Washington Square, Newport, Rhode Island

Facing west along the north side of Washington Square in Newport, around 1880. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Washington Square has been the main focal point of Newport since its establishment in 1639, when the first settlers built their homes in this area. Over the years, it was variously known as the Mall and the Parade, and by the mid-18th century it was the civic and commercial center of Newport, with the Colony House and the Brick Market locates on opposite ends of the square. In a sense, this arrangement was somewhat unusual for New England towns, which typically had a church, as opposed to secular buildings, situated in the most prominent location on the town common. However, here in Newport this reflected colonial Rhode Island’s focus on religious liberty, by not showing preference to one particular church over another.

Around the turn of the 19th century, the area came to be known as Washington Square, and over the next few decades the park was landscaped with trees, fences, walking paths, and a fountain. During this time, the square was the site of many fine mansions, including the one that is seen on the far left side of the photo. Built around 1750 for Peter Buliod, this house was purchased in 1818 by Oliver Hazard Perry, a Rhode Island native who achieved prominence as a naval hero in the War of 1812. He died a year later while serving in the Caribbean, but the house remained in his family until 1865, only about 15 years before the first photo was taken.

By the time the first photo was taken around 1880, modern commercial buildings had come to dominate the square, although some of the old mansions were still standing. Perry’s former house had become a commercial property, with a storefront on the first floor, and on the other side of the photo, further in the distance, was the Rathbun-Gardner-Rivera House, which had been built around 1722 and converted into a bank in 1803. In the center of the photo, the colonial-era Brick Market was still standing, although by this point it had become Newport’s city hall. Directly behind the photographer, the old Colony House was also still standing, and it was still in use as one of Rhode Island’s two state houses, with the state legislature alternating sessions between here and Providence.

Nearly 140 years after the first photo was taken, Washington Square has not undergone any significant changes. Some of the 19th century buildings have come and gone, but overall the area has retained the same scale, with mostly two and three-story commercial buildings surrounding the square. It is hard to tell because of the trees, but most of the buildings on the left side of the scene are still there today. On the far left, the Buliod-Perry House is still there, and was restored to its original appearance in the mid-1970s. Next to it is the Henry Bull Opera House, which was built in 1867 and still stands, although it no longer has its top floor. The Perry House Hotel to the right of it was demolished in the 20th century and replaced with a two-story commercial building, and at the corner of Thames Street the 1861 Henry B. Young Building still stands, although heavily altered and without its top floor.

The 1760s Brick Market is still standing at the western end of Washington Square, and it is now a National Historic Landmark that serves as the Museum of Newport History. Further to the right, the Rathbun-Gardner-Rivera House is still there, partially visible just to the left of the handicapped parking signpost. It is still a bank, having been used as such for over 200 years, but otherwise the right side of the scene is not as well-preserved as the left side. All of the other buildings here on the north side of Washington Square are from the first half of the 20th century, and the ones in this scene date back to around 1929-1931. However, directly behind the spot where this photo was taken, the Colony House is still standing as another one of Newport’s many National Historic Landmarks.

As for the park at the center of Washington Square, it is not much different from when the first photo was taken. The only significant change came in 1885, when a statue was dedicated to Oliver Hazard Perry to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. Located directly opposite his house, it is mostly hidden by trees but still stands on the square. The park itself was renamed Eisenhower Park in 1960, joining Washington and Perry as another military hero whose name would be associated with the square. Eisenhower spent several summers here in Newport during his presidency, and he was present here at the park for the dedication ceremonies in the summer of 1960, during his last year in office. A few years later, in 1968, the park would join the rest of the neighborhood as a contributing property in the Newport Historic District, which is collectively another one of the city’s National Historic Landmarks.

Spring and Pelham Streets, Newport, Rhode Island

Looking west on Pelham Street from the corner of Spring Street in Newport, around 1883. Image courtesy of the Providence Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

Newport is well-known for its many Gilded Age mansions, but long before it was a summer playground for the rich and famous it was a prosperous seaport. Unlike the massive homes and spacious lawns of the Bellevue Avenue area, the center of Newport features narrow colonial-era streets, lined with historic 18th and 19th century houses. Spring Street, which runs from left to right through this scene, is one of the primary north-south streets in downtown Newport, and both it and its many cross streets have been remarkably well-preserved over the years, with few significant changes in the past two centuries.

