50 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The house at the southwest corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Berkeley Street in Boston, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

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The house in the first photo was built around 1868, and for many years it was the home of dry goods merchant John Hogg. He and his wife Emma lived her from when it was built until around 1892, and the subsequent owners, Frank and Mary Going, operated it as a hotel called The Holland. Like many other hotels of the era, it functioned more as a boarding house than as a place for transient visitors, and it continued in this capacity until 1925, when it and the neighboring 52 Commonwealth were demolished. They were replaced with the current building,which has 40 apartments that were converted into condominiums in 1985.

Although the house from the first photo is no longer standing, the other two buildings beyond it have survived. The church is the Central Congregational Church, which was built in 1867 and is now the Church of the Covenant. Beyond the church is the distinctive facade of the former Museum of Natural History building at the corner of Berkeley and Newbury Streets. Built in 1863, it is among the oldest public buildings in the Back Bay, and after many years as the home of Bonwit Teller, it is now a Restoration Hardware gallery.

For more information on the history of the house at 50 Commonwealth Ave, please see this post on the Back Bay Houses website.

29-33 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The houses at 29-33 Commonwealth Avenue, just west of Berkeley Street, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The view in 2015:

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These three townhouses at the northwestern corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Berkeley Street were built around 1863, on land that had been recently filled in the Back Bay. The neighborhood was designed from the start as a wealthy, exclusive area; Boston had feared that its upper class would flee the crowded city for the suburbs, so the Back Bay project was intended to encourage rich Bostonians to remain in the city.

When the first photo was taken, all three of these homes were owned by wealthy families. To the left, 33 Commonwealth Avenue was the home of Charles H. Dalton, a merchant and businessman who served as the president of several different businesses. He also served as the treasurer of MIT, which was just a couple blocks away at the time, and as president of Massachusetts General Hospital. The house in the middle was owned by another businessman, Joseph Sawyer, who owned textile factories. Both men died shortly after the turn of the 20th century, and eventually the two buildings were converted into apartments. It is hard to see both in the 2015 photo, but they are still standing today, and have since been combined to create a 7-unit condominium building.

Unlike its neighbors to the left, the house at 29 Commonwealth Avenue did not even survive to the end of the 19th century. It was originally the home of textile mill owner Joshua Stetson, and after his death the house was sold to Elizabeth Bowditch in 1870. She was the widow of Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch, a lawyer who was the son of noted mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch, and she lived here until her death in 1892. The house was then sold and demolished, and replaced with a 9 story, 26 unit apartment building in 1894. It was completed before there were any height restrictions in the Back Bay, so it is substantially taller than most other 19th century buildings in the area. In the 1920s, its apartments were converted into offices, and it has remained an office building ever since.

The church to the right just behind 29 Commonwealth Avenue is the First Church of Boston. It was built in 1867 at the corner of Marlborough Street, and it was mostly destroyed in a fire in 1968. The steeple and parts of the facade were saved, though, and they were incorporated into the design of the current building.

For more information, visit the Back Bay Houses website, which has more details and photographs of 29 and 31-33 Commonwealth Avenue and the First Church in Boston.

Commonwealth Avenue, Boston (2)

The view along the south side of Commonwealth Avenue, looking west from the Boston Public Garden, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The view in 2015:

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These photos were taken from the same spot as the ones in the previous post, probably even on the same day. As with the other post, the 2015 view here is mostly obscured by the trees on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, but beyond the trees many of the historic Victorian brownstones are still standing. Because the Back Bay project began here at Arlington Street and worked its way west, the houses at this end of Commonwealth Avenue are among the oldest in the neighborhood, dating mostly to the early to mid 1860s. The houses in the foreground have since been replaced with a high-rise building, but otherwise almost all of the ones between here and Berkeley Street are still standing, and today they make up part of the Back Bay Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Commonwealth Avenue, Boston (1)

Looking west along the north side of Commonwealth Avenue from the Boston Public Garden, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

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From the start, the Back Bay was designed to be an upscale residential neighborhood, and these houses on the north side of Commonwealth Avenue typically commanded the highest prices. Here, the residents enjoyed the view of the broad Commonwealth Avenue Mall, and their southern-facing front windows gave them plenty of light. The work of filling the land and building homes began here at Arlington Street in the early 1860s, and as the years went on the development moved westward. By the early 1870s, Commonwealth Avenue reached as far as Exeter Street, four blocks from here. Most of the houses in the foreground of the first photo were built in the early to mid 1860s, when the block between Arlington and Berkeley Streets was developed. They represent the typical residential design for the Back Bay, with 3 to 4 story Victorian brownstones lining the streets that had to conform to strict building codes at the time.

Nearly 150 years after the first photo was taken, the strict building codes have paid off. The neighborhood retains its original 19th century residential appearance, and many of the houses from the first photo are still standing today. The trees, which were just saplings in the 1870s, now hide the view of most of the houses from here, but a few of the buildings are visible to the right, and are easily recognizable from the first photo.There have been some newer houses, like the light-colored one just to the right of the lamppost, but these have generally been in keeping with the original appearance of the neighborhood.

Hotel Vendome, Boston

The Hotel Vendome, at the corner of Dartmouth Street and Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

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The Hotel Vendome was part of the original development of the Back Bay, a tidal marsh that was filled in over the course of about 30 years in the 1800s. By the start of the 1870s, the landfill project had reached Dartmouth Street, and the Hotel Vendome was built here along Commonwealth Avenue. The building was much smaller at the time, consisting of just the five-story section at the corner. It was designed by architect William G. Preston, and it has many characteristics of the Second Empire style that was popular at the time. Like many of the city’s 19th century hotels, it functioned more as an apartment building, catering mainly to long-term residents rather than visitors, and it included five rowhouses further to the right, down Commonwealth Avenue, which offered additional options for residents.

The building was sold in 1879, and in 1881 it was substantially expanded with an addition along Commonwealth Avenue where the rowhouses used to be. Architecturally, the addition was similar but not identical to the original building, and it was one story taller, giving the building an asymmetrical appearance from the Commonwealth Avenue side. Following this, there were few significant changes to the building, except for the addition of a penthouse on top of the original section.

Four small fires damaged the building in the 1960s, but the Hotel Vendome is probably best known for the tragic June 17, 1972 fire, which started while the building was mostly vacant and undergoing renovations. The fire was successfully brought under control, but then the southeast corner (far left in the photos) suddenly collapsed, killing nine firemen in what remains the deadliest firefighting accident in Boston Fire Department history.

Following the fire, the renovations were eventually completed, and the collapsed section of the building was rebuilt. The former hotel is now a mix of condominiums, offices, and stores, and although it has seen drastic changes from fire and renovations, especially on the upper floors, it is still recognizable from the first photo over 110 years ago.

First Baptist Church, Boston

The First Baptist Church in Boston, at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Clarendon Street in the Back Bay, as seen around 1890-1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The church in 2015:

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The First Baptist Church was one of many prominent Boston churches that relocated to the Back Bay in the late 1800s, although this building wasn’t originally built for them.  It was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, whose later works would include Trinity Church a few blocks away at Copley Square.  The top of the tower features carvings by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who also designed the Statue of Liberty.  The building was completed in 1875 for Brattle Street Church, a Unitarian church that had previously been located where City Hall is today.  However, the church didn’t last long here; they disbanded in 1876 and sold their new building to the First Baptist Church in 1882.  They are one of the oldest Baptist congregations in the country, dating back to 1665, and they are still located here on Commonwealth Avenue over 130 years later.