John Hancock House, Boston

The John Hancock House on Beacon Street in Boston, around 1860. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The scene in 2017:


This grand mansion was built in the mid-1730s for Thomas Hancock, a wealthy Boston merchant. At the time, Beacon Hill was on the outskirts of Boston, and this house was the westernmost one on Beacon Street. Here, Thomas and his wife Lydia created what amounted to a country estate, with gardens, orchards, and pastureland that extended up the southern slope of hill, and was directly across the street from Boston Common. Despite the pastoral setting, though, the was within easy walking distance of Boston’s wharves, where Hancock conducted his business. The house itself was built of granite, and was an outstanding example of Georgian architecture, complete with a balcony that offered sweeping views of Boston and the the surrounding harbor.

Thomas and Lydia had no children of their own, but in 1744 Thomas’s brother John died, and his seven-year-old son, also named John, moved to Boston and lived here in this house. After graduating from Boston Latin School in 1750 and Harvard College in 1754, John Hancock joined his uncle’s firm, eventually taking over the business after Thomas’s death in 1764. Along with the business, he also inherited his uncle’s estate here on Beacon Hill, and he went on to live here for the rest of his life.

John Hancock went on to become one of the most prominent Patriots in the years leading up to the American Revolution, and in 1774 he was elected as a Massachusetts delegate to the Second Continental Congress. From 1775 to 1777, he served as the President of the Continental Congress, and it was in this capacity in 1776 that he famously signed the Declaration of Independence. Following his time in Congress, he briefly served in the war as a major general in the Massachusetts militia, and in 1780 he was elected as the first governor of Massachusetts. Widely popular, he easily won re-election every year until 1785, when he resigned due to ill health.

Later in 1785, James Bowdoin was elected as his successor, but his two years as governor were marked by a failing economy and a poor response to Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-1787. As a result, Hancock ran against him in the 1787 election and won easily, and he went on to win re-election every year until his death in 1793. During this time, he pardoned those involved in Shays’ Rebellion, and he was also an influential proponent of the U.S. Constitution, which was narrowly ratified by the state in 1788, probably thanks to his support. In the absence of an official governor’s mansion, Hancock’s house served that purpose well, and he received a number of distinguished visitors here, including the Marquis de Lafayette in 1781 and George Washington in 1789.

By the time John Hancock died in 1793, this house was no longer at the outskirts of Boston, and Beacon Hill was in the process of being transformed into an exclusive neighborhood of elegant townhouses. Portions of the estate were steadily sold, including land to the east of the house, which became the site of the Massachusetts State House. Other parcels were sold for new homes, and by the early 19th century the house was surrounded by more modern homes. Hancock’s widow, Dorothy, had remarried in 1796, and she lived here in this house until 1816. The house remained in the family, though, with John Hancock’s nephew, also named John, owning the house until his death in 1859.

The first photo was taken sometime around the time when the younger John Hancock died, and it shows his granddaughter, Elizabeth Lowell Hancock Moriarty, standing on the second floor balcony. Despite being over a century old, the house still retained its stately elegance, and was recognized as an important landmark. There had been several different proposals for using the house, including the possibility of purchasing it as an official governor’s mansion. The family even offered the property to the state for the low price of $100,000, but many balked at the idea of such an expense, and the idea was dropped.

The property was finally sold in 1863, with the intention of redeveloping it with modern townhouses. The state was offered one last chance to move the house to a new location, but again there was significantly opposition to the $12,000 expense, and the historic house was ultimately demolished in the summer of 1863. Had it survived, the house would have become one of the city’s iconic Revolutionary War landmarks, on par with such places as the Old State House, the Paul Revere House, and Old North Church. Instead, though, its demolition did help to spur preservation movements for some of these other landmarks, including the Old South Meeting House, which survived similar redevelopment threats a decade later.

In 1865, two townhouses were built on the site of Hancock’s house. However, these houses did not last nearly as long as their predecessor, because in 1917 they were demolished to build a new wing of the Massachusetts State House. Since then, not much has changed. The 1798 state house, with its various additions over the years, remains in use as the state capitol building, and the surrounding Beacon Hill neighborhood is still home to many of Boston’s wealthy residents, nearly 300 years after Thomas Hancock first made his home here.

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.

First Church, Pittsfield, Mass

The First Church at Park Square in Pittsfield, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The church in 2016:

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Pittsfield’s first church was built on this site in 1761, on the north side of Park Square. It was, in turn, replaced by a more substantial building designed by Charles Bulfinch in 1793. This second church building was among his early works, and Bulfinch would go on to become one of the most prominent architects in the early years of the United States. Many of his works still stand, but the Pittsfield churches heavily damaged in a fire in 1851, and was subsequently replaced with the present building.

Like its predecessor, the new building was also designed by a noted architect, Leopold Eidlitz. It was completed in 1853, with a Gothic Revival style that was becoming common in church architecture. Eidlitz’s design incorporates many Gothic elements, including the off-center tower, pointed arches, steep roof, and decorative trim along the eaves. However, several parts of the old church were preserved, including the bell and the clock, and were added to the new building.

Today, the historic church building is still standing, with few modifications from its original appearance. The clock from the previous church was removed in 1994 and donated to a museum, and a replica of the clock face was installed in its place. Otherwise, though, little has changed, and the church is one of many historic buildings around Park Square, including the Berkshire County Savings Bank Building on the left and the old town hall on the right.

