William B. Harris House, Springfield, Mass

The house at 39 Madison Avenue in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The house in 2016:

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This house dates back to the 1870s, and was the home of William B. Harris, a civil engineer who lived here with his wife Rebecca and their three children: Charles, Helen, and John. Both Charles and Helen lived here with their parents well into adulthood. William and Rebecca appear to have died between 1910 and 1920, because by the 1920 census Charles, age 51, and Helen, age 47 were living here alone.

Subsequent residents of this house included William and Gladys Langston, who were living here in 1930, followed by George and Ellie Chamberlain, who were living here in the late 1930s when the first photo was taken. In the nearly 80 years that have followed, very little has changed with the house. It still retains its distinctive features, such as the porch on the left, the bay windows, and the Italianate brackets under the eaves. Along with the rest of Madison Avenue, it is part of the city’s Maple Hill Historic District.

31-33 Madison Avenue, Springfield, Mass

The duplex at 31-33 Madison Avenue, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The building in 2016:

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This Italianate duplex was built in 1869 for brothers Henry and Seth Avery, both of whom were merchants in the city. Henry, the older brother, was a tailor, and he lived in house number 31 on the right, with his wife Sarah. Seth, who lived on the left with his wife Elizabeth, was also involved in selling clothing, and according to the 1870 city directory he was a “Dealer in Hats, Caps, Furs, Furnishing Goods, Umbrellas, Trunks, Bags, &c.”

The two brothers lived here for the rest of their lives. Seth died in 1904, while Henry lived to be 93 years old before his death in 1912. After Seth died, the house on the left was sold to John and Mary McGillicuddy, Irish immigrants who lived here with their five children. All five children were still living here as late as the 1920 census, when the youngest was 23 years old. John lived here until his death in the 1930s, and Mary was still living here as late as the 1940 census.

After Henry’s death in 1912, the house on the right was sold to Leslie Goldthwait, a banker who lived here with his wife Florence and, by 1920, their young children Leslie, Jr. and Susan. By 1930, 78 year old widow Anna Howe was living here, along with her daughter Alison and their Irish servant, Bridie Bresnahan. They were no longer here in 1940, and the house does not appear to have been listed in that year’s census. It was likely vacant, as indicated by the “For Sale” sign in the front yard of the first photo.

Not counting the much older Sterns house, which was moved to its current site in the 1870s, this duplex is the oldest building on Madison Avenue. Nearly 150 years after it was built, its exterior remains well-preserved, with an Italianate architectural design that is relatively unusual for Springfield. Along with the rest of the street it is on the outer edge of the city’s Maple Hill Local Historic District.

Thomas Colt House, Pittsfield, Mass

The Thomas Colt House at 42 Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield, around 1900. Image from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and Vicinity (1900).

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The house in 2016:

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This house was built in 1866 by Thomas Colt, an industrialist who was, at the time, one of the largest paper manufacturers in the state. In 1856, he had purchased a paper mill on the eastern edge of Pittsfield, in the neighborhood that later became known as Coltsville. The business was soon successful, and a decade later he built his house here. It had a prime location just a short walk away from downtown Pittsfield, and the 15-room Italianate mansion cost an estimated $40,000 for him to build.

Unfortunately for Colt, he did not get to enjoy it for very long. The nation’s economy, particularly in the north, was booming in the years following the Civil War. However, it was followed by the Panic of 1873, which caused a serious economic recession. Many wealthy businessmen lost their fortunes, including Thomas Colt, whose factory soon closed. By 1874, he was a half million dollars in debt – over $10 million today – and he died two years later.

The house was subsequently owned by Alexander Joslin and his family, and later by Simon England, a businessman who owned the England Brothers store in Pittsfield. In 1937, he donated the home to the Women’s Club of the Berkshires, and this organization became, by far, the house’s longest owner. They remained here until 2011, and sold the house the following year. It is now the Whitney Center for the Arts, and it is a contributing property in the Park Square Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Customshouse, Providence, RI

Looking down Weybosset Street from Westminster Street in Providence in 1868, with the U.S. Customshouse in the background. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The scene in 2016:

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In the first photo, this scene is dominated by the U.S. Customshouse, a domed, three-story granite building that had been completed just 11 years earlier, in 1857. It was designed by Ammi B. Young, during his time as Supervising Architect of the Treasury. His works included many prominent buildings, such as the old Vermont State House, part of the Treasury Building in Washington, DC, and the Custom House in Boston.

