George J. Brooks Library, Brattleboro, Vermont

The George J. Brooks Library on Main Street in Brattleboro, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

George Jones Brooks was born in 1818 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but when he was three years old his family relocated to Chesterfield, New Hampshire, directly across the river from Brattleboro. He grew up there, and subsequently worked at a store in Brattleboro, before heading west around the age of 20. He first settled in Hillsboro, Illinois, where he was a farmer for about 12 years. Then, in 1850, he joined the thousands of other young men who were flocking to San Francisco after the discovery of gold in California.

Unlike most of the other migrants, though, Brooks was not looking to get wealthy through gold, but rather through paper. His brother, Horace Brooks, was a wholesale paper manufacturer in New York, and he suggested that George open a business in San Francisco. Like almost every other commodity, paper was in short supply in the still-primitive boomtown, and in later years Brooks would tell of times when every scrap of paper on the west coast was located in his store. This scarcity, combined with his virtual monopoly, earned him significant profits, and by the time Brooks left the paper business in 1862 he had become a wealthy man.

Brooks eventually returned to Brattleboro, where he built the elegant Brooks House hotel, which still stands just a little south of here. Then, in 1885, he purchased the former Francis Goodhue House here on Main Street, in order to build a library on the site. The old house was soon demolished, and construction began on the first permanent home of Brattleboro’s public library, which had previously been located in the Town Hall. Upon completion, the building was presented to the town as a gift, but unfortunately Brooks did not live to see it finished; he died on December 23, 1886, just weeks before the dedication ceremony.

Like many other public buildings of the era, the George J. Brooks Library featured Romanesque Revival architecture. It was the work of Maine architect Alexander Currier, and the building was actually larger than it appears in the first photograph. As built, the front section included a ladies’ reading room on the right side, a men’s reading room on the left, and a vestibule and lobby in the center. The library itself was located in a large wing on the rear of the building, which was nearly the same size as the front section, and included the main floor plus a balcony. The basement originally housed a natural history museum, but this was later converted into a children’s library.

It did not take very long for the library to outgrow the original space, though, and in the early 20th century it was expanded with a large addition in the rear. Following this expansion, it continued to be used for many years, but by the 1960s the building was again overcrowded, and the adjacent post office wanted the property in order to build a parking lot. So, a new Brooks Memorial Library building opened just to the north of here in 1967, and the old building was demolished four years later. The parking lot is still here today, and the only surviving remnant from the first photo is the First Baptist Church on the far left, which is still standing on the other side of the Masonic Lodge.

Wales Public Library, Wales, Mass

The Wales Public Library, at the corner of Main and Church Streets, around 1922-1925. Image courtesy of the Nevins Memorial Library.

The scene in 2017:

The origins of the Wales Public Library date back to 1897, when it began as a collection of books in the corner of a general store. The town had a population of a little over 700 at the time, with woolen mills employing many of its residents. However, these companies began to leave around the turn of the 20th century, and by 1910 the population had dropped by more than half, to just 345 residents in that year’s census. Throughout this time, the small public library continued to operate out of the general store, but around the early 1920s this house was donated to the town, in order to provide a more permanent home for the library.

The early history of this house seems difficult to trace. The state’s MACRIS database of historic buildings gives 1841 as the date of construction, while the library itself gives a date of 1825. Either way, it was apparently built by a Stephen Fisk, although maps from the mid-19th century show it as belonging to the Shaw family. By the second half of the century, the house was right in the midst of the town’s manufacturing center, and was directly adjacent to the woolen mill of the Shaw Manufacturing Company. Around 1875, the Wales Baptist Church relocated to this area, constructing a large church just up the hill from this house, which can be seen in the distance on the right side of the first photo.

At some point in the early 20th century, this house was acquired by the church, which, in turn, gave it to the town for use as a library. It opened in 1922, following a conversion that included changing the window configuration on the first floor. This helped to balance the building’s appearance, as it previously had one window on the left and two on the right, although the second floor windows were unchanged, resulting in a slightly asymmetrical front facade.

