Cliff Walk, Newport, Rhode Island

Looking north on the Cliff Walk from Ochre Point at The Breakers in Newport, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

One of Newport’s most popular attractions is the 3.5-mile Cliff Walk, a trail that runs along the rocky cliffs on the southeastern side of Newport. It is famous for both the scenic beauty of the Atlantic coastline, as well as the architectural grandeur of the Gilded Age mansions on the opposite side, but its origins were far more practical than recreational. Much to the chagrin of millionaire property owners who would come several centuries later, the legal concept behind the Cliff Walk came in 1663, when King Charles II granted Rhode Island a charter that, among other rights, allowed all colonists to fish along the shoreline. This doctrine of publicly-accessible shores was later enshrined in the state constitution, and is still in effect today.

In the early years of Newport’s history, this right was of little significance here on the sparsely-settled southeastern shore, and there was not much to prevent people from walking along the cliffs if they felt so inclined. However, by the mid-19th century Newport was becoming a popular summer resort, and the right of people to walk along the cliffs soon came into conflict with the privacy and the property rights of the millionaires who built their summer homes here along the coast. As a result, many of the landowners built fences or hedges for privacy, making many of the mansions completely invisible from the trail.

The first photo was taken from the easternmost part of the trail, at Ochre Point behind The Breakers, the famous home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The gates in the distance on the left mark where the trail leaves the Vanderbilt property, and beyond the gates is the roof of Ochre Court, the home of prominent real estate developer Ogden Goelet. Like The Breakers, this house was designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, and was the largest in Newport when it was completed in 1892, although it would soon be surpassed by The Breakers itself, which was completed in 1895. However, by the time the first photo was taken only about a decade later, both Vanderbilt and Goelet were dead, although the houses would remain in their families until well into the 20th century.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, this landscape has remained remarkably unchanged. Although not visible in the 2017 photograph, both The Breakers and Ochre Court are still standing, as are many of the other Gilded Age mansions along the Cliff Walk. However, most of these are no longer privately owned, thanks to changing tastes and the incredible upkeep costs of these houses. What had been an extravagant symbols of wealth in the late 19th century had become expensive white elephants by the mid-20th century, and today The Breakers is a museum while Ochre Court is the administration building for Salve Regina University.

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

The Breakers, seen from the Cliff Walk in Newport, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

Newport is renowned for its many 19th and early 20th century summer “cottages,” which were built by many of the nation’s wealthiest families and represented some of the finest examples of residential architecture in this era. However, none could quite compare to The Breakers, which was completed in 1895 as a summer home for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the prominent railroad tycoon who had inherited much of the Vanderbilt family fortune from his father William and grandfather Cornelius. With 70 rooms and over 125,000 square feet, it dwarfed all of the other Newport mansions, and it would go on to epitomize the luxury, grandeur, and excess of the Gilded Age.

The Breakers is situated on Ochre Point, a rocky promontory on Newport’s eastern shoreline, and was built on the site of a previous mansion of the same name. The original Breakers was a wooden, Queen Anne-style mansion that had been designed by the prominent architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns for tobacco merchant Pierre Lorillard IV. It was completed in 1878, but he owned the house for less than a decade before selling it to Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1885 for $450,000, in what was at the time the largest real estate transaction in Newport’s history.

As the favorite grandson and namesake of the family patriarch, Cornelius Vanderbilt II had inherited $5 million after his grandfather’s death in 1877. Nearly all of the remaining family fortune, close to $100 million, had gone to Cornelius’s father, William H. Vanderbilt, who managed to double this amount in jut a few years. However, William died in 1885, just a few months after his son purchased The Breakers, and Cornelius inherited nearly $70 million from his estate, equivalent to nearly $2 billion today.

Cornelius’s younger brother, William K. Vanderbilt, had received a similar inheritance from their father, and he and his socially ambitious wife Alva soon set out to build Marble House nearby on Bellevue Avenue. This lavish mansion far exceeded the original Breakers in opulence, and its $11 million construction costs dwarfed the paltry $450,000 that Cornelius had spent to purchase his summer home. Marble House was completed in 1892, but later that year The Breakers was destroyed in a fire, providing Cornelius with the opportunity to eclipse his brother and sister-in-law in constructing a new summer home.

