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.

Mount Vernon Place, Boston

Mount Vernon Place, seen from Joy Street in Boston around 1860. Image taken by Josiah Johnson Hawes, courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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Mount Vernon Place in 2105:

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Mount Vernon Place is a short street in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, located just west of the Massachusetts State House. It was once a full block long, and was developed in the 1830s on land that had once been owned by John Hancock and his family. As the 1860 photo shows, the street had a small park on the left side and eight townhouses on the right, and at the end of the street was the State House. The five houses closest to the State House were demolished in the 1910s when the building was expanded, and today only the three in the foreground survive. These three were built around 1833-1834, and have been largely unaltered on the exterior since then. They are among the many historic early 19th century townhouses that have become a defining feature of Beacon Hill, and they form a part of the Beacon Hill Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Beacon Hill Reservoir, Boston

The reservoir atop Beacon Hill in Boston, around 1860. Image taken by Josiah Johnson Hawes, courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

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Long before the Wachusett and Quabbin Reservoirs, Boston’s municipal water supply was Lake Cochituate, a reservoir in Natick, Framingham, and Wayland. The project began in 1845, and it included not only creating the artificial lake, but also building a 14-mile long aqueduct that fed this stone reservoir atop Beacon Hill, just behind the Massachusetts State House. From here, the water was distributed throughout the city, using the hill’s elevation to carry the water downhill through the pipes. It occupied the majority of the block between Hancock, Derne, Temple, and Mt. Vernon Streets, and it had a capacity of over 2.6 million gallons.

The structure’s cornerstone laying ceremony in 1847 included a time capsule, which contained several publications and two silver plates, perhaps in the hope that, like the great Roman aqueducts in Europe, this public water supply structure would last for thousands of years. However, as it turned out, it lasted for less than 40. It closed by about 1880, and around three years later it was demolished to build a large expansion of the Massachusetts State House, which now occupies the site where this reservoir once stood.

Bowdoin Square Baptist Church, Boston

The Bowdoin Square Baptist Church in Boston, around 1860. Image taken by Josiah Johnson Hawes, courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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Bowdoin Square in 2015:

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This scene shows Bowdoin Square facing the opposite direction from the one in the previous post, facing east on Cambridge Street toward Government Center. The most prominent building in the first photo is the Bowdoin Square Baptist Church, a Gothic Revival style church that was built in 1840. Its design is very similar to several other churches that were built in Boston around the same time, including the old Trinity Church on Summer Street and the nearby Bowdoin Street Congregational Church, which is still standing today as the Saint John the Evangelist Mission Church.

The church here at Bowdoin Square gained some notoriety in 1885, when the congregation split after the pastor, William W. Downs, was found in what was alleged to be a “compromising position” with a woman from his church. The scandal was well-publicized in newspapers across the country, and the church split into two factions, with one supporting his removal and the other believing his claims that he was the victim of a conspiracy. He was eventually dismissed from his position, and the church closed, but he maintained his innocence and several years later won a lawsuit against his accusers, with the jury awarding him $10,000 in damages.

Following the Downs scandal, the church became the Bowdoin Square Baptist Tabernacle, and it was extensively remodeled on the exterior and interior in 1898. However, the church sold the building in 1916 to the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company. Around 1930, they demolished the church and the neighboring Coolidge Building to the right, in order to build their new Boston headquarters, which is still standing in the 2015 photo. None of the other buildings remain from the 1860 photo, either; most of this section of Boston was demolished in the 1950s and 1960s as part of the West End and Government Center urban renewal projects.

Boston and Providence Depot, Boston

The Boston and Providence Depot at Park Square in Boston, around 1860. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The station around 1885. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

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The Boston and Providence Railroad opened in 1835, at a time when Boston was still a peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. To avoid taking up scarce land, the railroad built a long trestle across the Back Bay, which at the time was a tidal marsh between Boston and Roxbury. The railroad terminal was built here at the edge of the water, at what eventually became Park Square.

The original station from the first photograph was demolished in the early 1870s so that the city could build Columbus Avenue, and it was replaced with the much larger station in the second photograph. In advertisements, it was hailed as “The Palace Depot of the World,” and from here passengers could board a train for Providence, New York, and other points south. However, by the late 19th century there were eight different railroads serving Boston, each of which operated its own separate station. The four railroads on the north side all had terminals near where North Station would be be built in 1893, and three of the south side terminals were located in the immediate vicinity of today’s South Station. The Providence and Worcester depot was the one outlier; it was on the south side, but it was a half mile away from the next closest station.

Because the multiple stations were both inconvenient for passengers and a waste of valuable property, the four south side railroads finally consolidated into South Station in 1899. This station and the tracks leading to it were closed, and the railroad, which by then had been leased to the New York, New Haven and Hartford, was rerouted onto new tracks, parallel to the Boston & Albany Railroad.

Today, none of the buildings from the first two photos are still standing. The site of the station is now the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, which was built in 1927 as the Hotel Statler Boston in the triangular block between Columbus Avenue, Park Plaza, and Arlington Street. The only visible remnant from the first photo is the Emancipation Memorial statue, which was added to Park Square in 1879 and can be seen on the far left of both photos.

 

Bethel Church, Boston

Bethel Church at North Square, Boston, around 1860. Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library.

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The church in 2014:

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Built at North Square in 1833 by the Boston Port and Sailor’s Aid Society, this church provided Boston’s sailors with a place of worship, and also included a store to benefit sailors and their families. During the 19th century, several notable visitors attended the church, including Jenny Lind, Walt Whitman, and Charles Dickens.  In the 1880s, the building was sold to the Roman Catholic Church, and was reopened in 1890, after some exterior renovations as seen in the 2014 photo.