Josiah Gilbert Holland House, Springfield, Mass

The house at 115 High Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The scene in 2017:

During the mid-19th century, this house was the home of author Josiah Gilbert Holland, a noted historian, novelist, poet, and editor who lived in Springfield for much of his literary career. Holland was born in 1819 in Belchertown, Massachusetts, and was an 1844 graduate of the Berkshire Medical College. He moved to Springfield after graduating, where he married his wife, Elizabeth Chapin, and briefly practiced medicine. However, he soon abandoned the profession and turned to writing. He published a weekly newspaper, the Bay State Courier, for six months in 1847, but he and Elizabeth subsequently moved to the south, where he worked as a teacher in Richmond and as superintendent of schools in Vicksburg. He had little professional experience for the latter position, and Vicksburg had little in the way of public schools, but Holland was able to establish a system that was based on public education in northern states.

Holland served as superintendent in Vicksburg for a year and three months, but he and Elizabeth returned to Springfield in the spring of 1849, in order to care for her dying mother. Here, Holland resumed his journalistic career, after Springfield Republican editor Samuel Bowles hired him as an assistant editor of the newspaper. During the early 1850s he wrote History of Western Massachusetts, which was originally printed in the newspaper in serial format before being published in a two-volume book in 1855. The following year, Holland was the keynote speaker at the dedication of the old city hall at Court Square, where he gave an hour-long speech that, among other things, criticized the city’s lack of noteworthy architectural works. He objected to the designs of public buildings as well as private homes, and noted that “a common horse-block has just as many, and just the same, architectural ideas in it” as an entire street full of the city’s finest homes.

Around the time that he gave this speech, though, Holland lived here in this very modest Greek Revival-style home, which had very little architectural distinction of its own. The house was likely built sometime in the late 1830s or 1840s, during the time when this style was common for houses in Springfield. It does not appear in the 1835 map, but it was in existence by 1851, when that year’s map shows it as being owned by an A. Howe. Josiah and Elizabeth Holland likely moved into the house a few years later, and at some point it came to be known as “Buff Cottage.” By the 1860 census the Hollands were living here with their young children Annie, Katie, and Theodore, plus two servants. At the time, the value of Holland’s real estate was listed at $9,000, plus a personal estate of $13,000, for a total net worth equal to about $600,000 today.

During the time that Holland lived in this house, his literary career gained him national attention. His first novel was The Bay Path, a work of historical fiction that was set in early Springfield. It was published in 1857, and was followed a year later by the long narrative poem Bitter Sweet, which was written here in this house. This poem would become one of his most popular works, and was described in 1894 by biographer Harriette Merrick Plunkett as “Dr. Holland’s reflections on the mysteries of Life and Death, on the soul-wracking problems of Doubt and Faith, on the existence of Evil as one of the vital conditions of the universe, on the questions of Predestination, Original Sin, Free-will, and the whole haunting brood of Calvinistic theological metaphysics.” She declared it to be “truly an original poem,” comparing it to the works of Robert Burns or Sir Walter Scott, and cited the praise that it had earned from poet James Russell Lowell. However, the poem, along with many of Holland’s other works, also received its share of criticism from those who found his writing style to be excessively sentimental and moralistic.

Holland’s other works during this period included three collections of essays, Letters to Young People, Single and Married (1858), Gold Foil, Hammered from Popular Proverbs (1859), and Letters to the Joneses (1863), all of which were published under the pseudonym Timothy Titcomb. In 1860, he wrote his next novel, Miss Gilbert’s Career: An American Story, which highlighted the Victorian belief that a woman’s greatest career was to be a wife. The Civil War started a year later, and Holland’s editorial duties at the Republican consumed much of his time throughout the war. He even became the de facto editor-in-chief of the newspaper during part of the war, taking on these responsibilities during Samuel Bowles’s overseas trip to Europe.