At the time of the fire here in Newport, Cornelius was just finishing a $3 million expansion of his massive Fifth Avenue mansion, making it the largest private home in New York City’s history. Despite this, he and his wife Alice spared no expense in rebuilding The Breakers. They hired Richard Morris Hunt, the same architect who had designed Marble House, and within six weeks of the fire he had produced preliminary designs for the house. Cornelius and Alice ended up choosing his second design, though, which was inspired by Italian Renaissance-style architecture, and construction began in the spring of 1893.

The house was completed in just two years, thanks to the efforts of some 2,000 workers who worked in shifts, both day and night, to ensure that it was completed as soon as possible. It was much larger, and had been built in far less time than Marble House, but at $7 million it had actually cost significantly less to build, with William having spent $7 million just on marble alone. It would be Richard Morris Hunt’s magnum opus and, as it turned out, his last major commission, as he died in Newport while supervising the finishing touches in the summer of 1895. The house’s completion came none too soon for Cornelius Vanderbilt, though, who was only able to enjoy one summer at the house in good health before suffering a debilitating stroke in 1896.

Cornelius, Alice, and their children would continue to spend several more summers here at The Breakers, but Cornelius never fully recovered his health and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in September 1899, a day after returning to New York City from Newport. Alice would outlive him by 35 years, and became known as “Alice of the Breakers” for her long ownership of the house. However, the Gilded Age was rapidly drawing to a close at the turn of the 20th century, as was the Vanderbilt family’s wealth and prominence. William H. Vanderbilt’s children, including Cornelius, had done little to grow the family fortune, but excelled at spending it, particularly on lavish mansions in New York and summer houses such as The Breakers, Marble House, and the Biltmore Estate.

By Alice’s death in 1934 at the age of 89, the family fortune had been squandered and divided among so many descendants that it was essentially gone. Most of the New York City mansions, including her own Fifth Avenue home, were gone, replaced by modern high-rises, and the many summer homes in Newport and elsewhere were already antiquated white elephants from a long-gone era. During Alice’s later years, taxes alone on The Breakers amounted to $83,000 per year, plus operating expenses that included paying nearly 60 servants and other employees, along with 150 tons of coal to heat the house each winter. She eventually took to alternating years spent in Newport and New York, so that both houses were never open simultaneously.

Of Alice’s seven children, she outlived all but three of them. Her first child, Alice, had died as a child in 1874, and she subsequently lost her oldest son William to typhoid fever in 1892 while he was in college. Alfred died aboard the RMS Lusitania, when it was sunk by a German submarine during World War I, and Alice’s youngest son, Reginald, was a compulsive gambler and alcoholic who died of cirrhosis in 1925, a year after the birth of his daughter, future fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt. Her only other son, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, was disinherited by his father for his unapproved marriage, and neither he nor his sister, the famous sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, had much interest in acquiring The Breakers.

As a result, the mansion ultimately went to Alice’s youngest child, Gladys, who was 47 at the time and married to a Hungarian count, László Széchenyi. She owned the property for the rest of her life, until her death in 1965, but in 1948 she began leasing the house to the Preservation Society of Newport County, and for the first time it was opened to the public. She would continue to maintain an apartment on the third-floor, as would her daughter Sylvia, but otherwise the rest of the house was preserved as a museum. Sylvia ultimately sold The Breakers to the Preservation Society in 1972 for just $365,000, substantially less than what her grandfather had paid for the original house 87 years earlier, although the sale included a stipulation that she be allowed to continue to use the third floor apartment for the rest of her life.

After Sylvia’s death in 1998, the third floor continued to be used by her children, Paul and Gladys Szápáry, for the next 20 years, but in early 2018 the Preservation Society asked them to leave, citing safety concerns. This move came shortly after the Szápárys voiced their opposition to the Preservation Society’s controversial decision to build a welcome center on the property, which many critics argued would mar its original landscape and historic appearance. Their departure ends four generations and nearly 123 years of the Vanderbilt family living here, but it also gives the Preservation Society the opportunity to restore the third floor and make it accessible to the public for the first time.

Today, The Breakers is one of the nine historic Newport homes that are owned by the Preservation Society and open to the public. It is is one of the nine historic Newport homes that are owned by the Preservation Society and open to the public. Aside from the colonial-era Hunter House, all of these are Gilded Age mansions that represent some of the finest examples of residential architecture in 19th century America, including William and Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House. However, The Breakers remains, by far, the largest and most impressive of these homes, and has been well-preserved over the years, as these two photos show. Because of its architectural significance, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994, and it is now one of Rhode Island’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting over 400,000 visitors per year.

