Calvin Coolidge House, Northampton, Mass

The house at 19-21 Massasoit Street in Northampton, around 1915-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection.

The scene in 2018:

Throughout American history, there have been plenty of presidents who have come from humble beginnings, but few of them lived quite as modestly, both before and after their presidencies, as Calvin Coolidge. He was president throughout most of the Roaring Twenties, yet he had far more in common with his Puritan ancestors than with any characters in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. In many ways, he was the archetypal frugal Yankee, and one of the most visible examples of this was his choice of a residence here in Northampton. Rather than owning a home, he spent nearly 25 years renting the left side of this duplex, and it was here that he rose in the political ranks from a state legislator to president of the United States.

This two-family home was built around 1901, in a residential development about a mile to the northwest of downtown Northampton. Most of the other nearby houses were built around the same time, and they were generally single-family homes occupied by middle class residents. Calvin and Grace Coolidge moved in several years later, in August 1906, less than a year after they were married and only a few weeks before the birth of their first child, John. They occupied the left side of the house, at 21 Massasoit Street, for which they paid $27 per month for seven rooms and 2,100 square feet of living space.

Although he spent most of his life in Northampton, Calvin Coolidge was a native of Vermont, where he grew up in the family home in Plymouth. However, he came to Massachusetts for college, attending Amherst College and graduating in 1895. From there, he moved to nearby Northampton, the county seat, and began studying law as an apprentice in the firm of Hammond & Field. He was admitted to the bar in 1897, and soon began practicing law while also getting involved in local politics. He served on the city council, was subsequently appointed city solicitor, and then became Clerk of Courts of Hampshire County, where he worked in the old county courthouse.

Coolidge married his wife Grace in October 1905, when he was 33 and she was 26. Two months later, he suffered the only electoral defeat of his career, when he lost a race for school committee. However, the following year he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, only a few months after moving here to Massasoit Street. He was reelected to the legislature in 1907, but he declined to run for a third term in 1908. This was motivated in part by the birth of his second son, Calvin Coolidge, Jr., in April of that year. Returning to Northampton meant that he could devote his full attention to his law practice, in order to pay for the added expenses of a second child.

However, Coolidge did not stay out of politics for long. In the fall of 1909, he ran for mayor of Northampton, winning by a margin of just 107 votes. He went on to serve two one-year terms in city hall from 1910 to 1911, where he applied his own personal frugality to the city budget. He reduced the city’s debt while also lowering taxes, yet he also managed to increase teachers’ salaries, improve the roads, and make the police and fire departments more efficient. Coolidge’s cost-saving measures included blocking a proposed new city hall, which would have replaced the old building that had stood since 1850. As it turned out, this proved to be a sensible move, because the old building remains in use as city hall more than a century later.

In 1912, Coolidge returned to the State House, this time as a state senator. This began his meteoric rise in state politics, from mayor of a small city to governor of Massachusetts in just seven years. He served four years in the state senate, including the last two years as senate president, and in the fall of 1915 he became the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. His running mate, Samuel W. McCall, had narrowly lost the gubernatorial race to David I. Walsh a year earlier, but McCall and Coolidge won in 1915. In an early sign of Coolidge’s popularity, he won the lieutenant governor’s race by over 52,000 votes, while McCall was elected governor by just 6,313 votes.

McCall and Coolidge were successfully reelected in 1916 and 1917. In 1918, McCall announced that he would not run for a fourth term, so Coolidge became the Republican nominee for governor. He defeated his Democratic challenger, businessman Richard H. Long, by over 17,000 votes, and he was inaugurated as governor on January 2, 1919. He would go on to win reelection in the fall of 1919, this time defeating Long by a commanding margin of 125,000 votes.

As was the case here in Northampton, Coolidge’s time as governor was marked by fiscal conservativism. The best example of this came in September 1919, when the Boston Police Department threatened to strike. At the time, the city’s police department was directly controlled by the governor, not the mayor, and Coolidge threatened to fire any striking officers. About three-quarters of the police force went on strike anyway, and Coolidge followed through with his threat, famously declaring, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.” The strike caused a temporary increase in crime and violence in Boston, but the National Guard soon restored order while the city hired and trained new officers.

The police strike earned Coolidge national attention. In the days before the strike, many feared that, if the Boston police offers were successful in their strike, it would inspire similar actions across the country, leading to local governments being essentially extorted by their own police. By taking a hard stance against the strikers, and by emphasizing the need for law and order, Coolidge became a hero to many, and he was seen as a rising star within the Republican Party. The strike also contributed to Coolidge’s overwhelming victory in the 1919 election, earning him more than 60% of the statewide vote.