As Holland became a more established literary figure, he put some of his newfound wealth into building a new house that was both much larger and more architecturally prominent than his home here on High Street. It was completed in 1862, and was located in the northwestern corner of the city, near the border of Chicopee, on what is now Atwater Terrace. At the time, this part of the city was far removed from the city center and only sparsely populated, so Holland’s choice of a location was puzzling to some. One person is even reported to have questioned “Who would ever want to live there, except some hare-brained poet like Dr. Holland?” The design of the house was unique among the many 19th century mansions in Springfield, featuring a Swiss Chalet-style design, and it was named “Brightwood” because of its painted wooden exterior. This name would later be applied to the entire northwestern corner of the city, and today the neighborhood is still known as Brightwood.

The Holland family would only live at Brightwood for five years, before embarking on a two-year vacation to Europe and then relocating to New York City, but Holland wrote several of his best-selling books while living here in this house. Perhaps the most notable work of his career was Life of Abraham Lincoln, which was published in 1866. A year earlier, Holland had been asked to give a eulogy of Lincoln at a memorial service here in Springfield, held just four days after his assassination. The eulogy proved powerful, and just a month later Holland was traveling to Springfield, Illinois to research Lincoln’s life.

The resulting book was the first lengthy biography of the 16th president, and sold around 100,000 copies. It was one of many such biographies that were published soon after Lincoln’s assassination, most of which were poorly written, but Holland’s book is generally considered to have been the best of these. As described by Allen C. Guelzo in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Holland’s book was “a landmark Lincoln biography, the first of any substantial length as a biography, the first with any aspirations to comprehensiveness,” and “the first life of the ‘inner Lincoln,’ setting the stage for a genre of Lincoln studies that remains compelling and fruitful to this day.”

After moving to New York, Holland became one of the founders and the first editor of Scribner’s Monthly, which later became The Century Magazine. He continued his role as both editor and author throughout the 1870s, alternating between publishing novels and volumes of poetry. His final book was The Puritan’s Guest, a collection of poems that was published in 1881. He died on October 12 of that year, at the age of 62, and his body was returned to Springfield, where he was interred in Springfield Cemetery, just a short walk from where he once lived here on High Street.

In the meantime, at some point during the 1860s the house here on High Street was sold to Timothy Henry, a livery stable owner who lived here for many years with his wife Julia. He died in 1883, but Julia continued to live here until her death in 1900, more than 30 years after she and Timothy moved into the house. Following her death, however, the house went through a series of owners and residents throughout the early 20th century. It steadily declined until, when the first photo was taken in the late 1930s, it was being used as a lodging house. The 1940 census shows that it was being rented for $50 a month by Elizabeth Cody, a 64-year-old widow. She, in turn, rented space to two young women, one of whom worked as a bank clerk while the other was a stenographer.

By the time the first photo was taken, the once-famous resident of the house had long since been forgotten. Although ridiculed by many within the literary community during his lifetime, Holland had nonetheless been popular with the general public throughout the late 19th century. However, by the turn of the 20th century his overly sentimental, melodramatic style and Victorian-era moral lessons had fallen out of fashion, and his works drifted into obscurity.

Ironically, it was a reclusive friend and correspondent of Holland – the Amherst poet Emily Dickinson – who would go on to achieve lasting fame as the area’s preeminent 19th century poet. She died only five years after Holland, having had just a few poems published in her lifetime, yet her posthumously-published work eventually established her place within the Western canon of literature. This proved the exact opposite of Holland’s fame and reputation, who in 1940 was dismissed by biographer Harry Houston Peckham as “the major prophet of the unsophisticated, the supreme apostle to the naive.”

Holland’s two former homes in Springfield did not fare much better than his literary legacy. This house on High Street was evidently still standing as late as the 1960s, since the address was listed in city directories of the period, but at some point in the late 20th century it was demolished and replaced with a parking lot for the Wesson Memorial Hospital, which is located across the street from where the house once stood. However, this house ultimately outlived Holland’s grand Brightwood mansion on Atwater Terrace. After moving to New York, Holland had sold it to industrialist George C. Fisk, and the property remained in the Fisk family until well into the 20th century. It eventually fell victim to the Great Depression, though, and proved too costly for the few surviving family members to maintain, so it was finally demolished in 1940.

