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:

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.

Old MIT Campus, Boston

The former Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, looking west on Boylston Street from near Berkeley Street in Boston, around 1890-1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2015:

The first permanent home for Massachusetts Institute of Technology was in this building in the foreground. Completed in 1866 and later named the Rogers Building in honor of the school’s founder, it matched the architectural style of the adjacent Museum of Natural History, which is still standing today just to the right of here. The school was established to fill a need for a college education that focused on modern developments in science and technology, and despite some initial challenges such as the Civil War in the 1860s and an economic recession in the 1870s, the school began to grow. In 1883, the campus expanded with the Walker Building, which can be seen to the left in the first photo, at the corner of Clarendon Street. Even this was not enough, though; from 1881 to 1897 enrollment nearly quadrupled, and by the early 1900s the school was spread out across 10 buildings in the Copley Square area.

In 1916, most of the school moved to a new campus across the river in Cambridge, although the Rogers Building was retained as the home of the School of Architecture until the 1930s, when it was sold to the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company. Both the Rogers and Walker Buildings were demolished in 1939, and the insurance company built their new headquarters here, as seen in the 2015 photo. New England mutual merged with Met Life in 1995, and today their former headquarters is mixed-use building with retail and office tenants.

Dartmouth Street and Huntington Avenue, Boston

The northwest corner of Dartmouth Street and Huntington Avenue in Boston, in 1873. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

Today, Copley Square is a major focal point of the Back Bay neighborhood, but in 1873 it was still very much a work in progress. Although the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building would come to be a defining feature of the square, its completion was still more than 20 years away. The house in the first photo was the western extent of the Back Bay development at the time; beyond it in the distance are empty lots and marshland soon to be filled in for the project. Aside from this house, the only other building visible in the scene is the New Old South Church, which was under construction to the right.

The church is still standing today, but the house would not last very long here. By the late 1880s, it was demolished to build the main branch of Boston Public Library. This architecturally prominent building would serve as a predecessor to many other grand urban libraries in the country, and today it is as much a museum as it is a library, with significant collections of rare books, manuscripts, artwork, and photographs, including the 1873 photo featured here.

Newbury Street, Boston

Looking west on Newbury Street from Arlington Street in Boston, around 1880. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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Newbury Street in 2015:

Like the rest of the Back Bay, Newbury Street was originally developed as an upscale residential street, starting in the early 1860s. The oldest building on the street is the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which was completed in 1861 as one of the first of many churches that would eventually relocate to the Back Bay. It is partially visible on the right side, just to the right of the steeple of another historic church, the Central Congregational Church, which was built a block away at Berkeley Street in 1867.

Aside from these two churches, the rest of the buildings in the first photo are residential brownstones, similar to those found throughout the rest of the Back Bay. However, beginning in the early 1900s, the street began to transition into an upscale shopping district. Further down the street, many of the historic houses were converted into stores, but the Arlington Street end has seen some significant changes. This is generally where most of the high-end shops are located, and the 2015 photo includes companies like Burberry, Chanel, and Tiffany in the foreground. The Burberry building, located at the corner on the far left, is original from the first photo, and just beyond the Emmanuel Church there is a group of brownstones, but otherwise most of the other houses from the first photo have either been demolished or altered beyond recognition.

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:

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:

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.