As a result, Coolidge was viewed as a presidential contender in 1920. Warren Harding was ultimately chosen as the party’s nominee at the Republican National Convention in June, but Coolidge was selected as the vice presidential candidate. It was the first election after the passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, and both Harding and Coolidge had been supporters of women’s suffrage. Women voted overwhelmingly for the Republican ticket, resulting in a landslide victory for Harding and Coolidge, who carried 37 states and won over 60% of the popular vote.

Upon becoming vice president, Coolidge and his family moved to Washington, where they lived at the Willard Hotel. However, they would maintain this house as their Northampton residence, throughout Coolidge’s time in Washington. His vice presidency was relatively uneventful for nearly two and a half years, but this all changed when Warren Harding died suddenly on August 2, 1923. Coolidge was visiting his father in Vermont at the time, and he was awakened early in the morning and informed that he had become president. The elder Coolidge, who was a justice of the peace, administered the oath of office to his son in the parlor of his house, and then Calvin Coolidge’s first act as president was to go back to bed.

Coolidge easily won reelection in 1924, winning 35 states and 382 electoral votes in a three-way race between Democrat John W. Davis and Progressive Robert M. La Follette. As was the case in Northampton and in Boston, Coolidge sought to cut taxes and lower spending while also reducing the national debt. He held a laissez-faire attitude toward the economy, and his presidency saw widespread growth and prosperity during what came to be known as the Roaring Twenties. However, his economic policies are sometimes criticized for the role that they may have played in the stock market crash of 1929, which occurred less than eight months after he left office.

Coolidge did not run for reelection in 1928, instead endorsing the candidacy of his commerce secretary, Herbert Hoover. He and Grace left the White House in March 1929, and they returned here to their home on Massasoit Street. The 1930 census listed Coolidge’s occupation simply as “retired,” and at the time they were paying $40 per month in rent, equivalent to about $620 today. They lived alone except for one servant, Alice Reckahn, who had been with the family since 1916 and had cared for the house while the Coolidges were in Washington.

It was certainly a modest home for an ex-president, but this did not seem to bother him. In his autobiography, published in 1929, Coolidge explained why he had lived here for so long, writing:

We liked the house where our children came to us and the neighbors who were so kind. When we could have had a more pretentious home we still clung to it. So long as I lived there, I could be independent and serve the public without ever thinking that I could not maintain my position if I lost my office. I always made my living practicing law up to the time I became Governor, without being dependent on any official salary. This left me free to make my own decisions in accordance with what I thought was the public good. We lived where we
did that I might better serve the people.

However, the location of the house proved to be a problem during Coolidge’s retirement. By this point, he was a prominent public figure, and his house offered little privacy from the many curious people who came down Massasoit Street to see the house. Author Claude M. Fuess, in his 1940 biography Calvin Coolidge, The Man From Vermont, provided the following description of the situation:

But Massasoit Street was sought by a continuous procession of sightseers; indeed Dr. Plummer [Frederic W. Plummer, principal of Northampton High School, who had lived in the unit on the right since about 1918], who still occupied the other side of the house, estimated that, in May, an automobile passed on the average every six seconds, and later in the summer the street was sometimes blocked with cars. The Coolidges did their best to lead a normal life. Mrs. Reckahn continued to act as housekeeper, and the flower garden was turned into a runway for the dogs brought from Washington. The ex-President tried to sit on the porch in the evening as he used to do. But whenever he appeared in public a crowd was sure to gather, and the unceasing demonstrations of popularity wore on his nerves. The house was altogether too near the street, and he soon found his conspicuous position highly distasteful.

As a result, in 1930 the Coolidges purchased a house at 16 Hampton Terrace, located just to the south of downtown Northampton. It was known as The Beeches, and it was situated on a large lot, at the end of a long driveway. From the street, the house was almost entirely hidden by trees, offering a much greater degree of privacy than they had been able to enjoy here on Massasoit Street. Calvin Coolidge lived there for the rest of his life, and he died there in 1933 at the age of 60. Grace remained at The Beeches for several more years, but by the late 1930s she had moved to a house at 11 Ward Avenue, which stands less than a half mile away from their former home here on Massasoit Street.

The first photo shows the Massasoit Street house at some point during the late 1910s, probably when Coolidge was either lieutenant governor or governor. A century later, there have been a few changes, including the removal of the shutters and the balustrade over the porch on the right side, and the addition of a downspout on the front of the house. Overall, though, the exterior remains essentially the same as it did when Calvin Coolidge moved in here as a small-town attorney in 1906, and today it remains in use as a private residence. In 1976, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places, but the only visible sign of its historical significance is a small plaque on the front porch, which identifies it as having been the home of Calvin Coolidge.

