Main Street, Concord, Mass

The view looking west on Main Street, from the corner of Lexington Road in Concord, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

These two photos were taken more than a century apart, from the small rotary at the intersection of Monument Road, Lexington Road, and Main Street in downtown Concord. The view is facing west down Main Street, showing a variety of low-rise commercial buildings, most of which date back to the 19th century. Aside from some obvious modern changes, such as an increase in automobiles on the road and a lack of trolleys in the present-day photo, remarkably little has changed in this scene, and most of the historic buildings here on Main Street remain well-preserved.

This block of Main Street was originally known as the Milldam. Starting in the 17th century, the site of the street was a dam across the Mill Brook, and over the years it steadily grew to include a variety of offices and stores on top of the dam itself. Then, in 1828 the Milldam Company was formed, and it purchased the land on either side of the dam. The pond was subsequently drained, the old buildings on the dam were demolished, and new lots were laid out. The result was new commercial buildings on either side of Main Street, and many of these are still standing today.

Starting on the far left side, the closest building to the foreground of the two photos is Garty’s Block, which came several decades after the milldam was reconstructed. It dates back to around 1870, and it originally had a Second Empire-style mansard roof, as shown in the first photo. This has since been removed, and the ground floor storefront has also been altered at some point in the 20th century, leaving only the second floor relatively unaltered from the exterior. Just to the right of it, at 15-17 Main Street, is a two-story building that once housed Alexander Urquhart’s bakery. It was constructed in 1898, replacing an earlier wooden structure on the same site, and it still stands today, with fewer dramatic changes than its neighbor to the left.

Further in the distance is a pair of two-story buildings with gabled roofs and high chimneys on their end walls. These features distinguish them from later 19th century commercial blocks, which tended to have flat roofs and less prominent chimneys. Both buildings were part of the Milldam Company’s redevelopment of the area, and they were constructed sometime around 1835. Like most of the other buildings here, the ground floors have been altered, but otherwise they have retained much of their original appearance.

Just beyond these two buildings, in the first photo, is a small two-story Italianate-style building that probably dated back to around the 1850s or 1860s. This is one of the few buildings from the first photo that is no longer standing; it was demolished by the early 1930s, when the present-day building—originally a First National Store—was constructed on the site. On the other side of it is the Davis-Richardson Block at 37 Main Street, which features a design similar to the nearby 1835 buildings. This block is slightly newer, though, having been built around 1845.

Some of the other 19th century buildings in this scene include the Friend’s Block, the two-story brick building that stands in the distance in the right-center of the photos, at the corner of Main and Walden Streets. It was built in 1892, making it one of the newer structures here on this section of Main Street. On the other side of the street, on the far right of both photos, is the Union Block at 18-26 Main Street. Like Garty’s Block across the street, it was built with a mansard roof, but in this case the roof has been retained, and the exterior of the building has not changed significantly over the years.

Although very little has changed here since the first photo was taken, this block of Main Street faced the possibility of demolition during the early 20th century. In the late 1920s, cement manufacturer Albert Y. Gowen purchased many of these properties, with the intention of demolishing all of them and replacing them with new colonial-style buildings. Gowen had been inspired by the newly-reconstructed Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, and he hoped to create something similar here, with a Main Street lined with faux-colonial shops. However, this plan faced significant opposition, including from some of the property owners who refused to sell, and Gowen ultimately abandoned his plans. As a result, Concord continues to have a town center filled with authentic 19th century buildings, as opposed to entirely fabricated 18th century ones.

Wright’s Tavern, Concord, Mass (1)

Wright’s Tavern, seen from Lexington Road in Concord, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

This tavern has stood at the center of Concord for nearly 275 years, since its construction in 1747. It was built by Ephraim Jones, who ran the tavern here for several years before selling the property to Thomas Munroe in 1751. After Munroe’s death in 1766, it was purchased by Daniel Taylor, and he went on to own it for the next nine years. During this time, in the years leading up to the American Revolution, the tavern served as a popular gathering place for locals. These included the militiamen who met regularly on the nearby training field for drills, as well as congregants from the neighboring First Parish Church.