When the first photo was taken, this scene was a mix of modest colonial-era buildings and larger, more elegant 19th century homes. The house at the corner was probably built sometime in the 1700s, as was the small gambrel -roofed house just beyond it on the right side, which predates the American Revolution. The exact date of this smaller house is unclear, but it was built sometime before 1771, and was the home of Lucina Langley. Just beyond the Langley house is a much more modern house at 41 Pelham Street. It was the home of Anthony Stewart, Jr., and it was built in 1859, although it appears to have been modified before the first photo was taken.

More than 130 years after the first photo was taken, the only significant change in this scene is the house on the corner. The original colonial-era house was demolished shortly after the photo was taken, and its replacement is still standing today. Completed in 1883, this house was originally the home of William M. Austin, a house painter who had a prosperous business here in Newport. He was a lifelong resident of the city, and served on the city council, representing Ward 4 from 1884 to 1890. He and his wife Emily had three children: Percy, Susan, and Edward. Susan died young, long before the family moved into this house, but their two sons followed their father into the painter’s trade, eventually taking over the business after William’s death in 1897.

Since then, this scene has remained essentially unchanged. His house is still there, and now operates as the Austin House Inn. Further down Pelham Street, both the Langley and Stewart houses are still standing, as are the other historic 18th and 19th century homes on the street. Like much of downtown Newport, this area retains its colonial-era appearance, and the neighborhood now forms the Newport Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Isaac Bell House, Newport, Rhode Island

The Isaac Bell House at the corner of Perry Street and Bellevue Avenue in Newport, around 1883-1895. Image courtesy of the Cornell University Library, Andrew Dickson White Architectural Photographs Collection.

The house in 2017:

Although not as large or ostentatious as many of the other 19th century mansions in Newport, this house is among the most significant, and stands as an architectural landmark. It is widely considered to be a masterpiece of Shingle Style architecture, and it was one of the early examples of this style, which would become popular in the late 19th century, particularly in New England coastal resort communities like Newport. It was also one of the first commissions of the New York-based firm of McKim, Mead & White, which would go on to become one of the nation’s leading architectural firms of its era.

Unlike most of the other architectural movements in 19th century America, the Shingle style was not an imitation of earlier European designs. Instead, it was a distinctly American style, and typically blended elements of colonial architecture while also using traditional building materials, such as the ubiquitous cedar shingles. Like the contemporaneous Queen Anne style, Shingle style homes tended to have complex, asymmetrical designs, often with turrets and large porches. However, Shingle style deliberately avoided the excessive ornamentation of Queen Anne architecture, and instead featured exteriors that were almost completely covered in shingles. As a result, these homes tended to blend in with their surroundings, instead of other types of houses that were specifically designed to stand out.

This house was completed in 1883 for Isaac Bell, Jr.,   a New York native who had recently retired after a brief but successful career as a cotton broker. He was just 31 at the time of his retirement, and with his inheritance from his father plus his own accumulated wealth he was able to establish himself here in Newport society. In 1878, a year after retiring, he married Jeannette Bennett, the sister of New York Herald owner James Gordon Bennett, Jr. Here in Newport, Bennett was well-known for his eccentric, often flamboyant behavior, but he was also the founder of the Newport Casino, one of the city’s leading social clubs. The Casino building, located a few blocks away from here on Bellevue Avenue, was also designed by McKim, Mead & White, and this family connection may have been the reason why Bell commissioned them to design his house a few years later.

Although retired from active business, Isaac Bell was involved in politics as a member of the Democratic Party. He was the president of Newport’s Democratic Club, and campaigned for Grover Cleveland in the 1884 presidential election. The following year, Cleveland rewarded Bell by appointing him as the US ambassador to the Netherlands, a post that he would hold for nearly three years. He was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1888, but later that year he fell ill with typhoid fever while here in Newport. He returned to New York and underwent surgery, but it was unsuccessful and he died a few weeks later in January 1889, at the age of 42.

In 1891, Jeannette sold the property to Samuel F. Barger, a prominent New York City lawyer who was a longtime director of the New York Central Railroad. One of the most important railroads in the country, the New York Central had been acquired by Cornelius Vanderbilt, and in that same year Barger began serving on the board of directors. Two years later, the railroad was merged with the Hudson River Railroad, which was another of Vanderbilt’s holdings, and Barger became a director of the consolidated corporation. Barger would continue to serve on the board alongside two more generations of Vanderbilts, outliving Cornelius, his son William, and William’s son Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who built The Breakers here in Newport. He served on the board into the 20th century, and was the last surviving member of the consolidated railroad’s original 1869 board.