The Elms, Springfield, Mass

The Elms, a private school at the corner of High Street and Ingraham Terrace in Springfield, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:


This mansion at the corner of High Street and Ingraham Terrace in Springfield was built around the 1860s, and was originally the home of retired Army officer Robert E. Clary. He was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts in 1805, but his family came to Springfield, where his father became a clerk at the Armory. After spending much of his childhood in Springfield, Clary entered West Point in 1823. He graduated thirteenth in his class, which was significantly higher than fellow classmate Jefferson Davis, the future Confederate president. Although Clary would fight against Davis’s armies in the Civil War decades later, the two men were friends at West Point, and Davis even served as the best man at Clary’s wedding in 1829.

When the Civil War started in 1861, Clary had already been in the Army for over 30 years. He spent most of the war as a chief quartermaster for a variety of departments, and at the end of the war he was promoted to the honorary rank of brevet brigadier general. After the war, he retired to this mansion in Springfield. It sat atop the hill just east of downtown, and from here he could enjoy expansive views of the city and the Connecticut River valley. By the 1870 census, Clary was newly-married to his second wife, Mary. The couple shared the house with four other family members, including his 88-year-old mother Electa, and they also had three servants who lived here.

In 1874, Clary sold the house to grocer Olin Smith. He and his family lived here for a few years, but in 1881 the house was acquired by The Elms, a private school that had previously been located in Hadley. Unrelated to the similarly-named Elms College in Chicopee, The Elms was founded in 1866 by Charlotte Porter as a school for girls, to prepare young girls for colleges such as Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. Charlotte Porter served as the principal of the school for many decades, and lived here at the school until her death in 1931 at the age of 90.

The school appears to have closed soon after Porter’s death, and the building was demolished by the late 1930s, because it does not appear in the 1938-1939 WPA photographs. All of the other homes in the quarter-mile-long block between High Street, Union Street, Walnut Street, and Ingraham Terrace have also since been demolished, and today much of this block is a parking lot for the former Wesson Memorial Hospital. This building, which is now owned by Baystate, is visible on the far left. Further in the distance is the High School of Commerce, which was built in 1915 and was later expanded with an addition on the right side of the photo.

School Street School, Springfield, Mass

The School Street School at the corner of School and High Streets, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The building in 2015:

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This building is among the oldest surviving school buildings in the city, but it isn’t the school that the street was named after.  Springfield’s first high school was located across the street from here, from 1828 until 1840, and over the years several more public schools would be located in this area.  The current building was built in 1892 as an elementary school, and as the two photos show its exterior has been well-preserved in the past 75 or so years.  Although it is no longer a public school, it is now used by the Youth Social Educational Training Academy, which offers preschool as well as before and after school programs for children.

Wesson Memorial Hospital, Springfield, Mass (2)

Another view of Wesson Memorial Hospital in Springfield, around 1900-1910, taken from Ingraham Terrace looking toward High Street. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The hospital in 2014:

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Another view of the Wesson Memorial Hospital, looking toward High Street from Ingraham Terrace.  The building’s exterior hasn’t changed much, except for small additions on the left and right hand sides, which I’m assuming are elevators.  The surrounding neighborhood has changed, though.  The landscaped yard on the right-hand side is now a parking lot, where I took the 2014 photo of the same building in this post.  As mentioned there, the hospital was established in 1900 by Daniel B. Wesson of Smith & Wesson fame, and today the building is part of Baystate Medical Center.

Wesson Memorial Hospital, Springfield, Mass (1)

The Wesson Memorial Hospital on High Street in Springfield, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The hospital in 2015:

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The Wesson Memorial Hospital was established in 1900 by Daniel B. Wesson, one of the co-founders of Smith & Wesson.  His home and factory weren’t too far away from here, and near the end of his life he began several charities, including this hospital.  The building hasn’t changed much, and even the fence along the sidewalk is still there.  It is still a hospital, although Wesson Memorial merged with the Medical Center of Western Massachusetts in 1976 to form Baystate Medical Center, one of the largest employers in Massachusetts.