Charles Street Meeting House, Boston (1)

The Charles Street Meeting House, at the corner of Charles and Mt. Vernon Streets in Boston, around 1889. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The church in 2015:

This historic church in the Beacon Hill neighborhood was built in 1807 as the Third Baptist Church. It was designed by Asher Benjamin, a New England native who was one of the leading American architects of the Federal era, and at the time it was located right along the waterfront. The building hasn’t moved in the past two centuries, but the shoreline has; Charles Street once ran along the Charles River at the western edge of the city, but after widespread landfill projects in the 19th century the church is now a considerable distance from the water.

Prior to the Civil War, this church was prominent in Boston’s abolitionist movement, and it hosted speakers such as Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and Sojourner Truth. After the war, though, the congregation declined, and merged with the First Baptist Church by 1876. The building was sold to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, and became the Charles Street A.M.E. Church.

When the first photo was taken around 1889, the A.M.E. Church still owned it, and they remained here until 1939. By then, Boston’s black population had shifted away from its historic roots in Beacon Hill, and the congregation relocated to Roxbury. The building was later used as an Albanian Orthodox church and later as a Unitarian Universalist church until the late 1970s. A few years later, it was converted into offices. The interior was completely renovated, but the exterior was preserved, and today it is a part of the National Park Service’s Boston African American National Historic Site.

Beacon Street from Arlington Street, Boston

Looking west on Beacon Street from the corner of Arlington Street, in 1870. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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Beacon Street in 2015:


The houses on the right side of this scene are the oldest buildings in the Back Bay, dating back even before the large-scale landfill project had begun. The origins of Beacon Street date back to 1818, when construction began on a dam across the Back Bay, which at the time was a tidal marsh connected to the Charles River. The dam used the power of the tides to operate factories nearby, but it also had an added benefit of serving as a second route in and out of Boston, by extending Beacon Street across it.

The dam, which was completed in 1821, turned out to be a failure, and by the 1850s there were plans in the works to fill the Back Bay and expand Boston’s land area. The houses here on the right side of the street were built around 1856 on land that had already been filled; they can be seen in the distance in the first photo in this post, which was taken from the top of the State House in 1857. By the time the 1870 photo above was taken just 13 years later, the landfill project was well underway, and both sides of Beacon Street had been developed as far as Dartmouth Street, three blocks in the distance.

Nearly 150 years after the first photo was taken, many of the buildings from the first photo are still standing, including most of the 1850s houses to the right. The only major change in the foreground is the pair of houses on the far right, numbered 100-102 Beacon Street. Half of the building was demolished in 1924 to build the apartment building that stands there today. The other half at 102 Beacon is still standing, although it was altered beyond recognition in 1938, when it was converted into an 18-unit apartment building with a new facade. However, the next seven houses in a row, numbered 104-116 Beacon Street, also date back to around 1856. They are all virtually identical, and 160 years later all seven are still standing, essentially unchanged on the exterior. The use of the buildings has changed, though; today, all seven, along with the neighboring properties at 102 and 118 Beacon Street, are owned by Fisher College and are used for classrooms and dormitories.

For more information on the history of these houses, see the Back Bay Houses website.

First Church in Boston

The First Church in Boston, at the corner of Berkeley and Marlborough Streets in Boston, around 1890-1910. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The church in 2015:

Boston’s First Church is among the oldest religious organizations in the United States, having been established in 1630 when John Winthrop and other early settlers first arrived in Boston. It became an influential congregation in New England, with leaders such as Charles Chauncy, who served as the pastor for 60 years from 1727 until his death in 1787. Theologically liberal, he opposed the Great Awakening revival that was led by one of his contemporaries, Jonathan Edwards of the church in Northampton. In part because of Chauncey’s influence, Unitarian theology began to take root in early 19th century Boston, and most of the city’s churches, including the First Church, shifted to Unitarianism.

The church had previously been located in downtown Boston, but by the 1860s many of Boston’s wealthier residents were moving west into the newly-filled Back Bay, and many of the long-established Protestant churches joined them, including the First Church. They moved into this Gothic style building at the corner of Berkeley and Marlborough Streets in 1868, and remained here for the next 100 years until it was gutted by a fire in 1968. The historic church had to be completely rebuilt, aside from the tower and the Berkeley Street facade, which had survived the fire and were incorporated into the new building.

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:

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.