The tavern came to be known as Wright’s Tavern because of Amos Wright, who was the proprietor during the mid-1770s. Although he did not own the property, he ran the tavern, and it was during his tenure here that several historic events occurred. The first of these came in October 1774, when the Massachusetts Provincial Congress met in Concord. Earlier in the month, the colonial legislature had been dissolved as part of the so-called Intolerable Acts, but its members ignored this directive and met anyway, convening in Concord on October 7. The Congress itself met in the First Parish Church, with John Hancock presiding, but the tavern was used for committee meetings, in addition to providing food and drink for the 300 delegates in attendance.

Just six months later, Wright’s Tavern again found itself at the center of revolutionary activities in Massachusetts. In the early morning hours of April 19, 1775, Concord minutemen gathered here in advance of the approaching British forces, which were attempting to seize colonial military supplies that were stored here in town. Later in the day, these minutemen retreated to the north of town, on the other side of Old North Bridge, where they fired the famous “Shot heard round the world.”

In the meantime, though, the British temporarily occupied the center of Concord, and Major John Pitcairn made the tavern his headquarters. From here, he dispatched search parties in a largely unsuccessful attempt to find the military supplies. He also reportedly ordered a drink here at the tavern, which he is said to have stirred with his finger while declaring that he would “stir the damned Yankee blood” in the same manner by nightfall. However, as it turned out, the colonial minutemen defeated the British at Old North Bridge, and Pitcairn and his men were forced to retreat to Boston. Pitcairn returned safely, but he was ultimately killed two months later at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

After the war, the old tavern became a bakery, with residential space for the baker on the upper floor. Starting in 1790, the bakery was run by Francis Jarvis, and it became a fixture here in the center of Concord for many years. Jarvis sold baked goods out of the building here, but part of his business also involved a wagon route that sold bread, pies, and other goods throughout the surrounding towns. His son, Francis Jr., was born here in 1794, and he would later become a partner in the bakery before taking it over from his father in 1824. The younger Francis operated the bakery for another seven years, before selling the property in 1831.

Over the next few decades, the building housed a variety of commercial tenants, ranging from the print shop to the manufacturer of Potter’s Hair Balm. By the late 19th century, the building was in poor condition, but in the 1880s it was purchased by Reuben Rice and former U.S. Attorney General Ebenezer Hoar, with the goal of preserving the historic structure. They then donated it to the First Parish Church, and it was subsequently converted back to its original use as an inn.

The first photo was taken around 30 years later, showing the old colonial-era tavern at the dawn of the automobile age. One such car is visible on the right side of the photo, with a group of occupants climbing into it, presumably after staying at the hotel or eating in its dining room. The exterior of the building is covered with a variety of signs, attesting to its historical significance as well as the amenities offered here. Another sign, located at the corner on the left side, indicates that it is an “Automobile Red Book Station.”

Today, around a century after the first photo was taken, the exterior of the tavern remains essentially the same as it did back then. It is still owned by the church, although it is no longer used as a hotel. Instead, part of the building is used by the Concord Museum for educational space, and another part of the building is occupied by two architectural firms. Because of its historical significance, the tavern was named as a National Historic Landmark in 1961, making it one of six sites in Concord to receive this level of recognition.

Martin Van Buren House, Kinderhook, New York

The Martin Van Buren house in Kinderhook, New York, around 1910. Image from The Village Beautiful, Kinderhook, N. Y. (1910).

The house in 2018:

Martin Van Buren was born in 1782 in Kinderhook, a small village in upstate New York about 20 miles south of Albany. He was the first American president to be born as a U. S. citizen, as all previous presidents had been born as British subjects prior to the Declaration of Independence. He came from an old Dutch family that traced its roots back to the former colony of New Amsterdam, and he grew up speaking Dutch as a child, making him the only president to learn English as a second language. Van Buren was born in his father’s tavern on Hudson Street, which is no longer standing, but he spent his later life in this house on the Old Post Road, residing here from 1841 until his death in 1862.

