Crosby Block, Brattleboro, Vermont

The Crosby Block on Main Street, just north of the corner of Elliot Street in Brattleboro, around 1871-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

As mentioned in the previous post, the Crosby Block was built in 1871, replacing several earlier commercial buildings that had been destroyed in a large fire two years before. It was owned by grain and flour merchant Edward Crosby, who built it at a cost of almost $175,000, or around $3.6 million today. Its Italianate-style design was the work of local architect George A. Hines, and it was originally 26 window bays in width, extending along Main Street from the corner of Elliot Street north to the Brooks House. Upon completion, the ground floor of the building housed a variety of stores, while the second floor had professional offices and the third floor had apartments.

Nearly 150 years after it was built, most of the Crosby Block has seen little change. However, the southernmost section of the building – once the home of Vermont National Bank – was rebuilt in the late 1950s, with an International Style yellow brick and metal facade. Now occupied by People’s United Bank, this section is still standing on the left side of the scene, and sharply contrasts with the surviving three quarters of the Crosby Block. The rest of the building, particularly the upper floors, has remained well-preserved, though. Today, it is one of the many historic 19th century commercial buildings that still line Main Street, and it is a contributing property in the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Crosby Block and Brooks House, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking north on Main Street, from near the corner of Elliot Street in Brattleboro, around 1871-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

This block, on the west side of Main Street between Elliot and High Streets, was the scene of one of the most disastrous fires in Brattleboro history, which occurred on October 31, 1869. All of the buildings along this section of Main Street, mostly wood-frame stores and hotels, were destroyed in the fire, including the Brattleboro House hotel and several other important commercial blocks. However, the property was quickly redeveloped, and within two years the ruins had been replaced by two large, brick commercial buildings, with the Crosby Block on the left and the Brooks House further in the distance on the right.

The first photo shows the Crosby Block as it appeared within about 15 years of its completion in 1871. It was owned by grain and flour merchant Edward Crosby, and was designed by local architect George A. Hines, whose plans reflected the prevailing Italianate style for commercial buildings of this era. Only about two thirds of the building is visible in this scene, as it was once 26 window bays wide, extending all the way to the corner of Elliot Street. As was often the case in downtown commercial blocks, it was originally a mixed-use building, with stores on the ground floor, professional offices on the second floor, and apartments on the third floor.

Further in the distance, on the right side of the scene, is the Brooks House, which was also known as the Hotel Brooks. Although completed in the same year as the Crosby Block, it featured far more elaborate Second Empire-style architecture that contrasted with the modest design of its neighbor. Designed by noted architect Elbridge Boyden, the hotel was reportedly the country’s largest Second Empire-style building outside of New York City at the time, and was a popular Gilded Age summer resort. It was owned by George Jones Brooks, a merchant who had grown up in the Brattleboro area but later made his fortune in San Francisco, as a merchant during the Gold Rush. However, he later returned to Brattleboro, where he built this hotel and also later founded the Brooks Memorial Library.

More than 130 years after the first photo was taken, this scene has remained remarkably unchanged. The facade of the southernmost section of the Crosby Block, just out of view to the left, was rebuilt in the late 1950s and is now completely unrecognizable from its original appearance. However, the section of the building in this scene has been well-preserved, and still continues to house a variety of shops on its ground floor. On the right side of the scene, the Brooks House is also still standing. The interior was completely rebuilt in the early 1970s and converted into offices and apartments, but the exterior was preserved. More recently, the upper floors were heavily damaged by a fire in 2011, but the building has since been restored and still stands as a major landmark in downtown Brattleboro.

Wight & Chapman Block, Springfield, Mass

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

The scene in 2017:

The neighborhood of Indian Orchard is located in the northeastern corner of Springfield, about five miles from the city center, and during the mid-19th century it developed into a small factory village along the Chicopee River. In part because of this distance, Indian Orchard’s growth was largely independent from the rest of Springfield, and came to include a small downtown area, with its own Main Street that was lined with brick commercial blocks. Among these was this three-story, Italianate-style building at the corner of Oak Street. Built in 1875, it was located at one of the busiest intersections in the neighborhood, and included stores on the first floor, plus offices and a public hall on the upper floors.

The building was originally owned by businessmen Henry K. Wight and George H. Chapman, who each had stores on the ground floor. Wight was a partner in Wight, Rivers & Co., a grocery store that occupied the corner storefront, and city directories of the era describe the company as “Dealers in Choice Groceries, Crockery and Glass Ware, Flour, Teas, Coffees, Sugars, Butter, Cheese, Syrup and Molasses. All varieties of Canned Fruits, with a complete assortment of goods usually kept in a first-class store. Also Dealers in Paints, Oils, Window Glass, etc.” Next to this store, on the left side of the building, was Chapman & Bengle, “Dealers in Clothing, Gentlemen’s Furnishing Goods, Boots and Shoes. Repairing neatly and promptly done.”

