Town Hall, Brattleboro, Vermont (2)

The town hall on Main Street in Brattleboro, seen from the corner of High Street in May 1937. Image taken by Arthur Rothstein, courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2017:

As mentioned in the previous post, the old Brattleboro town hall was built in 1855, and over the years it was used for town offices and town meetings, but it also housed the library, police department, post office, and county clerk’s office, along with several different commercial tenants. The meeting hall was also used for concerts and other performances, and in 1895 the building was expanded with the addition of an auditorium that was originally known as the opera house. The building hosted a number of notable speakers throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick Douglass, Horace Greeley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Mark Twain.

During the early 20th century, movies began to eclipse live performances in popularity, and by the 1920s the opera house in the town hall was converted into a movie theater, known as the Auditorium. The first photo, taken in 1937, shows the front entrance of the building, the the marquee advertising Night Must Fall, starring Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. At the time, the Auditorium was the only movie theater in town, following the a March 15, 1937 fire that destroyed the Princess Theatre on Elliot Street. However, it would soon face new competition from new, modern theaters. Later in 1937, the building next door on the right side of the photo was converted into the Paramount Theatre, and a year later the Latchis Theatre opened a little south of here on Main Street.

This new competition hurt the older Auditorium, which entered a steady decline in the following years. The building continued to be used as the town hall during this time, but in 1951 the town offices were moved to the old high school building, located just north of here on Main Street. The old town hall was mostly demolished two years later, and a W. T. Grant department store was built on the site. However, parts of the exterior brick walls of the town hall were left standing, and were incorporated into the new one-story building. Part of the old wall can be seen on the right side of the building in the present-day photo, with light-colored bricks that contrast with the darker bricks of the front part of the building.

Main Street from High Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking north on Main Street from the corner of High Street in Brattleboro, in May 1937. Photo taken by Arthur Rothstein, courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo was taken in May 1937 by Arthur Rothstein, a prominent photojournalist who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s. Like the other photographers of this New Deal-era agency, Rothstein traveled around the country, documenting rural life during the Great Depression. In 1936 he visited Oklahoma, where he took one of the most iconic images of the Dust Bowl, and the following year he was in Vermont, where his images included this scene on Main Street in the downtown Brattleboro. The photo shows rows of cars parked along the street, with a mix of houses, businesses, and public buildings on the east side of the street.

Probably the oldest building in this scene is the Centre Congregational Church, with its prominent steeple in the middle of both photos. The church was originally built in 1816, and was located a little north of here on the town common. However, in 1842 the building was dismantled and reconstructed here on this site, with a design similar to the old building. The new church was dedicated in 1843, and included a steeple and a columned portico at the front of the building. This steeple was destroyed in high winds in 1864, though, and it was rebuilt with a new Italianate-style design that omitted the columns at the front entrance. In 1929, the steeple was damaged in a fire, but was repaired and has not seen any other significant changes since the first photo was taken.

The other notable building in the first photo is the town hall, which is on the right side of the scene. Built in 1855, this building saw a variety of uses, including as town offices, post office, library, and the police department, and it also housed commercial tenants over the years. In 1895, the building was renovated, and an 875-seat opera house was added to it. By the time the first photo was taken, the opera house had the less-glamorous name of Auditorium, and was used primarily as a movie theater, with the marquee advertising Night Must Fall, starring Robert Montgomery. However, the auditorium fell into decline as newer theaters opened on Main Street in the late 1930s, and in 1951 the town offices moved just up Main Street to the old high school, leaving this building vacant. It was mostly demolished two years later, and a W. T. Grant department store was built on the site. However, portions of the exterior walls of the old town hall were left standing, and were incorporated into the new building.

More than 80 years after the first photo was taken, this scene has not significantly changed aside from the loss of the old town hall. The W. T. Grant building that replaced it is still there, although the old department store has long since given way to new retail tenants. The church is also still there, as is the three-story granite building on the far right, which was built around 1850 and was later converted into the Paramount Theatre soon after the first photo was taken. Today, these 19th century buildings are now part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Bijou Theater, Holyoke, Mass

The Bijou Theater on Main Street in Holyoke, in October 1941. Image taken by John Collier, Jr., courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI collection.

The scene in 2017:

The Bijou Theater was one of several early 20th century theaters in Holyoke, and was built around 1913. Located on Main Street in the Flats neighborhood, it primarily catered to the city’s large population of factory workers, and it had one screen, with a seating capacity of nearly 1,300. The original caption of the first photo was “Theatre in workers’ section at Holyoke, Massachusetts”, and it was taken by John Collier, Jr., a prominent photographer and anthropologist. At the time, he was working with the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency that, among other projects, hired photographers to document life in America during the Great Depression.

The first photo shows the entrance to the theater, with a “candy shoppe” in the storefront on the left and a shoe shine business on the right. Both stores display the seemingly-ubiquitous Coca-Cola signs of the 1940s, and the theater marquee advertises for a double feature of The Devil and Miss Jones, starring Jean Arthur, Robert Cummings, and Charles Coburn; and Thieves Fall Out, starring Eddie Albert, Joan Leslie, Jane Darwell, and Alan Hale, Sr. These films were both released in the spring of 1941, more than five months before the first photo was taken, suggesting that the Bijou was, at least by this point, a second-run theater. One sign under the marquee promises “Big Shows at Small Prices”, while another sign indicates that the theater offered “Entire New Show Every Sun. Tues. Fri.”

The first half of the 20th century was the heyday of downtown movie theaters, but in later years they were increasingly replaced by large multi-screen theaters in the suburbs, which offered greater options as well as ample parking. Here in Holyoke, the decline was only exacerbated by the loss of the city’s industrial base, which caused a significant drop in population. The Bijou appears to have closed sometime in the 1950s, and was subsequently demolished. Today, none of the surrounding buildings are standing either, and the site is now a gas station. Holyoke’s other historic downtown theaters suffered similar fates, and today only the long-abandoned Victory Theater is still standing.

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.