Upon purchasing this house, Barger named it Edna Villa, in honor of his wife, Edna LaFavor. The couple had married in 1869, and they had three children: Maud, Edna, and Milton. Maud was an accomplished tennis player, winning the singles title in the 1908 U.S. National Championships and finishing as the runner-up in 1906 and 1909. She did not start playing tennis until she was about 30, but she played competitively well into her 40s. In 1912, at the age of 42, she was the runner-up in the women’s doubles championship, and three years later she was still ranked among the top 10 in the world. In 1958, a few years after her death, she was inducted in the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1958, which is located at the Newport Casino, just a quarter mile away from here.

During Samuel Barger’s ownership, this house was altered several times, including an addition to the southwest corner in the late 1890s, as well as the removal of the carriage house on the left side of the photo around the same time. After Samuel’s death in 1914 the property remained in his family for many years, and another addition was built on the west side in the 1920s. His daughter Edna would eventually inherit the property, and she owned it until finally selling it in 1952. By this point, Newport was no longer the exclusive summer colony that it had once been, and massive Gilded Age mansions had long since fallen out of fashion. A relic of a bygone era, the house was converted into a nursing home, and was later divided into apartments.

In 1996, the house was sold to the Preservation Society of Newport County, which operates many historic house museums in Newport, including The Breakers and Marble House. The Preservation Society restored the house, and subsequently opened it to the public as a museum. Unlike most of the organization’s other properties, this house is only minimally furnished, in an effort to highlight the architectural details of the interior. Despite the many changes over the years, the interior has remained well-preserved, and very little has changed in this view of the exterior since the first photo was taken some 125 years ago. Because of this level of preservation, along with its architectural significance, the house was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1997.

Boston Art Club, Boston

The Boston Art Club building at the corner of Dartmouth and Newbury Street in Boston, around 1882. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The building in 2017:

The Boston Art club was founded in 1855 by local artists, as a way of exhibiting and promoting their work. The organization met in a variety of locations throughout much of the 19th century, but by the early 1880s the Art Club had expanded to nearly 600 members, and there was a need for a new building. Like many of the city’s other cultural institutions, they moved to the recently-developed Back Bay, where they hired architect William Ralph Emerson to design a new building here at the corner of Newbury and Dartmouth Streets. It was an ideal spot for an art club, since it was just a block away from Art Square. Later renamed for Boston artist John Singleton Copley, this square has long been the main focal point of the Back Bay neighborhood, and it was the home of the Museum of Fine Arts from 1876 until 1909.

Upon completion of this building in 1882, membership in the Boston Art Club continued to grow, and the exhibitions that were held here were major events, attracting many of the nation’s leading artists. However, non-artist members began to vastly outnumber actual artists, which led to the organization becoming more of a social club, with conservative members who were reluctant to embrace modernism and other new art styles in the early 20th century. They continued to hold exhibitions for many years, and even allowed women to join as members in 1933, but the club would never reach the level of prominence that it had enjoyed in the late 1800s. The building was finally sold in 1950, and it is now a public school, the The Muriel Sutherland Snowden International School at Copley.

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:

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.

Butler Exchange, Providence, RI

The Butler Exchange, on the south side of Exchange Plaza in Providence, around the 1870s or 1880s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.


The scene in 2016:

The late 19th century was a time of growing prosperity for the city of Providence, and few buildings indicated this as well as the Butler Exchange. This massive commercial block was built in 1873, and was designed by prominent architect Arthur Gilman. Like many other public buildings of the day, it was designed in the Second Empire style, complete with towers on the corners and a large, two-story mansard roof at the top. On the inside, it consisted of shops on the first floor, with offices on the five upper floors. Starting in 1878, the second floor was also the first home of the Providence Public Library, until they opened their current building in 1900.

Today, nothing remains from the first photo. The smaller buildings on either side of the photo are long gone, and the Butler Exchange itself was demolished in 1925. By the turn of the 20th century, Providence’s skyline had begun growing upward, culminating in 1928 with the completion of the 428-foot, 26-story Industrial Trust Tower, built here on the site of the Butler Exchange. Later known as the Bank of America Tower and now as 111 Westminster Street, the Art Deco-style skyscraper remains the tallest building in Rhode Island. However, the historic building has been vacant since 2013, and despite several redevelopment proposals its future is still uncertain.