Although Van Buren is generally considered to be one of the more obscure American presidents, he was a shrewd politician who helped to form the basis for the modern Democratic Party. He held a number of political offices during his career, beginning in 1806 when he was elected as the fence viewer for Kinderhook. Despite its decidedly modest-sounding name, fence viewers played an important role in settling disputes between landowners, and Van Buren was subsequently appointed as a surrogate of Columbia County, which involved dealing with wills and estates.

In 1812, Van Buren was elected to the state senate, and he went on to serve as a senator until 1820. For part of this time he was also the attorney general of New York, serving in that capacity from 1816 to 1819. During his time in state politics, Van Buren became a powerful figure, and he was instrumental in setting up a New York political machine that came to be known as the Albany Regency. As a result of his influence, in 1821 the state legislature elected Van Buren to the United States Senate, choosing him over the incumbent Nathan Sanford.

Van Buren remained in the Senate until 1828, when he was elected governor of New York. He took office in Albany on January 1, 1839, but his term was very brief. During the fall elections, Van Buren had allied himself with Andrew Jackson, and in the process he had united former Democratic-Republicans in support of a single candidate, thus avoiding a repeat of the four-way debacle that had occurred in 1824. This move formed the modern Democratic Party, and Van Buren was rewarded in March 1829, when Jackson appointed him as his secretary of state. As a result, he resigned as governor on March 12, and he joined the Jackson’s cabinet later in the month.

After two years as secretary of state, Van Buren was appointed as minister to the United Kingdom in 1831. It was a recess appointment, and he traveled to London while Congress was still out of session. However, upon reconvening in early 1832, the Senate ultimately rejected his nomination, forcing Van Buren to return. Vice President John C. Calhoun had cast the tiebreaking vote against Van Buren in hopes of ruining his career, but it ended up having the opposite effect. Van Buren’s return to America put him in contention for the vice presidential nomination in the 1832 election, and in May the Democratic National Convention chose him to replace Calhoun on the ticket.

Andrew Jackson easily defeated Henry Clay in the general election, and Van Buren was inaugurated as vice president on March 4, 1833. Over the next four years, he remained one of Jackson’s most important advisors, and after Jackson declined to run for a third term, Van Buren became his logical successor for the 1836 election. He ran essentially unopposed for the Democratic nomination, and was the party’s unanimous choice at the convention. He went on to win the fall election, with the nascent Whig Party splitting their voters among four different candidates.

Despite his successful political career prior to the presidency, Van Buren’s single term as president was mediocre at best. It was largely defined by the Panic of 1837, an economic recession that began only months after he was inaugurated. His response to the crisis was largely ineffective, leading his Whig opponents to ridicule him as “Martin Van Ruin” during his 1840 re-election bid. This recession, combined with the growing strength of the Whig Party, doomed him in the general election, and he lost in a landslide to William Henry Harrison.

After leaving the White House in 1841, Van Buren returned home to Kinderhook, where he had purchased this house two years earlier. The home, originally known as Kleinrood, had been built around 1797 by Peter Van Ness, a judge on the Court of Common Pleas. Van Ness was in his early 60s at the time, and he was a veteran of the American Revolution, having served as a colonel in the state militia. He died here in 1804, and his son William Peter Van Ness subsequently inherited Kleinrood. William was also a judge, serving at the federal level as a United States District Court judge from 1812 until his death in 1826, at the age of 48. He owned this house for most of his time on the bench, but he ultimately lost it at auction in 1824, when it was sold to pay for a lawsuit judgment against him.

Kleinrood was purchased by William Paulding Jr., a former congressman who went on to serve as mayor of New York City from 1825 to 1826, and 1827 to 1829. Paulding lived in New York City, and he already had a summer residence in Tarrytown, so he never actually lived here. However, he owned Kleinrood for the next 15 years, including the house and the surrounding 137 acres. He evidently made few improvements to the property during this time, and it was in poor condition by the time he sold it to Martin Van Buren in 1839 for $14,000.

