Park Square, Pittsfield, Mass

Looking west at Park Square in Pittsfield, facing toward West Street, around 1905-1911. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


Park Square in 2016:

The area around Park Square has been at the heart of downtown Pittsfield since the early days of the city’s settlement. It was incorporated as a town in 1761, and a year later the first meeting house was built here. In 1790, the land for present-day Park Square was donated to the town as Meeting House Common, and ever since then it has served as a public park.

Over the years, the square has seen use for a number of different events. In 1810, the nation’s first agricultural fair was held here, and 15 years later Pittsfield welcomed the Marquis de Lafayette here, while the Revolutionary War hero was passing through on his way to Boston. It was also a mustering ground for soldiers during the Civil War, and after the end of the war a monument was added to the square, in honor of Pittsfield’s soldiers. This monument is visible in the center left of both photos, although it is mostly hidden by trees in the 2016 view.

When the first photo was taken, Park Square was the site of the city’s top hotel, the Hotel Wendell. It opened in 1898, on the left side of the first photo, and stood here until the 1960s, when it was demolished and replaced with the present-day buildings, including the Berkshire Crowne Plaza. Opposite the Hotel Wendell, on the right side of the scene, is the Berkshire Life Insurance Company Building, which was built here in 1868. It is hard to tell because of the trees, but the building is still standing, although it was significantly expanded in 1911, shortly after the first photo was taken.

South Street, Pittsfield, Mass

Looking north on South Street in Pittsfield, toward Park Square, around 1911-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The scene in 2016:

Although a century has passed since the first photo was taken, the appearance of downtown Pittsfield has not significantly changed. The buildings in this scene are built around Park Square, which is partially visible on the right side and is the main focal point in the center of the city. Looking ahead in the distance is North Street, which is lined with 19th and early 20th century commercial blocks.

Pittsfield is the largest city in the Berkshires, and when the first photo was taken the region was a resort destination for wealthy families across the northeast, especially from New York. As a result, Pittsfield thrived, and the first photo shows a number of prominent buildings in the foreground.

To the left was the Hotel Wendell, which was built in 1898 at the corner of South and West Streets. It was the city’s premier hotel in the first half of the 20th century, and in 1930 it was expanded, replacing the much smaller buildings on the far left. Within a few decades, though, times had changed for grand downtown hotels across the country, and in the 1960s the hotel closed and was demolished.

Just beyond the Hotel Wendell, at the corner of North and West Streets, is the Berkshire Life Insurance Company Building. Constructed in 1868, it was significantly expanded in 1911, shortly before the first photo was taken. It is still standing today, along with the Berkshire County Savings Bank Building, which was built in 1896 across the street on the right side of the photo. Both of these buildings are now part of the Park Square Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Butler Exchange, Providence, RI

The Butler Exchange, on the south side of Exchange Plaza in Providence, around the 1870s or 1880s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.


The scene in 2016:

The late 19th century was a time of growing prosperity for the city of Providence, and few buildings indicated this as well as the Butler Exchange. This massive commercial block was built in 1873, and was designed by prominent architect Arthur Gilman. Like many other public buildings of the day, it was designed in the Second Empire style, complete with towers on the corners and a large, two-story mansard roof at the top. On the inside, it consisted of shops on the first floor, with offices on the five upper floors. Starting in 1878, the second floor was also the first home of the Providence Public Library, until they opened their current building in 1900.

Today, nothing remains from the first photo. The smaller buildings on either side of the photo are long gone, and the Butler Exchange itself was demolished in 1925. By the turn of the 20th century, Providence’s skyline had begun growing upward, culminating in 1928 with the completion of the 428-foot, 26-story Industrial Trust Tower, built here on the site of the Butler Exchange. Later known as the Bank of America Tower and now as 111 Westminster Street, the Art Deco-style skyscraper remains the tallest building in Rhode Island. However, the historic building has been vacant since 2013, and despite several redevelopment proposals its future is still uncertain.

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.


The scene in 2016:

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.

Exchange Plaza, Providence, RI

Looking east toward Exchange Plaza from City Hall in Providence, around 1913-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The scene in 2016:

Exchange Plaza has been at the center of downtown Providence since the 19th century, although both it and its surroundings have undergone many changes during this time. In 1847, the city’s first railroad station was built here on the north side of the plaza. A new station was built a little further to the north in 1898, and City Hall Park opened on the site of the old station, on the left side of both photos. City Hall, where these photos were taken, was built on the west side of the plaza in 1878, across from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. This statue was dedicated in 1871 and moved to the center of the plaza shortly before the first photo was taken, but was moved back to its original location in 1997.

The first photo shows a variety of transportation methods, including cars, trolleys, and horse-drawn carts. However, at this point cars had begun to dominate the city streets already, and Exchange Plaza had become a parking lot. On the opposite side of the plaza in both photos is the Federal Building, which was built in 1908 as a post office, courthouse, and custom house. It is still in use today, and is one of only a few buildings still standing here from the first photo.

The right side of the plaza, which was renamed Kennedy Plaza in 1964, is now dominated by skyscrapers. In the first photo, the most prominent building here was the Butler Exchange, a six-story commercial block on the far right. It stood here from 1873 to 1925, and after its demolition it was replaced by the present-day 111 Westminster Street building. Completed in 1928, this 26-story skyscraper remains the tallest building in Rhode Island nearly 90 years later.

Today, the only building still standing from the right side of the first photo is the Exchange Bank Building, barely visible in the distance at the corner of Exchange Street, diagonally across from the Federal Building. Completed in 1845, it predates even the original railroad station that stood opposite the plaza. However, it is not the oldest building in the scene. That distinction likely goes to the First Baptist Church in America, which was built in 1775 on the other side of the Providence River. The top of its spire is visible in both photos, behind the Federal Building.

Westminster Street from Mathewson Street, Providence, RI

Looking east on Westminster Street, from just east of Mathewson Street, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


Westminster Street in 2016:

This scene shows the same section of Westminster Street as an earlier post, which was taken facing the opposite direction a couple blocks east of here. The first photo shows a vibrant street scene, with trolleys, horse-drawn carts, and plenty of pedestrians making their way along the narrow commercial street. With so many people, there are plenty of interesting characters, including four identically-dressed women crossing in front of the oncoming trolley, two boys with their arms around each other on the tracks, and several cigar-smoking, straw hat-wearing men who are eyeing the photographer from the sidewalk. Both sides of the street are filled with a variety of stores, restaurants, and professional offices, including an optician whose sign is a large pair of eyeglasses on the left side of the photo.

When the first photo was taken, most of the buildings in this scene were relatively new. Providence experienced dramatic population growth in the second half of the 19th century, and as a result most of the older commercial blocks along Westminster Street were replaced with newer, larger ones by the first decade of the 20th century. One of the tallest of these, the 1902 Union Trust Company Building, can be seen in the distance. Closer to the camera, several other historic building are still standing, and today form part of the Downtown Providence Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

On the left, just beyond the giant eyeglasses, is the Shepard Company Building. Home to Shepard’s department store for many years, it was originally built in the 1870s, and then expanded several times between 1880 and 1903. Further in the distance, in the center of the photo, is the Alice Building. Built in 1898 as a commercial block, it has since been converted into apartments. On the right side of the photo is the five-story Train Building, which was built in 1893. It is mostly hidden by the trees from this angle, and exterior of the lower two floors was heavily renovated in 1954, but the building is still there.