Charles Bengle Block, Springfield, Mass

The commercial block at the northeast corner of Main and Oak Streets in the Springfield neighborhood of Indian Orchard, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The scene in 2017:

Springfield’s Indian Orchard neighborhood was developed in the late 19th century as a factory village, and this intersection at the corner of Main and Oak Streets became its commercial center. The first significant business block, the three-story Wight & Chapman, was built in 1875 at the northwest corner of the intersection, and it was followed 30 years later by this building, which was completed in 1905 on the opposite side of Oak Street, at the northeast corner of the intersection.

This building was originally owned by Charles Bengle, a merchant whose store was located on the ground floor. A native of Quebec, Bengle came to Indian Orchard in 1867, where he found work in the mills. However, after a short time he began working for a grocer, and then for a clothier. After just a year, he purchased an interest in the clothing firm, which became Chapman & Bengle. In 1875, the store moved into the newly-built Wight & Chapman Block, where they were, according to city directories of the era,“Dealers in Clothing, Gentlemen’s Furnishing Goods, Boots and Shoes. Repairing neatly and promptly done.”

In 1886, Bengle purchased Chapman’s interest in the business and became its sole owner. The store remained in the Wight & Chapman Block until 1905, when Bengle completed his new building across the street. His store occupied the storefront on the left side, and he ran it until his death in 1909. However, the business remained in the family for many years, and it thrived during the first half of the 20th century, drawing customers not only from Indian Orchard but also from the nearby towns of Ludlow and Wilbraham.

The first photo, taken in the late 1930s, shows the sign for the “Charles Bengle Co.” above the left storefront. At the time, it was run by Charles’s son Adelard, who died in 1946 and left the store to his son, Victor. However, by this point the store was in decline, and it finally closed in 1952, more than 75 years after Charles Bengle first entered the retail clothing business. It was replaced in this storefront by a radio and television store, but subsequent tenants included an auto parts store and, today, a cabinetry store.

Overall, despite changes in its use, the building itself has remained remarkably well-preserved. The storefronts have not been significantly changed since the first photo was taken, and the upper floors retain their decorative Classical Revival-style features. It is one of several historic business blocks that still stand here on this section of Main Street, including the Wight & Chapman Block and the nearby LaRiviere building, and today the center of Indian Orchard still retains much of its original late 19th and early 20th century appearance.

The LaRiviere, Springfield, Mass

The building at 162-164 Main Street in the Indian Orchard neighborhood of Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The scene in 2017:

This commercial block was one of several Indian Orchard properties that were owned by Octave A. LaRiviere, a French-Canadian merchant, politician, and contractor who was among the neighborhood’s leading citizens of the late 19th century. LaRiviere, who also went by the name of John Rivers earlier in his career, lived in the house directly to the right of this building, and he also owned a tenement building, which was located a block west of here on Main Street.

This four-story brick building was completed in 1908, and was known as The LaRiviere. It is perhaps the most architecturally significant of the several late 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings here on Main Street, and it features an ornate, polychromatic Classical Revival facade. There are two storefronts on the ground floor, with apartments in the upper floors, and the 1910 census shows at least four families in the building. Based on the census records, the residents were primarily skilled laborers and other middle-class workers at the nearby factories in Indian Orchard, and included a machinist, a foreman, an inspector, a pattern maker, a traveling salesman, a clerk, and a chief engineer.

By the time the first photo was taken, America was in the midst of the Great Depression, but there were still a good number of factory jobs here in Indian Orchard. As was the case in 1910, most of the residents worked as skilled laborers, with the 1940 census showing that most of them earned around $1,000 to $1,300 per year. The building had five different families at the time, with two each paying $40 per month in rent, one paying $36, one paying $20, and one whose rent was not included on the census.

Today, The LaRiviere is one of several historic commercial blocks in the center of Indian Orchard. It remains remarkably well-preserved, with even the storefronts looking the same as they did over 80 years ago. LaRiviere’s house, located on the right side of the scene, has since been altered, but it is still standing and still recognizable from the first photo. The only significant change in this scene is the building on the left, at 158-160 Main Street. It was still standing here as late as the 1980s, when it was included in the state’s MACRIS database of historic properties, but it has since been demolished, and the site is now a parking lot.