Young designed the custom houses in Boston and Providence about 20 years apart, and the two buildings reflect a shift in architectural tastes during the time. Although both were constructed of granite, Boston’s earlier building was Greek Revival, but by the time Providence’s Customshouse was built, Italianate architecture was far more common. Gone were the massive columns and triangular pediments, replaced instead with design elements such as arches, window cornices, and quoins on the corners.

When the first photo was taken, the Customshouse was surrounded by an assortment of low-rise commercial buildings, many of which were wood and probably dated back to the early 19th century. However, over time these buildings disappeared, and were replaced by much taller skyscrapers, dwarfing the old Customshouse. The first of these skyscrapers was the Banigan Building, built in 1896 on the left side of the present-day scene. It was followed in 1913 by the even taller Turk’s Head Building on the right side of the photo, which was constructed on a triangular lot and bears some resemblance to New York’s Flatiron Building.

Because Providence was a major port in New England, the Customshouse served an important function housing the offices of the city’s Collector of Customs. However, despite its name, the building also included the city’s main post office, a federal courtroom, and the offices of the federal District Attorney. Consequently, while Providence’s skyline was growing, so was the need for space in the old building.

The problem was solved in 1908, with the completion of a new Federal Building at Exchange Plaza. Even this new building was not enough, though. After sitting vacant for more than a decade, the old Customshouse was reopened in 1921 to provide additional space for federal offices. It remained in use until 1989, and was later sold to the State of Rhode Island. Today, it is used as offices for the State Courts System. Along with the turn-of-the-century skyscrapers around it, the 160 year old building is now part of the Customshouse Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Prospect Street, Providence, RI

Looking north on Prospect Street near Olive Street in Providence, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

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Providence’s College Hill neighborhood is the city’s premier residential area, featuring Brown University as well as numerous historic 19th century homes. This section of Prospect Street is just a few blocks north of Brown, and includes one of the city’s largest homes, the Woods-Gerry House on the left side of the photo. It was designed by prominent architect Richard Upjohn and completed in 1863, and was built as the home of Dr. Marshall Woods, a Brown graduate of 1845 who remained involved in his alma mater for the rest of his life, including serving as the school’s treasurer from 1866 to 1882.

After Dr Woods’s death in 1899, the house remained in his family’s ownership until 1931, when it was sold to Peter Goelet Gerry. It was subsequently sold to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1959, who planned to demolish it. The irony of a design school wanting to demolish the work of a pre-eminent 19th century architect was apparently lost on the school administration, but after many years of calls for its preservation, the school finally decided to restore it. Today, it remains in use as offices for their admissions department, and overall very little has changed in this scene during the past 110 years.

American House, Greenfield, Mass

The American House at the corner of Main and Davis Streets in Greenfield, sometime around the 1880s. Photo from Greenfield Illustrated.

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The scene in 2016:

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In modern-day redevelopments, architects often attempt to preserve the facades of old buildings, even if everything else is being demolished and rebuilt, and incorporate them into new structures. Especially in historic urban settings, this helps to maintain the visual appearance of the street while at the same time allowing a new building to occupy the site. However, in the 1960s the trend was the exact opposite. Many historic buildings had their original facades removed or covered, which the rest of the structure survived more or less intact underneath.

This was the case for several buildings along Greenfield’s historic Main Street, including this architectural monstrosity in the center of the photo. It was originally built in 1876, a few years before the first photo was taken, and was known as the American House. At the time it was Greenfield’s largest hotel, with a hundred guest rooms on the upper floors. The first floor had several stores, including a clothing store that was purchased in 1896 by John Wilson. He turned it into a department store and soon expanded into the second floor, and his business has remained here in the building ever since.

As for the hotel, it went through several other names, including the Devens Hotel and the Hotel Greenfield. Over time, though, the department store gradually expanded into the former hotel section, and the hotel finally closed for good in 1944. The building is still standing today, although it is completely unrecognizable from its original appearance. In 1965 its exterior was remodeled, with a metal facade that covered the original Italianate exterior. This original facade is probably still hiding under there, though, so perhaps someday the bland, warehouse-like exterior will be removed and the building restored to its 1870s appearance.

Although the American House has survived more or less intact under its mid-century shroud, the same cannot be said for the other historic building from the first photo, the Colonnade Block on the right. It was built in the 1790s as the home of Jerome Ripley, a prominent resident whose children included George Ripley, a Transcendentalist writer who founded the Brook Farm utopian community. In 1842, Dr. Daniel Hovey added the columns and portico to the front of the building, and for many years it was a commercial building known as the Colonnade Block. It stood here until 1975, when the 18th century structure was demolished to build a bank building, which is now a branch of Greenfield Community College.