William Street, Springfield, Mass

Looking east on William Street from the corner of Main Street in Springfield, sometime around 1902-1915. Image courtesy of the Longmeadow Historical Society.

William Street in 2017:

William Street, located in the South End of Springfield, was developed around the middle of the 19th century, as development of Springfield’s downtown area steadily moved southward. The area around this site had once belonged to Alexander Bliss, who operated a tannery on the site. His son, Elijah, inherited his father’s large estate after his death in 1843, and began subdividing the property. The 1851 city map shows a number of buildings here, all owned by Elijah, although the ones in the first photo were probably not built until around the 1860s or early 1870s.

The houses in the first photo were primarily rowhouses, with a larger wooden apartment block further in the distance and a few single-family homes interspersed among the larger buildings. The rowhouses feature Second Empire-style architecture, with the distinctive mansard roofs on the third floor, but their designs also incorporate elements of the earlier Italianate style, such as the curved window lintels and the decorative brackets under the eaves.

The South End has long been home to a variety of immigrant groups, many of whom were living here when the first photo was taken in the early 20th century. The 1910 census shows many different working-class residents living here in apartments and lodging houses, including French-Canadian and Irish immigrants along with native-born Americans. The house on the right side, for example, was a lodging house that was owned and operated by Abbie E. Neale, a 49-year-old widow who also owned the smaller house behind it. She rented the property to 14 lodgers, which included a mix of single people and married couples who were mostly in their 20s and 30s. They held a variety of working-class jobs, including several painters, a hotel bellman, a cotton mill spinner, and a machine shop laborer.

Around the corner on William Street, the three brick rowhouses on the left side of the photo were rented by three French-Canadian families during the 1910 census. The house closest to the camera, at 169 William Street, was rented by Ovide and Elmina Bouley, immigrants from Quebec who lived here with their infant daughter and Elmina’s father. The middle house was rented by Onesime Grise, a 65-year-old French-Canadian widow who lived here with her brother-in-law, three of her sons, her widowed daughter-in-law, and her young grandson. Furthest from the camera, the last of the three rowhouses was rented by another French-Canadian widow, 58-year-old  Alphonsie Archambeau. According to the 1910 census, she had 12 children, only one of whom was still alive. This child, 17-year-old Eva Tatro, was living here at the time, as were three lodgers who rented rooms from Alphonsie.

In the years after the first photo was taken, the South End shifted from predominantly French-Canadian to Italian, a legacy that remains in the neighborhood today, with many Italian restaurants, shops, and bakeries. However, none of the buildings from the first photo are still standing here. The brick ones in the foreground appear to have been demolished prior to the late 1930s, because they were not among the buildings photographed as part of the 1938-1939 WPA project. The wooden apartment building in the distance was still standing at the time, but it has also since been demolished, and today this side of William Street is now primarily vacant lots, with a parking lot here at the corner.

Third Harrison Gray Otis House, Boston

The Third Harrison Gray Otis House, at 45 Beacon Street in Boston, around 1860. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library

The house in 2017:

Harrison Gray Otis was a lawyer and politician, and one of the most prominent residents of Boston at the turn of the 19th century. Born in 1765 as a member of the prominent Otis family, he was a young boy when his uncle James became one of the leading anti-British patriots in the years leading up to the American Revolution. After graduating from Harvard in 1783, Harrison subsequently opened his law practice in Boston, and in 1796 he was appointed as the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. That same year, he was elected to Congress, and served two terms from 1797 to 1801.

Otis would go on to serve in the state legislature from 1802 to 1817, and was elected to a term in the U.S. Senate from 1817 to 1822. A few years later, he finished his political career by serving as mayor of Boston from 1829 to 1832. However, despite his extensive political career, his greatest legacy in Boston has probably been his three houses on Beacon Hill, all of which are still standing today as some of the finest examples of residential Federal architecture in the country.

All three of his houses were designed by Charles Bulfinch, one of the nation’s most prominent architects of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first house, completed in 1796, was built on Cambridge Street, but Otis only lived here for a few years before moving in 1800, to another new house on Mount Vernon Street, near the top of Beacon Hill. He did not live there for very long either, though, because his third house, seen here on Beacon Street, was completed in 1808.

When the house was completed, Beacon Hill was just starting to be developed as an upscale neighborhood for Boston’s elite, and Otis’s house occupied one of the most desirable spots, directly across from Boston Common. Although most of the houses here are townhouses, his was originally built as a freestanding home, with gardens to the right and behind it, and a driveway to the left. The house itself is considered to have been one of Charles Bulfinch’s finest works, and Otis was evidently satisfied with it, because he lived here until his death 40 years later in 1848.