Prior to purchasing this property, Van Buren had never owned a house of his own. Nevertheless, he gladly took on the challenge of managing and improving a large farm, perhaps hoping to emulate earlier presidents such as Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson, all of whom were famous for their grand estates. Van Buren soon set about making changes and improvements, including changing the name from Kleinrood to Lindenwald. He also built stables and other outbuildings, and he made some alterations to the interior of the house. The most dramatic change inside the house was the removal of the original staircase, creating a central hall on the first floor that could be used for banquets and other large events.

When he moved into the house in 1841, Van Buren did not envision it as his retirement home. He was 58 years old at the time, and he hoped that he would be able to recapture the White House in 1844. However, he failed to receive enough votes at the Democratic National Convention, in part because of his opposition to the annexation of Texas, and the party’s nomination ultimately went to James K. Polk. By the next presidential election, Van Buren had drifted even further from the party that he had founded, becoming a strong opponent of slavery. In 1848, he received the nomination of the Free Soil Party, and in the general election he received more than 10% of the popular vote, although he did not win any electoral votes. However, his candidacy likely cost Democrat nominee Lewis Cass the election by splitting the vote and allowing Zachary Taylor to win.

In the meantime, Van Buren continued to improve Lindenwald, he and steadily grew the property through additional land acquisitions. The house itself also underwent an expansion, which occurred in 1849 after his youngest son, Smith Thompson Van Buren, moved into the house with his family. For this work, Smith hired noted architect Richard Upjohn, who designed an addition on the rear of the house. The most notable feature of this addition was a five-story Italianate-style tower, which stands on the left side. Overall, though, Upjohn’s alterations were probably not among his best works. The result of his work was a rather muddled blend of architectural styles, with the house featuring elements of Federal, Gothic, and Italianate architecture.

Martin Van Buren had been a widower since the death of his wife Hannah in 1819, at the age of 35. Smith’s wife Ellen similarly died young in 1849, shortly after they moved to Lindenwald and before the addition was completed. However, while the former president never remarried, his son Smith married for a second time in 1855, to Henrietta Eckford Irving. Smith and Henrietta continued to live here at Lindenwald until 1862, when Martin Van Buren died here in his bedroom on the second floor. Smith and his family subsequently moved to Beacon, New York, and the house was sold out of the family in 1864.

Over the next decade, Lindenwald continued to be operated as a working farm, although it changed hands three more times by 1874, and none of these owners personally lived here. Then, in 1874 it was purchased by brothers Adam and Freeman Wagoner, who lived in the house and ran the farm. Adam ultimately gained sole possession of the property, and he owned it until 1917. The first photo was taken during his ownership, showing the exterior of the house as it appeared in the early 20th century. Both the house and the surrounding grounds were well-maintained, and the house was flanked by tall white pines on either side of the photo.

After Wagoner sold Lindenwald in 1917, it went through several more ownership changes over the next 40 years. During this time, most of the land was sold off, leaving only 13 acres by 1945. The condition of the house itself also declined, and it was altered in the late 1950s by the addition of a two-story columned porch on the front. This porch was vaguely reminiscent of the one at Mount Vernon, but it hardly matched with the rest of the house, and instead only added to the architectural confusion of its design. The owner who added the porch was an antique dealer, and around the same time he also opened a shop here on the property.

The house steadily deteriorated until 1973, when it and the surrounding 13 acres were purchased by the National Park Service. A year later, the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site was established here, and the house was subsequently restored to its appearance when Van Buren lived here. It opened to the public in 1988, and more than 30 years later it continues to be run by the National Park Service, with few significant differences in its appearance since the first photo was taken over a century ago.

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.