George Chapman’s business partner, Charles Bengle, purchased Chapman’s interest in the company in 1886, and he remained in business in this building until around 1904, when he built a new commercial block, directly across Oak Street from here, and moved his store into the new building. Then, around 1910, the older Wight & Chapman Block was purchased by Charles Rieutord, the owner of the nearby National House hotel on Oak Street. Upon purchasing this building, he set about renovating it, including extending the storefronts along both the Main Street and Oak Street sides.

Rieutord opened a wholesale liquor store on the left side of the ground floor, and ran it for about a decade, until Prohibition was enacted in 1920. Along with this, he was also involved with the Springfield Breweries Company, which attempted to adapt to Prohibition by producing non-alcoholic beverages. By the mid-1920s, he was the company’s vice president, serving under president Theodor Geisel – the father of Dr. Seuss – but the brewery ultimately went out of business before the end of Prohibition.

By the time the first photo was taken in the late 1930s, the building’s retail tenants included Frank J. Livi, an Italian immigrant who ran a clothing shop in the corner storefront. The store would remain here until at least the 1960s, and since then the exterior of the building has remained well-preserved. Indian Orchard still retains much of its historic appearance, and still bears closer resemblance to a small mill town rather than a neighborhood of a large city. The Wight & Chapman Block is one of many historic buildings along this section of Main Street, and today it stands as one of the finest commercial buildings of its era, not just in Indian Orchard but in the entire city of Springfield.

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.

High Street from Lyman Street, Holyoke, Mass

Looking south on High Street from Lyman Street in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

This scene shows the same block of High Street as this previous post, just from the opposite direction. As mentioned in that post, these buildings were mostly built around the 1860s and 1870s, with the oldest probably being the Fuller Block in the center of the photo, which dates back to around the 1850s. Closer in the foreground, there are seven very similar Italianate-style brick commercial blocks. The six closest to the camera were all built around the same time, probably about 1870, and the one near the center of the photo was built a little later, around 1878. Holyoke’s Gothic-style city hall also dates back to around this time, having been completed in 1876, and its tower rises in the distance of both photos.

Today, this scene has not significantly changed in the past 125 years. Everything on High Street to the north of Lyman Street was demolished in the 1970s as part of an urban renewal project, but most of the historic High Street buildings are still standing to the south of Lyman Street. The Fuller Block is still here, as are most of the other buildings beyond it, and five of the seven buildings in the foreground are also still standing. The building on the far left, at the corner of Lyman Street, is gone, as is the one at the corner of Oliver Street, but otherwise this scene retains much of its late 19th century appearance. Because of this, the buildings along this section of High Street are now part of the North High Street Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Mills-Stebbins Villa, Springfield, Mass

The house at 3 Crescent Hill in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The house in 2017:

This Italian villa-style house was completed in 1851 on Crescent Hill, atop a ridge near the corner of Maple and Pine Streets. It was the work of Henry A. Sykes, a notable local architect from Suffield, Connecticut. His career was cut short when he died in 1860 at the age of 50, but he was responsible for architecturally-significant houses, churches, and other buildings throughout the Connecticut River Valley. However, this house was perhaps his magnum opus. It reflected the Italian villa style that was just starting to become popular for upscale American homes, and it was later praised by architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock as “one of the finest nineteenth century houses in America.”

The original owner of this house was John Mills, a lawyer and politician who was born in 1787 in Sandisfield, Massachusetts. He never attended college, but he studied law in Granville under future county sheriff John Phelps, and was admitted to the bar in 1812. He subsequently lived in Southwick, and in addition to his law practice he also served in the state senate from 1823 to 1827, including as the senate president from 1826 to 1827. In 1826, he was also part of a six-man commission that established the current Massachusetts-Connecticut border, finally resolving a long-standing dispute that dated back to the 1640s.

One incident during Mills’s time in the state senate, which may be apocryphal, came in 1824, when the Marquis de Lafayette visited the Massachusetts State House. Lafayette shook hands with each member of the state legislature and, upon reaching Mills, supposedly clasped his hands and declared, “My dear friend, I recollect you in the Revolution.” Mills, of course, was born five years after the war ended, and was the youngest of the state senators. However, he was also prematurely bald, which evidently made him look much older than he really was.