Forbes & Wallace, Springfield, Mass

The Forbes & Wallace department store on Main Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The scene in 2017:

For just over a century, Forbes & Wallace was one of Springfield’s leading businesses, with its department store located here at the corner of Main and Vernon Streets. The company was established in 1874, when Scottish immigrant Andrew Wallace formed a partnership with Alexander B. Forbes, a dry goods merchant here in Springfield. They rented space in an earlier building that stood at this same location, and within a decade the two men had built the company into, as described in the 1884 King’s Handbook of Springfield, “the largest and most prominent wholesale and retail dry-goods house in Massachusetts, excepting only some of those in Boston.”

By this point, Forbes & Wallace had purchased the entire building, modifying it to meet the needs of the company’s growing business, but around 1905 the old building was demolished and replaced with a new Classical Revival-style building that is seen in the first photo. Only a portion of this massive building is visible in this scene, though. The eight-story, L-shaped structure extended for a significant length along Vernon Street (today Boland Way), and wrapped around the Haynes Hotel so that part of the building fronted on Pynchon Street. Over time, the company’s complex would come to fill almost the entire city block, including its own parking garage on the western side, and the department store remained a Springfield landmark for many years.

Alexander Forbes has retired from the business in 1896, but Andrew Wallace remained with the company until his death in 1923, nearly 50 years after he had established it. His son, Andrew B. Wallace, Jr., and later his grandson, Andrew B. Wallace III, both succeeded his as president of the company, which remained in the Wallace family for many years. The first photo was taken in the late 1930s, during the time when downtown department stores still dominated retail shopping. Aside from Forbes & Wallace, this section of Main Street also feature its largest competitor, Steigers, along with a variety of smaller stores. The scene in the first photo shows Main Street lined with parked cars, and the blurred figures on the sidewalk and in the street give the impression of a busy shopping district.

In the decades that followed, though, suburban malls began to eclipse downtown stores, and Forbes & Wallace followed this trend, opening satellite stores at the Eastfield Mall on Boston Road and the Fairfield Mall in Chicopee. Around the same time, downtown Springfield underwent several large-scale projects aimed at urban renewal, including the construction of the 371-foot, 29-story Baystate West building, which was located directly opposite Forbes & Wallace on the north side of Vernon Street. Now known as Tower Square, this project was completed in 1970, and included a shopping mall that was connected to Forbes & Wallace via a skywalk.

The Baystate West mall evidently did little to revive Forbes & Wallace, though, and the store ultimately went out of business in 1976. The building sat vacant for the next few years, and it was finally demolished in the early 1980s to make way for Monarch Place, a skyscraper that is just out of view on the left side of this scene. Completed in 1987, it is currently the tallest building in the city, and the original site of Forbes & Wallace at the corner is now a small plaza. There is a small replica facade on the left side, partially visible from this angle, but otherwise there is no trace of the old department store. Today, the only building left from the first photo is the Haynes Hotel, which stands as the only 19th century structure amid a variety of 20th century urban renewal projects.

Ochre Point Avenue Gates at The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

The western entrance to the driveway of The Breakers, seen from Ochre Point Avenue at the corner of Victoria Avenue in Newport, around 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

These imposing gates stand at the Ochre Point Avenue entrance of The Breakers, which was built as the summer residence of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Constructed over a two-year period from 1893 to 1895, at a cost of $7 million, it was the largest of the many Gilded Age homes that were built here in Newport as seaside “cottages” for some of the nation’s richest families. The house is situated at Ochre Point, on a 13-acre lot that is bordered on three sides by a 12-foot-high wrought iron and limestone fence. The fence is broken by two gates, one here and one on Shepard Avenue, that rise 30 feet above the driveway. They were manufactured by the William H. Jackson Company of New York, and are flanked on either side by smaller gates for pedestrian access to the property.

Together, these two main gates weigh more than seven tons, and feature intricate details, including Cornelius Vanderbilt’s initials in a monogram at the top of the gate. Other decorative features include acorns and oak leaves, both of which served as important symbols for the Vanderbilt family. Reflecting the saying that, “from little acorn a mighty oak shall grow,” the symbols represented the life of Cornelius’s grandfather, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, who rose from humble beginnings as a teenage Staten Island ferry operator to become the wealthiest man in America. As a result, acorns and oak leaves can be found throughout The Breakers, along with other Vanderbilt buildings such as New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

If the 1899 date for the first photo is accurate, it would have been taken sometime during Cornelius Vanderbilt’s last summer at The Breakers. He had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1896, only a year after the completion of the house, and he never fully recovered. He left The Breakers for the last time on September 11, 1899, to attend a railroad board meeting in New York, and he died the next morning from a cerebral hemorrhage. His widow Alice inherited both his mansion in New York and The Breakers, and she went on to own the latter until her death 35 years later.