The first photo was taken soon after the library opened, and very little has changed in its appearance since then. The church in the distance is long gone, but this building remains in use as the Wales Public Library, with only minor exterior alterations. However, both the town’s population and the library’s collections have grown substantially in almost a century since the building opened, and today the library faces both overcrowding of its shelves and the structural deterioration of the building itself. Because of this, the library is in need of a new building, although to date there have been no definitive plans for relocating.

Wales Baptist Church, Wales, Mass

The Wales Baptist Church on Church Street, seen in the distance from the other side of Main Street, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

The present-day town of Wales was settled sometime around the 1720s, and was, at the time, a part of Brimfield. It was subsequently incorporated as a separate town in 1775, and was known as South Brimfield until 1828, when it was renamed Wales. As was the case across New England in the colonial era, the area’s settlement soon led to the establishment of a church. However while nearly all of these churches were Congregational, Wales was a rare exception. Its first church, formed in 1736, was Baptist, making it among the first Baptist churches in this part of the state. Other denominations would later establish churches here in Wales, but the Baptists would remain the predominant religious group for many years.

In 1802, the Baptists constructed a new meeting house on the southern part of Main Street, near the corner of Union Road. Along with the Baptists, the building was used by other denominations, including Universalists and Congregationalists, and it also served as the town hall. It would continue to be used as the town hall until 1965, and it is still standing today, but the Baptists moved out of the building around 1875, when they built a new church about a mile away on Church Street, which is seen here in the first photo. At the time, this area had become the town’s manufacturing center, and there were several woolen mills in the vicinity of the church, including one that was located just out of view to the right of the scene.

The first photo shows the church as it appeared around the 1890s. The town’s population had peaked about a decade earlier, with a population of 1,030 during the 1880 census. However, the town lost many of its manufacturing jobs by the turn of the 20th century, and the population rapidly declined. Within 30 years, the town lost two-thirds of its residents, with the 1910 census showing a population of just 345. Not until after World War II did Wales see significant growth again, and the town would not surpass its 1880 population until the 1980 census.

The early 20th century population loss hurt Wales’s churches, particularly the Baptists, who had built this large church building at the height of the town’s prosperity. They would continue to worship here until around the early 1930s, when the dwindling congregation joined with the Methodists, whose church was located a little to the south of here on Main Street. The Baptists later took ownership of the former Methodist church, and today the Wales Baptist Church continues to hold its services there, more than 280 years after the congregation was first established.

As the present-day photo shows, the old 1875 church building is no longer standing. It was evidently demolished at some point after the early 1930s, although the short, dead end road on the irght side of the scene still bears the name of Church Street. Today, the only surviving building from the first photo is the house in the foreground, at the corner of Main and Church Streets. Built in the first half of the 19th century, this house later became the Wales Public Library in 1922, and it remains in use today. The first floor windows were altered during its conversion to a library, but otherwise it still stands as the only recognizable feature from the first photo.

Thames and Pelham Streets, Newport, RI (2)

Looking north on Thames Street from the corner of Pelham Street in Newport, in August 1906. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

As with an earlier post, the first photo here shows Thames Street decorates in patriotic bunting for the Newport Carnival, which was held in August 1906. The building on the right side, at the corner of Pelham Street, was the United States Hotel, which had been one of the city’s finest hotels when it was built in 1836. Originally owned by the Townsend family, the hotel had replaced the earlier Townsend’s Coffee House, which was built in 1785 and had been a popular gathering place for Newport’s leading citizens in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The United States Hotel enjoyed similar success in the mid-19th century, and for many years it was the site of the state legislature’s “‘Lection Day” celebrations. Held on the last Tuesday of May, this was the day when the results of the statewide April elections were announced and the winners were inaugurated, and the occasion was a major holiday here in Newport.

By the time the first photo was taken, the ‘Lection Day festivities were a thing of the past, and the state legislature no longer met here in Newport. The United States Hotel has long since been eclipsed by more fashionable Gilded Age hotels, and it had gone through a succession of ownership changes since the Townsend family sold the property in 1858. In 1896, for example, it was being run by George E. Houghton, who declared in a full-page advertisement in the city directory that the hotel had been “thoroughly renovated and refurnished,” and offered “steam heat, electric bells, and table unsurpassed,” and overall it was “the best $2.50 hotel in New England.” When the first photo was taken less than a decade later, though, the hotel was being run by Wulf Petersen, who advertised that it was “lately renovated and under new management,” and was “open the entire year.”