In 1835, Mills was appointed U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, a position he held until 1841. During this time, in 1836, he moved to Springfield, where he lived in a house on Howard Street. He returned to the state senate in 1842, and then from 1843 to 1844 served as the state treasurer and receiver-general. In 1848, he was nominated for lieutenant governor by the newly-established and Free Soil Party, a third party that was mainly focused on preventing the spread of slavery. He and his running mate, Salem mayor Stephen C. Phillips, were roundly defeated in the general election by incumbent Whig governor George N. Briggs and lieutenant governor John Reed, Jr., but they managed to finish second in the three-way race, ahead of the pro-slavery Democratic candidate.

Around 1849, Mills commisssioned Sykes to design this house, which was completed two years later. At the time, Crescent Hill and the neighboring Ames Hill were just starting to be developed, but by the end of the 19th century this area would become the city’s most prestigious neighborhood, with its proximity to downtown and its sweeping views of the river valley. John Mills was in his early 60s at the time, and was largely retired from public life by then. However, he did serve a single term in the state house of representatives in 1851, and in 1855 he became president of the Hampden Mutual Fire Insurance Company.

During the 1855 state census, Mills was living here in this house with his wife Emily and three of their children: John, Sarah, and Isaac. Isaac’s wife Ann and their daughter also lived here, and the family employed three Irish-born servants who lived here. However, John sold this house two years later, and he and Emily moved to Byers Street, where they lived with their daughter Sarah and her newlywed husband, Roswell G. Shurtleff. The Mills family did not entirely leave Crescent Hill, though, because in 1859 Isaac and Ann moved into a new house across the street from here, at the corner of Crescent Hill and Pine Street.

John Mills died in 1862 at the age of 74, by which point this house on Crescent Hill was owned by by John B. Stebbins, a wealthy merchant who was a business partner of hardware store owner Homer Foot. Stebbins was a native of Springfield, and was among the original students at Springfield High School when it opened in 1828, but after leaving school he moved to Hartford, where he worked as a clerk in a grocery store. However, he soon returned to Springfield, and found work as a clerk in Homer Foot’s hardware store. After a few years here he moved again, this time to New York City, and worked as a clerk in another hardware store, but in 1839 he returned to Springfield for good, returning to his position with Foot, with the promise that he would be be given an interest in the firm.

Homer Foot kept his promise, and in 1842 Stebbins became a partner in the company. A year later he married his wife Maria, and the couple first lived on Elm Street, and then at the corner of Main and Emery Streets, and finally on Byers Street before purchasing this house from John Mills in 1857. They had a total of seven children: John, Mary, Elizabeth, Annie, Fannie, Maria, and an unnamed child who died shortly after birth. Mary also died in infancy, but the five surviving children all lived here in this house with their parents.

Aside from Foot’s store, Stebbins was also involved in a number of other companies, serving as a director and, at various times, as president of the Springfield Institution for Savings, the Holyoke Water Power Company, the Ludlow Manufacturing Company, and the Hampshire Paper Company. In the process he became a wealthy man, with the 1870 census listing his real estate as being worth $73,000, plus a personal estate worth $30,000, for a total net worth of more than $2 million in today’s dollars. He was also involved in politics, serving as a city alderman in 1853, a member of the school committee from 1865 to 1869 and in 1873, and as a state legislator in 1883.

His wife Maria died in 1891, and John died in 1899, but this house remained in the Stebbins family for many years. Of the five children who survived to adulthood, neither Annie nor Maria ever married, and they lived here for the rest of their lives. The 1920 census shows them living here with their nephew, 48-year-old John, who was the son of their brother John. Maria died in 1928, and by 1930 Annie was living here alone, aside from two servants. She would remain here until her death in 1939, around the same time that the first photo was taken.

After Annie’s death, the house was inherited by her nephew Carl Stebbins, the oldest son of her brother John. He had grown up in this house with his parents and grandparents, but he later moved to Tacoma, Washington, before eventually returning to Springfield. By the 1940 census he was 70 years old, and was living here with his wife Grace, their daughter Grace, and his wife’s sister, Rebecca Birnie. He lived here until his death a decade later, and his wife remained here until her death in 1961, more than a century after the Stebbins family first moved into this house.

Their daughter Grace sold the property in 1962, and the house remained vacant for a number of years. During this time the interior was vandalized, but by the early 1970s it had new owners and was carefully restored. The house was individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and the following year it became part of the Ames Hill/Crescent Hill Historic District, which encompasses the many historic 19th and early 20th century homes in the neighborhood. Today, the house shows some changes from its 1930s appearance, including different first-floor windows on the left side, but overall it still stands as one of the grandest and most architecturally-significant houses in the city.