Bridge Street, Northampton, Mass

The view looking west on Bridge Street, from near the corner of Market Street in Northampton, around 1890. Image from Picturesque Hampshire (1890).

The scene in 2018:

The first photo shows downtown Northampton as it appeared around 1890, prior to the construction of a railroad bridge over Bridge Street. At the time, the tracks crossed directly over the street, and the crossing was marked by both signs and gates. This was a busy area for both street and railroad traffic; the crossing is located at the eastern end of the downtown area, and Bridge Street was the main road out of Northampton to the east. In addition, the crossing was the site of the junction between the New Haven & Northampton and the Connecticut River Railroads, and an 1873 map shows six tracks passing over Bridge Street.

At the time, the two railroads maintained separate passenger depots, which were located out of view to the left, on the other side of the tracks along Strong Avenue. However, this arrangement would change only a few years after the first photo was taken, when the tracks were raised and Bridge Street was slightly lowered in order to build a bridge that would eliminate the busy grade crossing. This work was completed in 1897, and it coincided with the completion of a new Union Station that replaced the two older stations.

Today, more than 125 years after the first photo was taken, many of the commercial buildings in the distance are still standing. Some of the other buildings were constructed soon after the photo was taken, including the yellow brick Masonic Building, located just beyond the bridge on the right side of the scene. Completed in 1898, it is perhaps best known as the building where Calvin Coolidge had his law offices prior to his political career. Closer to the foreground, the most significant change from the first photo is the railroad bridge, which still carries rail traffic over Bridge Street. However, while it has prevented rail and street traffic from interfering with each other, it has caused problems of its own with its low clearance. Despite prominent signage, trucks frequently end up stuck in the underpass, and locals have dubbed it the “truck-eating bridge.”

Post Office, Northampton, Mass

The post office at the corner of Pleasant and Armory Streets in Northampton, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2018:

This post office was constructed between 1903 and 1905, and it features a Classical Revival-style design that was popular for buildings of this period. It was designed by the office of James Knox Taylor, who served as Supervising Architect of the Department of the Treasury from 1897 to 1912. During this time, Taylor’s responsibilities included designing hundreds of federal buildings, although it does not seem clear as to what extent he – rather than the other architects in his office –  was actually involved in designing this post office.

The building originally had a rectangular footprint, with the main entrance here on Pleasant Street, flanked by two Ionic columns. However, the building was significantly expanded in 1938, as part of a New Deal-era program that constructed many new federal buildings across the country. Here in Northampton, the post office was more than doubled, with a large addition on the left side. The original design was essentially duplicated, though, so the newer half is almost indistinguishable from the older section. However, in order to preserve the symmetry, the original main entrance was closed and turned into a window, and a new entrance was opened in the middle of the Pleasant Street facade.

The expanded building remained in use as Northampton’s post office for nearly 40 more years, but it closed in 1976 when the current post office opened on Bridge Street. The building has been preserved, though, and the interior has been converted into offices. It stands as one of the many late 19th and early 20th century buildings that still line the streets of Northampton, and it is now a contributing property in the Northampton Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.

Main and Old South Streets, Northampton, Mass

The south side of Main Street, just east of the corner of Old South Street in Northampton, probably sometime in the 1860s. Image from Northampton: The Meadow City (1894).

The scene in 2017:

The first photo shows the scene along the south side of Main Street in Northampton, sometime around the 1860s. The four buildings here represent a variety of uses and architectural styles, with two mid-19th century brick commercial blocks on the left, a Georgian-style house in the center, and a Greek Revival-style Edwards Church on the right. The most notable of these buildings was the church, which was built in 1833 at the corner of Main and Old South Streets. Formed as an offshoot of the First Church, it was named in honor of Jonathan Edwards, who had served as pastor of the First Church from 1729 to 1750. The congregation worshipped here in this modest wood-frame church for the next 37 years, until it was destroyed by a fire in 1870.

This same fire also destroyed the adjacent Hunt Building, which was built in 1770 as the home of Dr. Ebenezer Hunt. A 1764 graduate of Harvard, Hunt studied medicine in Springfield under Dr. Charles Pynchon, before returning to his native Northampton in 1768. This house was built two years later, with Georgian-style architecture that was similar the home of his second cousin, John Hunt, that still stands on Elm Street. In 1772, Dr. Hunt married his wife Sarah, and they had eight children, two of whom died in infancy. He lived here for the rest of his life, and during this time he was, in addition to practicing medicine, also active in politics. He served for eight years in the state legislature, in both the House and the Senate, and he was a presidential elector for John Adams in both the 1796 and 1800 elections.