Aside from the United States Hotel, the other historically-significant building in the first photo was the one just beyond it to the left. Built in 1817, this elegant Federal-style building was the home of the Rhode Island Union Bank, which later became the Union National Bank of Newport. The building was designed by Asher Benjamin, a prominent and influential early 19th century architect whose works can be found across New England. However, despite his prolific career, and Newport’s reputation for outstanding architectural works, this bank was Benjamin’s only known commission in the city. Part of this may be due to the fact that the early 19th century was somewhat of a lull in Newport’s prosperity; the city’s shipping industry had never fully recovered after the American Revolution, and its renaissance as a wealthy resort community would not start for several more decades. Consequently, there was limited demand for new buildings, and little need for Asher Benjamin and other architects of his era.

The Union National Bank was still located here when the first photo was taken, and the building was also the home of the People’s Library, which was located on the right side of the building. When the People’s Library – later renamed the Newport Public Library – was established in 1869, the concept of public libraries was still in its infancy in the United States. Members-only libraries, such as Newport’s own Redwood Library, had existed since the 18th century, but it was not until the mid-19th century that public libraries began to take hold, particularly here in the northeast. The library moved into the storefront on the right side in 1870, and would remain here for more than 40 years, until moving out in 1914.

In the years after the first photo was taken, this scene underwent significant changes. The United States Hotel closed in 1918, and remained vacant for many years. Badly deteriorated, it was finally demolished in 1933, leaving only the first floor. This surviving section appears to still be standing, having been incorporated into the present-day commercial building, but all traces of the original hotel building are long gone. In the meantime, bank building to the left was demolished in the 1950s, but like its neighbor it appears part of the first floor survived, and still stands in the present-day scene. However, despite these dramatic changes in the foreground, the two buildings in the distance on the left have survived relatively unchanged, and today they form part of the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Robinson Hall, Brown University, Providence, RI

Robinson Hall at the corner of Waterman and Prospect Streets, on the campus of Brown University, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2016:

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Robinson Hall was built in 1878, with funds provided by John Carter Brown. The son of the school’s namesake, Nicholas Brown, Jr., he was an 1816 graduate of Brown and a book collector, and in his will he left the school this plot of land at the corner of Waterman and Prospect Streets, along with money to build a library here. This brick, Gothic Revival building was used as a library for only a few decades, though, before the completion of the much larger John Hay Library across the street. In 1912, the old library building became the home of the Economics Department, and was later named in honor of Ezekiel Robinson, who had served as the school’s president from 1872 to 1889. Today, very little has changed in its appearance, and it remains in use by the Economics Department. Although the building is no longer used as a library as John Carter Brown had intended, his legacy on campus has not been forgotten. His extensive book collection later formed the basis for another campus library, the John Carter Brown Library, which opened in 1904 and still serves as one of the school’s seven libraries.

John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence, RI

The John Carter Brown Library on the campus of Brown University, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The library in 2016:

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The John Carter Brown Library is one of seven libraries at Brown University, featuring an extensive collection of rare, colonial-era books published in the Americas. Its origins trace back to the private collection of John Carter Brown, who was a member of Providence’s prominent Brown family. His father, Nicholas Brown, Jr., was the donor for whom the school was named, and many other family members played an important role in the founding and development of the school.

After his death in 1874, John Carter Brown left his collection to his son, John Nicholas Brown. He, in turn, left instructions in his will to establish a library with the collection, to be named in memory of his father. Although his will did not stipulate a location, the library trustees chose Brown University, and it opened in 1904, four years after his death.

Like many other early 20th century libraries, the building is an example of Beaux-Arts architecture, and was designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, the firm that would go on to design Brown’s John Hay Library a few years later. The library’s opening in the spring of 1904 coincided with the completion of a nearby gate, which was donated by John Nicholas Brown’s widow and named for her late husband.

Today, the front facade of the library is unchanged from the first photo, but its holdings have significantly increased over the years. A new addition was completed in 1990, and named the Caspersen Building in honor of the parents of its benefactor, Finn M. W. Caspersen. The library now has over 50,000 books from the 19th century and earlier, along with thousands of rare maps, prints, manuscripts, and other documents.