Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Mass

Mechanics Hall on Main Street in Worcester, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The building in 2016:

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Mechanics Hall is a concert hall and a prominent landmark in Worcester. It was built in 1857 by the city’s Mechanics Association, with prominent local architect Elbridge Boyden designing the Italianate structure. With a seating capacity of nearly 2,000, it was by far the largest public hall in the city during the second half of the 19th century, and it attracted many prominent speakers and performers.

In 1868, Mechanics Hall was a stop on Charles Dickens’s tour of the United States. He had previously visited Worcester in 1842, when he was still a young writer, but when he returned to America for his 1867-1868 tour he was an international celebrity. His tour featured sell-out crowds in venues across the northeast, and when he visited Boston there were even people who out overnight on the sidewalk to buy tickets. Here in Worcester, he probably had a similar reception, and in his March 23 performance at Mechanics Hall his audience heard him read A Christmas Carol and part of The Pickwick Papers.

Over the years, the concert hall has seen many other notable performers. It fell into decline in the mid-20th century, though, and was threatened with the possibility of demolition. All of the surrounding buildings from the first photo have since disappeared, but Mechanics Hall has survived. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and later in the decade it was restored to its former appearance. Today, the third-floor hall remains in use for a variety of events, including, appropriately enough, a 2012 reading of A Christmas Carol by Gerald Dickens, the great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens.

Pleasant Street, Worcester, Mass

Looking west on Pleasant Street from Main Street in Worcester, around 1895. Image from Picturesque Worcester (1895).

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Pleasant Street in 2016:

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Although these two photos were taken over 120 years apart, remarkably little has changed along the north side of Pleasant Street since the late 19th century. All of the buildings on the left (south) side were demolished by the 1960s to build the current Worcester Plaza tower, but the right side of the street features a mix of Victorian architecture. Starting on the far right in the foreground is the Odd Fellows Hall, a commercial block that was built in 1880, with upper floors that were rented by the Odd Fellows for many years. Just beyond it is Lothrop’s Opera House, which opened in 1891. Despite its very plain exterior, it has an elegant interior, and although now vacant it is the oldest surviving theater in the city. Beyond the theater are three brick Victorian buildings, the first of which is the Rice Block, built in the 1870s. The next one, the Lamb Block, was built in 1888, originally with five stories as seen in the first photo. The top two floors have since been removed, but otherwise the building is still standing. Finally, on the other side of the Lamb Block is the Luther-Baker Block, also built in 1888.

The buildings further in the distance in the first photo are now gone, but the remaining buildings form a significant unbroken row of 19th century buildings extending west from Main Street. As such, they are part of the Lower Pleasant Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the future is somewhat in doubt for Lothrop’s Opera House. Its first floor storefronts remain in use, but the theater itself has been vacant for the past 10 years, and has recently been listed by Preservation Worcester as one of the city’s ten Most Endangered Structures.

Opera House, Boston

The Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue, around 1909-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The site in 2015:

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The first decade of the 20th century was a busy time for this section of Huntington Avenue.  It came to be nicknamed “The Avenue of the Arts” because of the number of institutions that opened new buildings here during this time, including the Boston Opera House, Symphony HallChickering Hall, Horticultural Hall, the New England Conservatory of Music, and the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Boston Opera House was built thanks to the efforts of Eben Dyer Jordan, Jr., the son of the co-founder of Jordan Marsh & Company, a Boston-based department store.  Jordan provided much of the funds necessary to create a world-class opera house in the city, and also established the Boston Opera Company to perform in the building.  It opened in 1909, in an area that was sparsely developed at the time.  The building barely visible to the left in the first photo was a warehouse, and directly across the street from here was Huntington Avenue Grounds, which served as the home of the Boston Red Sox from 1901 until 1911.  Otherwise, there were plenty of vacant lots in the area, although these would steadily be developed over the next few decades as the city continued to grow westward.

The first photo was probably taken soon after the opera house opened, and the signs outside the front doors list some of the Boston Opera Company’s upcoming performances, including Aida, La traviata, Rigoletto, Faust, and Pagliacci.  However, its glory days as an opera house were brief.  The Boston Opera Company went bankrupt in 1915 after just six seasons, and Eben Jordan died the following year.  The popularity of opera was declining, and although the massive 3,000 seat building was idea for opera, it was ill-suited for most other uses.

In 1918, the building was sold, and the new owners renovated the interior to make it more practical for other uses.  Over the next 40 years, it would be used for everything from operas to circuses, and even boxing matches and, in 1950, a broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show.  However, by the late 1950s the building was in need of serious repair, and both the owners and the city of Boston were indifferent toward the fate of the building.  The nearby Northeastern University was looking to expand, so in 1958 the old opera house was demolished to make a parking lot.  Later, the university built Speare Hall, the dormitory that now stands on the site.  Today, the only reminder of this site’s past is the short, one-way street to the right, which is still named Opera Place.

Symphony Hall, Boston

Symphony Hall, at the corner of Huntington Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

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Boston’s Symphony Hall is one of many prominent concert halls in this section of Boston, and it has been the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops ever since it opened in 1900.  It was designed by McKim, Mead and White, the same architectural firm that built the Boston Public Library at Copley Square a few years earlier.  Like the library, it is an excellent example of Renaissance Revival architecture, but Symphony Hall is perhaps best known not for its visual appeal, but rather its acoustic properties.  Harvard professor and physicist Wallace Clement Sabine used his knowledge of acoustics to design the auditorium, making it the world’s first concert hall to be scientifically designed in such a way.  Because of this, it is still regarded as one of the best concert halls in the world.

Over the years, this section of the Back Bay has seen some dramatic changes, but Symphony Hall is essentially the same, both on the exterior and interior.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Pops continue to perform here, along with the Handel and Hadyn Society.  With a seating capacity of over 2,000, it has also been used for a number of other civil purposes, ranging from political rallies and inaugurations to business conventions and fashion shows.  In addition, many renowned authors have given lectures here; the building’s National Register of Historic Places registration form identifies many visiting writers from the early 20th century, including Edward Everett Hale, Julia Ward Howe, Booker T. Washington, G.K. Chesterton, Robert Frost, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Chickering Hall, Boston

Chickering Hall on Huntington Avenue near Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, around 1901-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The site in 2015:

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This section of Huntington Avenue is also known as “Avenue of the Arts,” and it is home to a number of theaters, as well as Northeastern University, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and the Museum of Fine Arts.  One of the early concert halls here was Chickering Hall, which was built in 1901 by Chickering & Sons, a Boston piano manufacturer.  The name didn’t last for long, though; it was sold in 1912 and became the St. James Theatre.  The new owners renovated the building and doubled the seating capacity from 800 to 1,600, and it was used for both vaudeville performances and early films.

In 1929, it was renamed the Uptown Theatre, and a large vertical neon sign and marquee were added to the front entrance.  It was primarily a second run movie theater for local college students, and it lasted until 1968, when it was demolished to build the Christian Science Center, which features the Mother Church and the religion’s administrative offices.  There is one landmark still standing in the first photo, though.  Horticultural Hall, located just to the left of Chickering Hall, was also built in 1901, and it is still standing today, at the corner of Huntington Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue.

Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2014:

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Located diagonally across from the Casino Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera House was opened in 1883, along Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets.  It closed in 1966, and was replaced by the current office building.  Notice the New York Times Building a few blocks away – it’s still there, but is completely overshadowed by the buildings around it, as well as by its own billboards, which cover almost the entire facade.