Commonwealth Avenue Mall, Boston

Facing west on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall from Berkeley Street, on November 27, 1901. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The scene in 2017:


When the Back Bay was planned in the mid-19th century, the streets were laid out in a rectangular grid pattern, with five east-west streets running the length of the development. In the middle was Commonwealth Avenue, which was made significantly wider than the others in order to accommodate a wide, tree-lined mall in the center. The house lots on this street soon became some of the most desirable in the Back Bay, and as the trees matured the street began to take on the appearance of a Parisian boulevard.

Most of the houses along this section of Commonwealth Avenue, which extends west from Berkeley to Clarendon Streets, were built in the 1860s and 1870s, in the Second Empire style of architecture that was popular during this period. Among the street’s few non-residential buildings is the First Baptist Church, which was built in 1875 and can be seen a block away on the left. The streetscape of Commonwealth Avenue also features a number of statues, including the one in the center of the photo that honors Revolutionary War hero General John Glover.

More than a century after the first photo was taken, the Back Bay has remained remarkably unchanged. Nearly all of the historic Victorian brownstone homes are still standing, and Commonwealth Avenue has continued to be the centerpiece of one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods. Aside from the cars on the street, the only hint of the modern world in the present-day scene is the Prudential Tower, which is barely visible through the trees on the far left side of the photo.

Thompson Triangle, Springfield, Mass

Facing north toward Worthington Street from the center of the Thompson Triangle, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).


The scene in 2017:


When the first photo was taken, the house in the distance was the home of William McKnight, and it is described in more detail the previous post. John and William McKnight were the developers of most of this neighborhood, and they created a highly-desirable residential area for many of the city’s wealthiest residents. Part of their development plan included several triangular parks, which they donated to the city. Although ostensibly an act of generosity to the public, these parks also added to the value of the lots that bordered them, and it is no coincidence that William McKnight built his own mansion here, overlooking the Thompson Triangle, which is the largest of these parks.

Prior to the McKnight brothers’ development, the land north of Saint James Avenue and east of Thompson Street was owned by Colonel James M. Thompson. He was a businessman who served as president of several of Springfield’s banks, and he also held several political offices, including city alderman, state senator, and member of the Governor’s Council. After his death in 1884, the McKnights purchased and subdivided the property, in the process creating this park as its centerpiece. Many of the finest homes in the neighborhood are located on or around the Thompson Triangle, including the homes on Dartmouth Terrace, which can be seen in the distance in both photos.

Today, the area around the Thompson Triangle remains one of the best-preserved parts of the neighborhood. William McKnight’s house still stands, as do the other 19th century mansions around the park, and in 1976 this area became part of the McKnight Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. The only significant difference in these two photos is the fountain at the center of the triangle, which was added along with benches and brick walkways during a 1986 renovation of the park.

Country Club, Pittsfield, Mass

The Country Club of Pittsfield, on South Street, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

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The Country Club of Pittsfield was established on this site on South Street in 1900, but the building that became the clubhouse actually dates back more than a century earlier. It was built in 1785 by Henry Van Schaack, who lived here until 1807. During this time, he entertained visitors such as Alexander Hamilton, Chief Justice John Jay, and Senator Philip Schuyler. From 1816 to 1837, it was the home of author Herman Melville’s uncle, Thomas Melville.By this point, Pittsfield was becoming a popular destination for some of the great writers of the era, and Thomas’s son Robert took advantage of this. He purchased the house from his father in 1837 and opened Melville Hall, a resort whose guests included literary figures such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In 1850, the house was sold to the Morewood family, who renamed it Broad Hall and lived here for the next 50 years. Prominent guests continued to visit here during this time, including former president John Tyler. After the Morewoods sold the property to the country club in 1900, the house very nearly hosted another president. Theodore Roosevelt was in Pittsfield on September 3, 1902, and was traveling in a horse-drawn carriage on South Street, heading for the country club. With him was governor Winthrop M. Crane, along with several others. Shortly before reaching the country club, the carriage was hit by a speeding trolley, throwing the occupants out of the carriage. Roosevelt suffered a bloody lip and bruised face, and was reportedly only two inches away from being crushed by the wheels of the trolley, but was otherwise unhurt, and later remarked that “It takes more than a trolley accident to knock me out.” However, Secret Service agent William Craig was killed in the accident, making him the first agent to be killed in the line of duty.