Customshouse, Providence, RI

Looking down Weybosset Street from Westminster Street in Providence in 1868, with the U.S. Customshouse in the background. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The scene in 2016:

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In the first photo, this scene is dominated by the U.S. Customshouse, a domed, three-story granite building that had been completed just 11 years earlier, in 1857. It was designed by Ammi B. Young, during his time as Supervising Architect of the Treasury. His works included many prominent buildings, such as the old Vermont State House, part of the Treasury Building in Washington, DC, and the Custom House in Boston.

Young designed the custom houses in Boston and Providence about 20 years apart, and the two buildings reflect a shift in architectural tastes during the time. Although both were constructed of granite, Boston’s earlier building was Greek Revival, but by the time Providence’s Customshouse was built, Italianate architecture was far more common. Gone were the massive columns and triangular pediments, replaced instead with design elements such as arches, window cornices, and quoins on the corners.

When the first photo was taken, the Customshouse was surrounded by an assortment of low-rise commercial buildings, many of which were wood and probably dated back to the early 19th century. However, over time these buildings disappeared, and were replaced by much taller skyscrapers, dwarfing the old Customshouse. The first of these skyscrapers was the Banigan Building, built in 1896 on the left side of the present-day scene. It was followed in 1913 by the even taller Turk’s Head Building on the right side of the photo, which was constructed on a triangular lot and bears some resemblance to New York’s Flatiron Building.

Because Providence was a major port in New England, the Customshouse served an important function housing the offices of the city’s Collector of Customs. However, despite its name, the building also included the city’s main post office, a federal courtroom, and the offices of the federal District Attorney. Consequently, while Providence’s skyline was growing, so was the need for space in the old building.

The problem was solved in 1908, with the completion of a new Federal Building at Exchange Plaza. Even this new building was not enough, though. After sitting vacant for more than a decade, the old Customshouse was reopened in 1921 to provide additional space for federal offices. It remained in use until 1989, and was later sold to the State of Rhode Island. Today, it is used as offices for the State Courts System. Along with the turn-of-the-century skyscrapers around it, the 160 year old building is now part of the Customshouse Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Market Square, Providence, RI

Market Square, as seen from across the Providence River in 1865. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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Market Square in 2016:

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Located at the foot of College Hill on the east side of the Providence River, Market Square was for many years an important commercial and political center of the city. The oldest building in the first photo is Market Houston the right side. Like other colonial buildings such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall, the Market House functioned as a market on the first floor, but had upper floors that were used for public meetings. It opened in 1775, just in time to witness the start of the American Revolution, which included an anti-British protest where colonists burned tea outside the building. Later in the war, French soldiers were housed in the building in 1781, prior to their participation in the decisive Battle of Yorktown later in the year.

Providence was incorporated as a city in 1832, and that same year the newly-formed city government moved into the Market House. The building soon became too small for the needs of the growing city, but it took years before a suitable site for a new City Hall was finally chosen. In 1878, the present City Hall opened on the other side of the river at Exchange Place, and the Market House was put to new use as an office building.

Today, the Market House is the only building left from the first photo. The 19th century commercial blocks on the left were demolished by the first half of the 20th century to build the Rhode Island School of Design Auditorium, and the buildings in the center were also subsequently demolished. The entire scene around Market Square is now part of the Rhode Island School of Design, including the Market House itself. The historic building was transferred to the school in 1948, and is now in use for classroom space, although very little has changed in its exterior appearance over the past 150 years.

Westminster Street from Eddy Street, Providence, RI

Looking west on Westminster Street from Eddy Street in 1865. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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Westminster Street in 2016:

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Taken over 150 years apart, these two views both show Westminster Street as a busy commercial center in downtown Providence. The camera’s exposure time for the first photo was too long to capture the pedestrians and vehicles passing by, but their blurred streaks give the impression of a bustling, fast-paced scene. Today, the scene is crowded with vehicles of a different kind, and almost nothing is left from the first photo. Most of the buildings here today date back to the 19th century, but they were built a decade or two after the first photo was taken. Because of this, the 1865 photo gives a glimpse of the street as it appeared before it was completely altered by developments of the 1870s and 1880s.

The first photo was taken the same year that the Civil War ended, and in the postwar years Providence experienced a dramatic population increase. For most of the 19th century, the city’s population had been doubling roughly every 20 years. This trend continued after the war, with the city growing from just over 50,000 in 1860 to over 100,000 in 1880, and then to over 200,000 by the first decade of the 20th century. In the process, street scenes like the one here on Westminster Street were changed, with the plain early 19th century buildings giving way to larger, more elegant ones of the Victorian era.

The most prominent building in the first photo is the First Universalist Church, on the right side at the corner of Union Street. It was built in 1825, designed by Providence architect John Holden Greene to replace the previous church on the same site, which had burned down earlier in the year. The congregation was still meeting here 40 years later when the first photo was taken, but in 1872 they moved to their current building on Washington Street. Soon after, the old church was demolished and replaced with one of the commercial blocks on the right side of the 2016 photo.

Today, none of the commercial buildings from the first photo survive. The oldest one is the red brick building at 239 Westminster Street, visible in the upper right center of the photo. Although it was altered later in the 19th century, the oldest part of the building dates to 1866. On the other side of the street, visible directly behind the lamppost, is the Burgess Building. Completed in 1870, this is the oldest one in the present-day scene that remains relatively unaltered. None of these are old enough to have appeared in the first photo, though. The only building of any kind that is still standing from the 1865 scene is Grace Church, visible a few blocks away on the right side of the street. This Gothic Revival church was designed prominent architect Richard Upjohn and completed in 1846, and although it is mostly blocked from view in the present-day scene, the top of its spire can still be seen in the distance.