined, makeshift space could have posed an even greater danger in the event of a fire, but the funeral passed without incident, and most of the bodies were subsequently interred in a mass grave in the Precious Blood Cemetery, located across the river in South Hadley.

Today, despite such a substantial loss of life, the Precious Blood Church fire has been largely forgotten, and here in the South Holyoke neighborhood there are few reminders of the tragedy. The new Precious Blood Church, which was completed in 1878 and is seen on the left side of the first photo, closed in 1989, and was demolished soon after. Probably the only surviving buildings with a connection to the fire is the Park Street School, which still stands here in a somewhat altered state. It continued to be used as a school for many years after its use as a makeshift morgue, but around 1930 it was sold to the church, becoming a convent and chapel. At some point, the tower was removed, and the building saw other alterations such as additional windows on the second floor, but overall it is still recognizable from its original appearance, and stands as a good example of mid-19th century school architecture.