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.

Rosecliff, Newport, Rhode Island

The Rosecliff mansion on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, around 1910-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, George Grantham Bain Collection.

The scene in 2018:

Rosecliff was one of the many Gilded Age summer homes that were built in Newport during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was completed in 1902, and was originally the home of businessman Hermann Oelrichs (1850-1906) and his wife, the silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs (1871-1926). The property had previously been owned by George Bancroft (1800-1891), a prominent historian, politician, and diplomat who had served as U. S. Secretary of the Navy from 1845 to 1846, Minister to the United Kingdom from 1846 to 1849, and Minister to Germany from 1867 to 1874. During this time, he maintained a modest summer home here in Newport, which was named Rosecliff for his extensive rose garden.

Following Bancroft’s death in 1891, the Oelrichs purchased the Rosecliff property. The old house was demolished, and they hired the prominent architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to design a new, larger, and far more elegant replacement. Most of the design work was done by Stanford White, whose earlier Newport commissions included the Isaac Bell House. Although built less than 20 years after the Isaac Bell House, Rosecliff represented a significant shift in White’s designs, from the Shingle style of the 1880s to the Beaux-Arts style of the turn of the century. It also reflected the changes in tastes among the Newport elite, who increasingly demanded summer “cottages” that were modeled after European palaces. In this case, Rosecliff was based on the design of the Grand Trianon at Versailles, which had been built during the reign of Louis XIV.

Hermann and Theresa Oelrichs lived in New York, but spent summers here at Rosecliff, where Theresa was one of the leaders of Newport society. As such, her house was designed for entertaining. Its ballroom, which measures 40 by 80 feet, is the largest in Newport, and it occupies the entire central section of the first floor, between the two projecting wings. The entire house has a total of 30 rooms, is 28,800 square feet in size, and was built at a cost of $2.5 million, or over $73 million today.

The house was built using the wealth that Theresa had inherited from her father, James Graham Fair (1831-1894). Fair had come to the United States in 1843 as a poor young Irish immigrant, but he went on to make his fortune in silver mining following the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada. He also served one term as a U. S. Senator from Nevada, from 1881 to 1887, but was defeated for re-election in 1886. Despite – or perhaps because of – this vast wealth, Fair had a strained relationship with his wife and children, thanks in no small part to his serial adultery. His wife, also named Theresa, divorced him in 1883, and his daughter Theresa did not even invite him to her wedding in 1890. However, this did not stop the younger Theresa from accepting his $1 million wedding gift, nor the $40 million inheritance that she and her sister split after his death in 1894. She would eventually honor his legacy by building the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and naming it for him.

Hermann Oelrichs died in 1906, but Theresa continued to spend summers here at Rosecliff until her death in 1926 at the age of 55. Her only child, Hermann Oelrichs, Jr. (1891-1948) inherited the property, but by this point Newport’s massive Gilded Age mansions were falling out of fashion. This would only get worse in the wake of the Great Depression, and Oelrichs ultimately sold the house in 1941 for just $21,000. Adjusted for inflation, this was less than a half of a percent of what his parents had spent to build Rosecliff only 40 years earlier.

The new owner of Rosecliff was Gertrude Niesen (1911-1975), a singer, actress, and Vaudeville performer who was active during the 1930s and 1940s. She owned it for several years, but during this time the house sustained serious damage from a frozen water pipe. She subsequently sold it to Ray Alan Van Clief, who restored the interior, but he was killed in a car accident while on his way to visit the house for the first time after the completion of the renovations.

The next owner of the house was J. Edgar Monroe (1897-1992), a wealthy New Orleans businessman who purchased the property in 1947. He and his wife Louise spent summers here until 1971, when they donated Rosecliff to the Preservation Society of Newport County, a nonprofit organization that owns many of the historic mansions in Newport, including The Breakers and Marble House. The house was opened to the public, and over the years it has also been used as a filming location for a variety of movies, including The Great Gatsby (1974), True Lies (1994), Amistad (1997), and 27 Dresses (2008). Today, the exterior of the house has not significantly changed since the first photo was taken over a century ago, and it is now a contributing property in the Bellevue Avenue Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark district in 1973.

Lost New England Goes West: Palace Hotel, San Francisco (3)

The Palace Hotel in San Francisco, seen from the corner of Market, Kearny, and Geary Streets in San Francisco, probably on April 15, 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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The new Palace Hotel, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Bain Collection.

