Lost New England Goes West: Union Square, San Francisco

Union Square, seen from the corner of Post and Stockton Streets shortly after the April 18, 1906 earthquake. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Union Square in 2015:

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Today, Union Square is one of the premier shopping areas in San Francisco, but 110 years ago it was, like the rest of the city, covered in earthquake debris and surrounded by burned-out buildings. The most prominent building in the first photo is the St. Francis Hotel, on the right side of the scene. Completed only two years earlier, the building survived the earthquake itself with minimal damage, but a combination of damaged firefighting infrastructure and poor city leadership allowed fires to spread throughout much of the city. The hotel was completely gutted by the fire, as the first photo shows, but it remained structurally sound. Soon after the photo was taken, a temporary hotel was built in the middle of the square, where it housed guests until the burned-out hotel reopened a year and a half later. Now known as the Westin St. Francis, it has been expanded several times, and today it still stands overlooking Union Square.

Another Union Square landmark from the first photo is the Dewey Monument, located in the center of the square. It was designed by sculptor Robert Aitken, whose later works included the pediment atop the US Supreme Court Building, and it was dedicated in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt, in honor of Spanish-American War hero Admiral George Dewey and recently-assassinated President William McKinley. The 85-foot tall monument survived both the earthquake and the subsequent fires, and it is still standing in Union Square today, although it is now partially hidden by the palm trees around it.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Commonwealth Avenue, Boston (2)

The view along the south side of Commonwealth Avenue, looking west from the Boston Public Garden, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The view in 2015:

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These photos were taken from the same spot as the ones in the previous post, probably even on the same day. As with the other post, the 2015 view here is mostly obscured by the trees on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, but beyond the trees many of the historic Victorian brownstones are still standing. Because the Back Bay project began here at Arlington Street and worked its way west, the houses at this end of Commonwealth Avenue are among the oldest in the neighborhood, dating mostly to the early to mid 1860s. The houses in the foreground have since been replaced with a high-rise building, but otherwise almost all of the ones between here and Berkeley Street are still standing, and today they make up part of the Back Bay Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Commonwealth Avenue, Boston (1)

Looking west along the north side of Commonwealth Avenue from the Boston Public Garden, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

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From the start, the Back Bay was designed to be an upscale residential neighborhood, and these houses on the north side of Commonwealth Avenue typically commanded the highest prices. Here, the residents enjoyed the view of the broad Commonwealth Avenue Mall, and their southern-facing front windows gave them plenty of light. The work of filling the land and building homes began here at Arlington Street in the early 1860s, and as the years went on the development moved westward. By the early 1870s, Commonwealth Avenue reached as far as Exeter Street, four blocks from here. Most of the houses in the foreground of the first photo were built in the early to mid 1860s, when the block between Arlington and Berkeley Streets was developed. They represent the typical residential design for the Back Bay, with 3 to 4 story Victorian brownstones lining the streets that had to conform to strict building codes at the time.

Nearly 150 years after the first photo was taken, the strict building codes have paid off. The neighborhood retains its original 19th century residential appearance, and many of the houses from the first photo are still standing today. The trees, which were just saplings in the 1870s, now hide the view of most of the houses from here, but a few of the buildings are visible to the right, and are easily recognizable from the first photo.There have been some newer houses, like the light-colored one just to the right of the lamppost, but these have generally been in keeping with the original appearance of the neighborhood.

Public Garden, Boston (3)

The view of the Boston Public Garden, looking northeast from just inside the entrance at Commonwealth Avenue, taken around 1900. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

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This statue of George Washington has appeared in several earlier posts here and here, and the scene shows the statue with Beacon Hill in the distance. The only easily recognizable building from the first photo is the Massachusetts State House; the distinctive dome and triangular pediment beneath it can be seen just to the left of the palm tree on the right side of the first photo. The State House is still there, but its view is now blocked by larger trees in the park. Incidentally, if the palm trees in the first photo look out of place in Boston, it’s because they are. Although they are not native to anywhere near New England, tropical plants such as pal trees and the elephant ear plants in the 2015 scene have long been a summer feature at the Public Garden, and in the winter they are stored in greenhouses to protect them from the cold.

George Washington Statue, Public Garden, Boston

The side view of the George Washington statue in the Boston Public Garden, facing north toward Beacon Street, sometime in the 1800s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The statue in 2015:

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As mentioned in this earlier post, this statue of George Washington has stood at the Commonwealth Avenue entrance to the Public Garden since 1869. It was designed by sculptor Thomas Ball, a Boston native who also designed the Charles Sumner statue in the Public Garden, and the Emancipation Memorial at nearby Park Square. Since then, not much has changed about the statue or the surrounding park. The trees now obscure the view of the houses in the distance, but many of them are still standing today, along Arlington Street to the left and Beacon Street in the center and right.

Public Garden, Boston (2)

Looking west from the bridge in the Boston Public Garden toward Commonwealth Avenue in 1895. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

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For as much as Boston has changed in the past 120 years, this scene has stayed remarkably the same. It is taken facing the opposite direction from the photos in this post, and the statue in the distance is the same one visible from the other side in that post. This bridge over the lake has been a feature in the Public Garden since it was added in 1867, and it was designed by noted Boston architect William G. Preston. Two years later, the statue of George Washington was added, and it is one of many statues that decorate the park.

Beyond the Public Garden is the eastern end of Commonwealth Avenue, which was designed with a wide, park-like median. It serves as a major centerpiece for the Back Bay neighborhood, and the townhouses on either side of the street have been highly coveted since the area was first developed. Many of these historic homes are still standing today, although it is hard to see in the 2015 photo here. The ones to the left, at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Arlington Street, have since been demolished and replaced by a modern high-rise, but most of the ones on the right are still there, including the ones at the corner. Built mostly in the 1860s, these are among the oldest homes in the Back Bay, and this location along the Commonwealth Avenue Mall and across from the Public Garden has long been desirable real estate in the city.