Upon Ebenezer Hunt’s death in 1820, the house was inherited by his son David, who was also a physician. At the time, the property extended as far as Old South Street, but in 1833 David sold the corner lot to the Edwards Church, and the church building was constructed soon after. The house remained in the Hunt family after David’s death in 1837, but by the time the first photo was taken it had been converted to commercial use. The storefront signs are not legible in the first photo, but around the 1860s the ground floor housed three tenants, with a crockery store on the left side, a confectionery and fruit store in the middle, and the dry goods store of Robert J. Fair on the right side. By 1870, Fair’s store occupied the entire ground floor, but on May 19, 1870 he lost nearly his entire stock when both the Hunt Building and the neighboring Edwards Church burned.

After the fire, the Edwards Church constructed a new building a few blocks away at the corner of Main and State Streets, and this site here at the corner of Old South Street was soon rebuilt with new brick commercial blocks. The Columbian Building, located on the right side where he church once stood, was completed in 1871, and two years later McCallum’s Dry Goods opened in a new building on the site of the Hunt house. Both buildings are still standing today, although the latter has undergone significant changes over the years and is now Thornes Marketplace. As for the other two buildings in the first photo, it appears that at least one of them is still standing. The building just to the left of Thornes might be the same one from the first photo, minus its top floor, but if so it has been altered beyond recognition from the exterior. However, the building on the extreme left of the first photo appears to still be there, just with major late 19th century alterations.

George P. Dickinson House, Northampton, Mass

The house at 211 Elm Street in Northampton, around 1894. Image from Northampton: The Meadow City (1894).

The house in 2017:

This Queen Anne-style house was built around 1879-1880, and was designed by Eugene C. Gardner, a prominent local architect of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Originally from Ashfield, Massachusetts, he began his career as an architect here in Northampton in the 1860s, although he moved to Springfield in 1868. His subsequent works were predominantly in and around Springfield, although he continued to design homes, factories, and other buildings here in Northampton. Perhaps his most notable work was the Grove Hill Mansion in the neighborhood of Leeds, and this house here on Elm Street was, in some ways, a scaled-down version of the large, highly ornate Leeds house, which was built around the same time.

This Elm Street house was originally the home of George P. Dickinson, the treasurer of the Northampton Gas Light Company. He was living here when the first photo was taken around 1894, but he died in 1897, and the house was later owned by Charles A. Clark, a teller for the First National Bank. He and his wife Katherine were married in 1897, and by the 1900 census they were living here in this house with their two young children, Charles and Katherine, plus a 20-year-old, Irish-born nurse, Mariah Brennan. The Clarks would have two more children, Joseph and Virginia, by the next census, and they continued to live here for many years. However, Charles died around 1920, and the rest of the family moved out by about 1924.

In the ensuing years, the house had a variety of owners, including funeral director Oscar F. Ely in the 1920s, and physician Benjamin F. Janes in the 1930s. At some point, though, the house was converted into apartments. This probably happened in the 1940s, because city directories in the late 1940s show a number of people living at this address, all with different last names. Gardner’s original exterior design of the house has also since been altered, including the enclosed area on the right side of the front porch, the removal of the second-story balcony above the front porch, and alterations to the third-story windows. Overall, though, the house still stands as one of many upscale 19th century homes on Elm Street, and it is now part of the Elm Street Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

John L. Mather House, Northampton, Mass

The house at 275 Elm Street in Northampton, around 1894. Image from Northampton: The Meadow City (1894).

The house in 2017:

This brick, Queen Anne-style house was built in 1882, and was one of many upscale homes built along this section of Elm Street during the 19th century. It was originally owned by John L. Mather, a mason and contractor who was about 30 years old when he moved in here. He was single at the time, but in 1891 he married his wife Ella. She had two sons from her previous marriage, and she and John also had a child of their own, Esther, who was born around the same time that the first photo was taken. John served as mayor of Northampton in 1897 and from 1899 to 1900, and he continued to live here until his death in 1922.

By 1924 this house was owned by John A. Pollard, the treasurer of the Hampton Company in Easthampton. He later became vice president of the O. S. P., Inc. music house, and during the 1930 census he was living here with his wife Flora, three of their children, and two grandchildren, plus two servants. John died in 1940, but Flora continued to live here for many years, and she was listed here in city directories as late as the early 1960s. Since then, the house has remained well-preserved, and the only significant difference between these two photos is the lack of the balustrade atop the left side of the house. The property is now part of the Elm Street Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.