The Breakers would remain in the Vanderbilt family until 1972, when it was sold to the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1972, and it is now open to the public as a museum. Very little has changed in this scene except for the trees, which now hide more of the property than the newly-planted ones did in the first photo. The house is now the centerpiece of the Preservation Society’s many historic properties in Newport, and it is the most popular tourist attraction in the state, drawing over 400,000 visitors through these gates each year.

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

The Breakers, seen from the Cliff Walk in Newport, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

Newport is renowned for its many 19th and early 20th century summer “cottages,” which were built by many of the nation’s wealthiest families and represented some of the finest examples of residential architecture in this era. However, none could quite compare to The Breakers, which was completed in 1895 as a summer home for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the prominent railroad tycoon who had inherited much of the Vanderbilt family fortune from his father William and grandfather Cornelius. With 70 rooms and over 125,000 square feet, it dwarfed all of the other Newport mansions, and it would go on to epitomize the luxury, grandeur, and excess of the Gilded Age.

The Breakers is situated on Ochre Point, a rocky promontory on Newport’s eastern shoreline, and was built on the site of a previous mansion of the same name. The original Breakers was a wooden, Queen Anne-style mansion that had been designed by the prominent architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns for tobacco merchant Pierre Lorillard IV. It was completed in 1878, but he owned the house for less than a decade before selling it to Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1885 for $450,000, in what was at the time the largest real estate transaction in Newport’s history.

As the favorite grandson and namesake of the family patriarch, Cornelius Vanderbilt II had inherited $5 million after his grandfather’s death in 1877. Nearly all of the remaining family fortune, close to $100 million, had gone to Cornelius’s father, William H. Vanderbilt, who managed to double this amount in jut a few years. However, William died in 1885, just a few months after his son purchased The Breakers, and Cornelius inherited nearly $70 million from his estate, equivalent to nearly $2 billion today.

Cornelius’s younger brother, William K. Vanderbilt, had received a similar inheritance from their father, and he and his socially ambitious wife Alva soon set out to build Marble House nearby on Bellevue Avenue. This lavish mansion far exceeded the original Breakers in opulence, and its $11 million construction costs dwarfed the paltry $450,000 that Cornelius had spent to purchase his summer home. Marble House was completed in 1892, but later that year The Breakers was destroyed in a fire, providing Cornelius with the opportunity to eclipse his brother and sister-in-law in constructing a new summer home.

At the time of the fire here in Newport, Cornelius was just finishing a $3 million expansion of his massive Fifth Avenue mansion, making it the largest private home in New York City’s history. Despite this, he and his wife Alice spared no expense in rebuilding The Breakers. They hired Richard Morris Hunt, the same architect who had designed Marble House, and within six weeks of the fire he had produced preliminary designs for the house. Cornelius and Alice ended up choosing his second design, though, which was inspired by Italian Renaissance-style architecture, and construction began in the spring of 1893.

The house was completed in just two years, thanks to the efforts of some 2,000 workers who worked in shifts, both day and night, to ensure that it was completed as soon as possible. It was much larger, and had been built in far less time than Marble House, but at $7 million it had actually cost significantly less to build, with William having spent $7 million just on marble alone. It would be Richard Morris Hunt’s magnum opus and, as it turned out, his last major commission, as he died in Newport while supervising the finishing touches in the summer of 1895. The house’s completion came none too soon for Cornelius Vanderbilt, though, who was only able to enjoy one summer at the house in good health before suffering a debilitating stroke in 1896.

Cornelius, Alice, and their children would continue to spend several more summers here at The Breakers, but Cornelius never fully recovered his health and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in September 1899, a day after returning to New York City from Newport. Alice would outlive him by 35 years, and became known as “Alice of the Breakers” for her long ownership of the house. However, the Gilded Age was rapidly drawing to a close at the turn of the 20th century, as was the Vanderbilt family’s wealth and prominence. William H. Vanderbilt’s children, including Cornelius, had done little to grow the family fortune, but excelled at spending it, particularly on lavish mansions in New York and summer houses such as The Breakers, Marble House, and the Biltmore Estate.