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The hotel in 2015:

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The first photo here shows the original Palace Hotel as it appeared shortly before it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The caption reads “The Palace April 15. Copyright 1906 Pillsbury Picture Co.”, so it appears to have been taken on April 15, 1906, just three days before the disaster. The hotel had been a San Francisco landmark since its completion in 1875, and as explained in an earlier post it had been specifically designed to withstand both earthquakes and fire. However, while its thick walls survived the earthquake itself, the building was gutted by the subsequent fires, as seen in the first photo of this earlier post, which was taken as the building burned. Yet another previous post, taken from almost the same spot as this April 15 scene, shows the burned-out remains of the hotel and other buildings along Market Street.

Three years later, the hotel was rebuilt on the same site, as seen in the second photo, and it retained its status as one of the city’s premier hotels. Several years after the second photo was taken, President Warren G. Harding died in an eighth-floor suite on this side of the building. He was visiting the city during a tour of the west coast, arriving on July 29, 1923. His health had been rapidly deteriorating amid a busy schedule, and he spent several days in the hotel before his sudden death from an apparent heart attack on August 2.

Today, not much has changed in the “new” Palace Hotel’s exterior appearance. It remains a prominent San Francisco hotel, and the buildings on either side of it are also still standing from the second photo. Market Street is as busy as it was in the early 1900s, and trolleys still run down the middle of the street as they did a century ago. Part of the “F” line of the Muni system, it runs historic streetcars, a few of which date back to the era the second photo was taken. The one in this particular 2015 scene is a PCC streetcar that was built in 1948, making it still far closer in age to the first two photos than to the present-day.

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.

President Taft in Springfield, Mass

President William Howard Taft speaking behind Old First Church on April 25, 1912. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Bain Collection.

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The scene in 2014:

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The 1912 presidential election was an unusual one, brought on by a rift in the Republican party between President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt.  Both sought the Republican nomination, and on April 25, Taft was making his way through Massachusetts before the primary five days later.  April 1912 was an eventful time – when the photo of Taft was taken, Fenway Park had just opened five days earlier, and five days before that, the Titanic sank. However, at the time, the most pressing political issue in the country was the apparent fracturing of the Republican Party.

The Massachusetts voters ended up choosing Roosevelt for the Republican nomination, but at the national convention a few months later, the party bosses chose Taft. It would end up being a Pyrrhic victory for them, though, because Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate, which split the Republican vote in he November election and gave Democrat Woodrow Wilson an easy victory.  In the end, Taft won just two states and eight electoral votes, a dismal showing for an incumbent president.

For the speech, Taft stood behind Old First Church, facing what was at the time the newly-cleared extension of Court Square, which went from the back of the church to the railroad tracks next to the Connecticut River.  The brick section in the back of Old First Church is still there today, although it was substantially renovated in 1947.  The windows behind Taft have since been bricked up, but their outlines, formed by lighter-colored bricks, are still visible.

Hilltop Park, New York (4)

Another scene inside Hilltop Park, during a game between the New York Highlanders and the Boston Red Sox in 1912. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Bain Collection.

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A similar scene in 2014:

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In 1912, the New York Highlanders played their last season at Hilltop Park, losing 102 games in the process.  In the meantime, the Boston Red Sox played their first season at Fenway Park, where they still play today, and won a franchise-record 105 games on their way to a World Series championship.  They seemed like two teams headed in totally opposite directions, but just a decade later, following the sale of Babe Ruth and other star players to the Yankees, it would end up being the Yankees winning 100+ games on a regular basis, while the Red Sox frequently lost over 100.  The runner sliding in the photo is New York outfielder Guy Zinn, who played for the Highlanders in 1911 and 1912, before spending a year with the Boston Braves and two years with the Baltimore Terrapins of the short-lived Federal League.  The Red Sox first baseman in the photo is probably player/manager Jake Stahl, although it could be Hugh Bradley, who also played first base for the Red Sox during the 1912 season.

The photos aren’t taken in the exact same spot; the actual location of the first photo would be somewhere inside Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.  However, both photos show the one surviving landmark from scenes in Hilltop Park: the three apartment buildings across 168th Street.  These buildings were particularly helpful in figuring out the orientation of some of the historic images of Hilltop Park, as the landscape has completely changed in the past 100 years.

Hilltop Park, New York (3)

Another scene inside Hilltop Park, before the 1911 home opener against the Washington Senators. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Bain Collection.

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The same scene in 2014:

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Taken the same day as the photo in this post, the Highlanders played their first home game shortly after the photo was taken, losing 1-0 to the Washington Senators.  Today, the Highlanders are the Yankees, the Washington Senators are now the Minnesota Twins, and Hilltop Park is now Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.