The Elms, Newport, Rhode Island (2)

The garden on the south side of The Elms in Newport, in 1914. Image taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Johnston Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As in the previous post, the first photo here was taken by noted photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston. Her specialties included photographs of gardens, and many of these – including this photo – were hand colored on lantern slides, for Johnston to use in her various lectures. This photo is one of several that she took here at The Elms in Newport, and is shows the meticulously-landscaped garden on the south side of the house. At the time, Newport was still one of the most desirable summer resorts in the country, and The Elms had been built 13 years earlier by coal tycoon Edward Julius Berwind.

The family spent many summers here, and after Edward’s wife Sarah died in 1922, he continued to visit here, accompanied by his sister Julia. She inherited the property after his death in 1936, and it remained her summer home for the rest of her life, until her death in 1961 at the age of 96. Up until this  point, the house was still staffed by an army of 40 servants, long after most of the other massive Gilded Age mansions in Newport had been either demolished, converted to other uses, or preserved as museums. By the early 1960s, such homes had long since fallen out of fashion, and no other members of the Berwind family were interested in taking on the expense of maintaining a 48-room, 60,000-square-foot summer house.

As a result, the house was nearly demolished in 1962 in order to construct a shopping center here on the site. However, several weeks before it was to be demolished, The Elms was instead purchased by the Preservation Society of Newport County and opened as a museum. Both the house and the grounds have been preserved, and it is now one of many historic Newport properties maintained by the Preservation Society. This particular garden scene is not completely identical to its early 20th century appearance, particularly with the lack of hedges in the foreground, but the statue in the distance is still there, as are the ones on the patio to the left. Overall, the scene is still easily recognizable from the first photo, despite more than a century since Johnston captured this view in the first photo.

The Elms, Newport, Rhode Island (1)

The gardens on the south side of The Elms in Newport, in 1914. Image taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Johnston Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The first photo is from a lantern slide that was taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston, who was among the first prominent American women photographers. One of her specialties was garden photography, and in 1914 she took some photos of the gardens at The Elms, the summer estate of the Berwind family in Newport. These photos were taken in black and white, as color photography was still in its infancy at the time, but the resulting glass lantern slides were then hand colored, and Johnston used them in various lectures that she gave to garden clubs, museums, and other organizations.

This scene shows the gardens at the southwest corner of The Elms. The house had been constructed between 1899 and 1901, and it was used as the summer residence for Edward Julius Berwind, a Philadelphia native who had founded the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company. After making his fortune in the coal industry, Berwind joined the many other Gilded Age aristocrats who were building palatial homes here in Newport. He hired noted architect Horace Trumbauer to design the house, which was modeled after the Château d’Asnières, and the grounds were laid out by Ernest W. Bowditch, a landscape architect whose other Newport commissions included the grounds of The Breakers. Overall, the house cost about $1.4 million to build, equivalent to over $40 million today.

The house remained in the Berwind family for over 60 years. Edward and his wife Sarah had no children, but after her death in 1922 and his death in 1936, the property was inherited by his sister Julia. By this point, in the midst of the Great Depression, the heyday of the grand Newport mansions had passed. Such homes were increasingly seen as white elephants from a previous era, and many were either demolished or converted into different uses. However, life here at The Elms remained largely unchanged through all of this, with Julia continuing to spend her summers here, accompanied by 40 servants who ran the house.

The Elms was ultimately one of the last of the large Newport mansions to be staffed by such a retinue servants, and it was also one of the last that was still owned by its original family. This continued until 1961, when Julia Berwind died at the age of 96. Her nephew, Charles E. Dunlap, who was himself in his 70s at the time, then inherited the house. He had no interest in taking on the expense of maintaining the house, though, so he subsequently sold the property to a developer who intended to demolish the house and replace it with a shopping center.

This demolition nearly occurred in 1962, but at the last minute the property was sold to the Preservation Society of Newport County, becoming one of the organization’s many historic house museums here in Newport. Today, The Elms remains open to the public as one of the largest of the Gilded Age Newport mansions. Along with the house itself, the grounds have also been well-preserved during this time, including the sculptures visible here. Overall, very little has changed in this scene, with the gardens still looking much the same as they did when Frances Benjamin Johnston photographed them more than a century ago.