Otis’s political career peaked during the time that he lived here, and this house saw several distinguished guests, including James Monroe, who stayed here during a visit to Boston in 1817, as well as Senator Henry Clay. With Beacon Hill becoming the city’s most desirable and exclusive neighborhood, though, property values rose to the point where Otis could no longer justifying having large gardens around his house. So, in 1831 he sold a 25-foot wide section of his garden to his neighbor, David Sears, who built an addition to his own house. This granite townhouse, which can be partially seen on the far right, was built for his daughter Anna and her husband William Amory, who was a prominent textile manufacturer. Two years later, Otis filled in the gap between the two houses by building 44 Beacon Street, directly adjacent to his own house, for his daughter Sophia and her husband, Andrew Ritchie.

By the time Harrison Gray Otis died in 1848, his formerly freestanding home had been mostly incorporated into the streetscape of Beacon Street. The only remnant of the gardens that once surrounded his home is the driveway on the left, which leads to a carriage house in the backyard. A rarity in Beacon Hill, this driveway is the only break in an otherwise continuous row of houses on Beacon Street between Walnut and Spruce Streets. When the first photo was taken about 12 years after his death, the house and its surroundings had already assumed its present-day appearance, and there is hardly any difference despite being taken over 150 years apart.

When the first photo was taken, the house was owned by brothers Samuel and Edward Austin, both of whom were merchants. Neither brother ever married, and after Samuel’s death, Edward continued to live here for many years, until his own death in 1898 at the age of 95. The property changed hands several more times in the first half of the 20th century, and by 1940 it was owned by the Boy Scouts, who used it as offices until 1954. Since 1958, it has been owned by the American Meteorological Society, and it is used as the organization’s headquarters. During this time, the interior was significantly renovated, but the exterior of the house has remained well-preserved, and it still stands as one of the finest homes in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, Mass

The Red Lion Inn at the corner of Main and South Streets in Stockbridge, around 1905-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2016:

The origins of the Red Lion Inn date back to 1773, when Silas Pepoon opened a tavern here in the center of Stockbridge. Taverns in colonial America often used distinctive signs to identify themselves, and Pepoon’s tavern sign featured a red lion with a green tail. Although its name would later be derived from the old sign, it was originally known simply as the Stockbridge House. In 1862, it was purchased by Charles and Mert Plumb, and in the decades that followed the hotel enjoyed success, with the Berkshires becoming a popular summer destination. During this time, the hotel was steadily expanded, and 1891 it was renamed Ye Red Lion Inn. Five years later, though, the historic building was completely destroyed in a fire.

The Plumbs rebuilt on the same site, although by now the hotel was being run by their nephew, Allen T. Treadway. A future state legislator and Congressman, Treadway also built the nearby Heaton Hall hotel, and he owned the two properties until his death in 1947. His son, Heaton, sold both hotels in 1955. By this point, many of the grand hotels of the Gilded Age had been destroyed by fires, or had closed during the Great Depression. Those that remained, such as the Red Lion and Heaton Hall, struggled with declining business, with tourists increasingly preferring modern, more convenient motels.

Both hotels were sold again in 1969. Heaton Hall was demolished a few years later, but the Red Lion Inn was purchased by Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick, the founders of Country Curtains. The ground floor of the inn became the company’s first permanent location, while the upper floors remained a hotel. Around the same time, Norman Rockwell, a longtime Stockbridge resident, featured it in his famous Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas painting. Since then, the inn has continued to be a prominent landmark in the center of town, and is one of the few surviving grand hotels in the Berkshires from the 19th century.

Hagyard Store, Lenox, Mass

The Hagyard Store at the corner of Main and Housatonic Streets in Lenox, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2016:

Built in 1910, this building at the center of Lenox was the home of Frank C. Hagyard’s drugstore. When the first photo was taken, Lenox was a popular resort destination for the wealthy, and the drugstore would have catered to many of these summer visitors. Like some of Lenox’s other prominent buildings of the era, it was designed by Pittsfield architect George C. Harding, and it reflects the Renaissance Revival style that was popular at the time.

More than a century later, the former drugstore building is still standing. With modern air conditioning, large awnings are no longer needed over the windows to keep the upper floors cool, but otherwise the exterior does not look much different from its appearance in the 1910s. There is no longer a drugstore on the first floor, but the building now houses, among other things, the Lenox Chamber of Commerce.