Today, the country club is still located on this property, although the clubhouse has significantly expanded from its original 18th century building. The historic structure is still easily distinguished from the modern additions, though. It still has its distinct Federal architecture, and aside from its connection to so many historic figures, it also serves as a rare example of an 18th century mansion in Pittsfield.

Park Square, Pittsfield, Mass (5)

The view looking east down East Street from Park Square in Pittsfield, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Park Square in 2016:

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The first photo shows a quiet day in the center of Pittsfield. A couple of groundskeepers maintain Park Square, with the man in overalls on the right operating a push mower. Another man, barely visible in the distance beyond the sign, also appears to be pushing a lawnmower. At the end of the walkway in the center of the photo, a couple of boys play on an old cannon that probably dated back to the Civil War. The only other person visible in the scene is a woman in a black skirt, white blouse, and large hat who is crossing East Street on the far left.

In the foreground, a sundial marks time in the center of Park Square, and to the left of it a sign commemorates the site of America’s first cattle show, which was held here in 1810. It also marks the spot of the “old elm,” which stood there until 1864. This tree towered over the center of Pittsfield since the town was settled in the 1750s. In fact, it was the center of Pittsfield – the surveyor who laid out the downtown area in 1752 used it as the center. It survived numerous proposals to remove it, and by the early 19th century it had become a major landmark, with Park Squre encircling it. In 1825, during his tour of the United States, the Marquis de Lafayette stopped here and gave a speech from under the tree. Later on, the iconic tree was mentioned in the writings of both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. However, by 1864 the ancient tree was in danger of falling, and with much reluctance it was taken down.

Today, Park Square is still the main focal point of downtown Pittsfield. East Street in the distance has changed somewhat over the past century, and is no longer a predominantly residential street. Most of the houses that would have been present in the distance of the first photo are gone, but many of the buildings around Park Square are still standing. These include the Berkshire County Courthouse, St. Stephen’s Church, the old town hall, the First Church, the Berkshire County Savings Bank, and the Berkshire Life Insurance Company. All of these historic buildings, along with Park Square itself, are part of the Park Square Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Park Square, Pittsfield, Mass (4)

Looking east toward Park Square in Pittsfield, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

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Pittsfield’s Park Square has been featured in several other posts, but the first photo here gives a good elevated view of the oval park in the center of the city. The photo was probably taken from one of the upper floors of the Hotel Wendell, which stood on the west side of the square from 1898 to 1965. From here, guests could overlook the small park, along with the important government and religious buildings that surround it. On the left side of the photo, starting closest to the foreground, was the First Church, City Hall, and St. Stephen’s Church. On the far right, barely in view, is the Berkshire County Courthouse, and even further to the right, just outside of the view of the camera, is the Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield’s public library.

Over a century later, not much has changed in this scene. The trees make it harder to tell, but Park Square is still largely the same as it was in 1906, including the Civil War monument on the west side. Electric trolleys no longer circle the square, but it remains a busy intersection in the middle of the city. The Hotel Wendell is long gone, but all of the other historic buildings from the first photo are still there, although most are hidden by the trees. Because of this level of historic preservation, the square and the buildings around it were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 as the Park Square Historic District.

Park Square, Pittsfield, Mass (2)

Another view looking west from Park Square, with the Hotel Wendell in the distance, around 1905-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The view in 2016:

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Like the view in the previous post, this scene shows Park Square, a small public park that has been at the center of Pittsfield since the 18th century. The first photo shows a lively city center, with cars, horse-drawn carriages, and an electric trolley all moving along the streets in the background. In the foreground, a group of men are seated on the benches in the park. Two elderly men, one of whom is smoking a pipe, are sitting on the bench that faces the camera, engaged in conversation. Given their ages, it is entirely possible that they could be Civil War veterans. Many were still alive in the early 20th century, and like nearly every other city, town, and village of the time, Pittsfield had a monument to its veterans. Visible in the distant center, this monument was designed by sculptor Launt Thompson in 1872.

Today, Park Square has not changed much, and the Civil War monument is still standing on the western end of the park. However, most of the buildings in the background are gone, with the exception of the Berkshire Life Insurance Building on the far right. The most prominent building in the first photo, the Hotel Wendell, opened in 1898 and was later expanded in 1930, replacing the much older commercial buildings to the left. However, the hotel closed and was demolished in the 1960s, and its present-day replacement is a large development that includes the Crowne Plaza Pittsfield, the tallest building in the city.