High Street from Main Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking west up High Street, from the corner of Main Street in Brattleboro, in August 1941. Image taken by Jack Delano, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo was taken in August 1941 by Jack Delano, a noted photographer who worked for the Farm Security Administration. This Depression-era agency was part of the New Deal, and its programs included photographers who traveled around the country, documenting rural poverty in the wake of the Great Depression. Delano visited Vermont in 1941, and he took a number of photographs here in Brattleboro, capturing images of everyday life in the town, including this scene of a police officer directing traffic at the corner of Main and High Streets.

More than 75 years after the first photo was taken, this scene has not changed significantly. On the far left is the Brooks House, a hotel that was built in 1871 and converted into apartments and offices a century later. Next to it is the small, wood-frame Retting Block, which was built around 1850 and is probably the oldest building in this scene. Just beyond it is the much larger Manley Brothers Block, which was built around 1910, and on the other side of the street is the Manley Apartment Building, which was built about eight years later. Probably the newest building in the first photo was the Gulf station on the far right, at the corner of Main Street. It was later replaced by a Dunkin Donuts, which was, in turn, demolished to create Pliny Park, which now occupies the space.

Revere House, Brattleboro, Vermont

The Revere House, at the southwest corner of Main and Elliot Streets in Brattleboro, around 1860-1877. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The same location, around 1894. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The scene around 2017:

The first photo shows the Revere House, a hotel that was built in 1849 by James Fisk, Sr. Born in Rhode Island, Fisk grew up in Adams, Massachusetts, and as an adult he moved first to Pownal and then to Bennington, Vermont. He became a successful peddler, traveling throughout western New England and eastern New York, where he sold silk dresses and other high-end dry goods. He moved to Brattleboro in 1843, and about six years later he built the Revere House. By this point, the Fisk family included James’s second wife Love, their daughter Mary, and Fisk’s son from his first marriage, James, Jr.

The Fisks moved into the Revere House after its completion, and the younger James, who was about 15 at the time, worked as a waiter here in the hotel. He later joined his father’s peddling business, before becoming a salesman for the Boston-based Jordan Marsh and Company. James, Jr. went on to make his fortune during the Civil War, obtaining contracts with the federal government to supply textiles for army uniforms, while also smuggling scare cotton from the south. With his earnings, he speculated heavily, gaining and losing significant sums in the process.

Fisk eventually became one of the most notorious of the Gilded Age “robber barons.” Using dubious tactics, he and fellow investor Jay Gould managed to gain control of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Erie Railroad, and in 1869 the two men triggered a nationwide economic panic in an unsuccessful attempt to corner the gold market. However, his career as a financier was cut short less than three years later, when he was murdered by Edward Stiles Stokes, who was a rival for the affections of Fisk’s mistress, Josie Mansfield.

Although Fisk was living in New York City at the time of his murder, his body was returned to Brattleboro for burial. An estimated 5,000 mourners – equivalent to the entire population of the town at the time – were on hand when his funeral train arrived in town at almost midnight, and his body was brought to the Revere House. The next morning, on January 9, 1872, his funeral was held here at the hotel, followed by his burial at the Prospect Hill Cemetery on South Main Street.

By this point, the Fisk family had moved out of the Revere House, and the building burned down only a few years later, in 1877, after a fire broke out in the hotel stables. The site was quickly rebuilt, though, and the current building was completed in 1880 as the home of the People’s National Bank. Unlike the plain Greek Revival-style hotel that preceded it, this building had an ornate design that was based on High Victorian Gothic architecture, and included an elaborate cornice with turrets, along with a highly contrasting exterior of red brick and white marble.

When the first photo was taken, People’s National Bank occupied the left side of the ground floor, with Brattleboro Savings Bank on the right. The upper floors housed professional offices, including the studio of noted local photographer Caleb L. Howe. People’s National Bank remained here until 1923, when they merged with Vermont National Bank, which was located directly across the street from here. After a series of mergers, the name has since come full circle, and the former Vermont National Bank building is now the location of a People’s United Bank branch.

Today, the old People’s National Bank building still stands here at the corner of Main and Elliot Streets. Its appearance has been somewhat altered over the years, most notably with the removal of the upper part of the cornice. However, it still remains a unique example of High Victorian Gothic architecture in downtown Brattleboro, and it is one of the many 19th century commercial buildings that still line Main Street. Along with the rest of the neighborhood, the building is now part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

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.

158-160 Main Street, Indian Orchard, Springfield, Mass

The building at 158-160 Main Street in the Springfield neighborhood of Indian Orchard, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The scene in 2017:

The early history of this building seems unclear, but it was likely among the oldest buildings on Main Street in Indian Orchard when the first photo was taken. The state’s MACRIS database estimates that it was built between 1855 and 1860, in the early years of Indian Orchard’s development. At the time, the majority of buildings on Main Street were small wood-frame structures, but over time these began to be replaced by larger brick buildings, as seen on both sides of these photos. However, this building managed to survive, with some alterations, until the late 20th century, despite being overshadowed on either side by taller neighbors.

By about 1880, this building was owned by Walter S. Colwell, a merchant who lived here and ran a meat market around the corner at 21 Oak Street, where the present-day post office now stands. He lived on the left side of this building, at 158 Main, along with his wife Eliza and their son Howard. The  right side of the building was the home of his uncle, Larned Colwell, who lived on the right side with his wife Melissa and their children, Harding and Minnie. Larned was Walter’s business partner, and they were, according to the 1882 city directory, “Dealers in all kinds of Fresh, Salt and Smoked Meats, Lard, Tripe, and Vegetables in their season.”

Larned Colwell died in 1889, and within a few years his widow Melissa had moved to Hampden Street. However, Walter would remain here for at least another decade, although by the 1899 city directory he had evidently left the meat business and was working as a bookkeeper for the Chapman Valve Company. He, Eliza, and Howard moved soon after, and by the 1900 census they were living a few blocks away in a house at 111 Berkshire Street. Within a few years, this property on Main Street was sold to clothing merchant Charles Bengle, who built a large commercial block at the corner of Oak Street, just to the left of this building. Then, in 1908, Octave A. LaRiviere built an even taller building just to the right, surrounding the old building on both sides.

By the time the first photo was taken in the late 1930s, this building had seen a few alterations from its original appearance, including several storefronts and a cross-gable that faced Main Street. There are no legible signs in any of the storefronts to indicate what businesses were located here, but the building was used for both residential and commercial purposes for many years. It was still standing in 1984, when it was inventoried for the state’s MACRIS database of historic buildings, and a photo from this era showed two ground-floor tenants: de Sousa Real Estate and Notary Public on the left, and Casa de Portugal on the right. However, the building has subsequently been demolished, and today the site is a parking lot, flanked on either side by the other two buildings from the first photo.

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.