By Alice’s death in 1934 at the age of 89, the family fortune had been squandered and divided among so many descendants that it was essentially gone. Most of the New York City mansions, including her own Fifth Avenue home, were gone, replaced by modern high-rises, and the many summer homes in Newport and elsewhere were already antiquated white elephants from a long-gone era. During Alice’s later years, taxes alone on The Breakers amounted to $83,000 per year, plus operating expenses that included paying nearly 60 servants and other employees, along with 150 tons of coal to heat the house each winter. She eventually took to alternating years spent in Newport and New York, so that both houses were never open simultaneously.

Of Alice’s seven children, she outlived all but three of them. Her first child, Alice, had died as a child in 1874, and she subsequently lost her oldest son William to typhoid fever in 1892 while he was in college. Alfred died aboard the RMS Lusitania, when it was sunk by a German submarine during World War I, and Alice’s youngest son, Reginald, was a compulsive gambler and alcoholic who died of cirrhosis in 1925, a year after the birth of his daughter, future fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt. Her only other son, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, was disinherited by his father for his unapproved marriage, and neither he nor his sister, the famous sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, had much interest in acquiring The Breakers.

As a result, the mansion ultimately went to Alice’s youngest child, Gladys, who was 47 at the time and married to a Hungarian count, László Széchenyi. She owned the property for the rest of her life, until her death in 1965, but in 1948 she began leasing the house to the Preservation Society of Newport County, and for the first time it was opened to the public. She would continue to maintain an apartment on the third-floor, as would her daughter Sylvia, but otherwise the rest of the house was preserved as a museum. Sylvia ultimately sold The Breakers to the Preservation Society in 1972 for just $365,000, substantially less than what her grandfather had paid for the original house 87 years earlier, although the sale included a stipulation that she be allowed to continue to use the third floor apartment for the rest of her life.

After Sylvia’s death in 1998, the third floor continued to be used by her children, Paul and Gladys Szápáry, for the next 20 years, but in early 2018 the Preservation Society asked them to leave, citing safety concerns. This move came shortly after the Szápárys voiced their opposition to the Preservation Society’s controversial decision to build a welcome center on the property, which many critics argued would mar its original landscape and historic appearance. Their departure ends four generations and nearly 123 years of the Vanderbilt family living here, but it also gives the Preservation Society the opportunity to restore the third floor and make it accessible to the public for the first time.

Today, The Breakers is one of the nine historic Newport homes that are owned by the Preservation Society and open to the public. It is is one of the nine historic Newport homes that are owned by the Preservation Society and open to the public. Aside from the colonial-era Hunter House, all of these are Gilded Age mansions that represent some of the finest examples of residential architecture in 19th century America, including William and Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House. However, The Breakers remains, by far, the largest and most impressive of these homes, and has been well-preserved over the years, as these two photos show. Because of its architectural significance, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994, and it is now one of Rhode Island’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting over 400,000 visitors per year.

Bemis & Call Tool Factory, Springfield, Mass

The factory of Bemis & Call Hardware and Tool Company at 125 Main Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The scene in 2017:

The origins of the Bemis & Call Hardware and Tool Company started in the 1830s, when merchant Stephen C. Bemis began manufacturing hardware here in Springfield. One of his early business moves was to purchase Solyman Merrick’s patent of the monkey wrench, which would become one of the company’s leading products. He subsequently formed a partnership with Amos Call, and in the 1840s Bemis & Call began manufacturing tools and hardware in a factory here on this site along the Mill River. The company initially rented space in a factory building that they shared with several other tenants, but later in the 19th century they would purchase the entire site.

Stephen C. Bemis retired from the company in 1855,   and went on to have a career in politics. He served as a city alderman from 1856 to 1858, as mayor in 1861 and 1862, and in between he was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 1859, although he lost the general election to fellow Springfield politician Eliphalet Trask. In the meantime, his son, William C. Bemis, became treasurer when Stephen retired, and remained with the company for the next half century.

William became president in 1897, and that same year the company built a large addition to the original factory. This three-story brick building, seen in the center of both photos, was joined four years later by the more ornate two-story section on the right, which was used as the conpany’s offices. The original wooden building stood on the left side until around 1920, when it was demolished and replaced with the current four-story brick building. During this time, Bemis & Call continued to specialize in wrenches, but also produced punches, pliers, calipers, and eventually combination locks.

Bemis & Call finally sold their wrench line in 1939, around the same time that the first photo was taken. However, unlike so many other Springfield-based companies, they survived the Great Depression and remained in business until finally closing in 1988. The factory buildings themselves are still standing, though, with hardly any exterior changes since the first photo was taken nearly 80 years ago, and they serve as a reminder of Springfield’s legacy as an important industrial city in the 19th and early 20th centuries.