Main Street, Lee, Mass

Looking north on Main Street from near Park Street in Lee, in 1911. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Main Street in 2015:

The town of Lee is situated in the Berkshires region of Western Massachusetts, and in the 19th century it was a small but prominent industrial town. At its peak, the town had several dozen paper mills and several marble quarries, and the town’s prosperity was reflected in its downtown area here along Main Street. Most of the buildings in this scene date to the mid to late 19th century, including the historic Memorial Town Hall to the right. It was completed in 1874, and has housed the town offices ever since. Through the years, it has also taken on a variety of other uses, including a post office, Grand Army of the Republic hall, barber shop, movie theater, district court, and police station. In 1965, singer Arlo Guthrie faced littering charges in the courtroom here, an incident which later inspired his famous song “Alice’s Restaurant.” Today, in addition to the town offices, it is also the town police station, and although it has undergone renovations in 1912 and in 1990-1991, its exterior has remained well preserved for over 140 years.

Just beyond the Memorial Town Hall is the Baird and Benton Block, a three story commercial building that was built in 1875 by paper manufacturers Prentiss Baird and Charles and James Benton. It originally had a mansard roof like the neighboring Town Hall, but the roof was destroyed in a fire in the late 1800s. Aside from renovations to the first floor storefronts, the building’s appearance is similar to what it looked like in 1911, but the upper two floors were vacant from the 1950s until a renovation in 2012 that converted it into classroom and office space.

Most of the other commercial building in the scene date from the second half of the 19th century, but the oldest is the Morgan House, the wood-frame building with the two story porch on the left side of Main Street. It was built in 1817 by William Porter as a house, and in 1867 it was purchased by Edward Morgan, who enlarged the original building and turned it into the Morgan House inn. Over the years, its guests have included Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, John F. Kennedy, and George Bernard Shaw, and today it is still operated as an inn and restaurant.

Overall, the only significant change to this scene is the Park Building, located on the far left where the Lee Savings Bank building stood in the 1911 photo. It was built just a few years later in 1914, and it is one of the newest buildings along this section of Main Street. The entire area is now part of the Lower Main Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is an excellent surviving example of a historic 19th century New England town center.

Public Library, Lee, Mass

The Lee Library as it appeared in 1911. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The library in 2015:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie was one of the wealthiest men in the world, and he went on to become one of the most generous philanthropists in history. He had a high value of public education, and he contributed funding for over 2,500 libraries around the world, including this one in Lee. It opened in 1907, with Carnegie providing $12,000 toward the construction costs. It was designed by Pittsfield architect Joseph McArthur Vance in the classical revival style that was popular in early 20th century libraries, and was built using Lee marble.

About 10 years after the library opened, Andrew Carnegie purchased the Shadow Brook mansion in the neighboring town of Lenox, where he died in 1919. By the time he died, he had given away over $350 million (nearly $5 billion adjusted for inflation), and his remaining $30 million was given to various charities and foundations. Along with countless of his other libraries, the Lenox Library is still standing today. A new wing was added in 1977, using marble from the original quarry, but otherwise it looks essentially the same from the exterior as it did over 100 years ago.

Public Garden, Boston

Looking east in the Public Garden from the Arlington Street entrance, facing the statue of George Washington, around 1917-1934. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

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The view in 2015:

Boston Common was established in 1634 as the first public park in the country, and just over 200 years later, in 1837, the Boston Public Garden was created just to the west of it, as the first public botanical garden in the United States. The carefully-landscaped garden includes a pond, a bridge, a wide variety of plants, and several statues, including one of George Washington seen in these two photos.  The bronze statue has stood here since 1869, and it was designed by noted Boston sculptor Thomas Ball, whose other works include the Emancipation Memorial at nearby Park Square.

Some of the landscaping has changed at this entrance to the garden, and there are no floral arrangements like the one the men are working on in the first photo, but the most dramatic change in the past 80 or so years is the city skyline in the distance. When the first photo was taken, height restrictions prevented large skyscrapers from being built in the city, and the only one visible was the Custom House Tower, which, as a federal building, was immune to the city’s restrictions. Today, though, the restrictions are long gone, and Boston’s skyline continues to grow; the Millennium Tower, under construction to the right in the 2015 scene, will become the third-tallest in the city and the tallest in downtown when it is completed later in 2016.

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:

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.