Widener Library, Cambridge, Mass

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, around 1914-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The library in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post, Harvard’s first purpose-built library was Gore Hall, which opened here on this site in 1841. Although architecturally-impressive, this Gothic Revival building proved too small for the school’s growing collections of books. It was expanded several different times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it was ultimately demolished in 1913 to build the Widener Library, which is shown here in these two photos.

The construction of the Widener Library actually came as a result of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Among the ship’s passengers were wealthy businessman George Dunton Widener, his wife Eleanor, and their son Harry, who had graduated from Harvard five years earlier. Both George and Harry died in the sinking, but Eleanor survived and soon began planning an appropriate memorial for her late son.

In his will, Harry had asked that his rare book collection be donated to the school. However, his mother went far beyond that, and instead of simply giving his books to the existing library, she built an entirely new library for all of the school’s books. Eleanor Widener was closely involved with the details of the building, including choosing its architect, Horace Trumbauer, and she likely spent around $3.5 million on its construction.

Work on the new library began after the demolition of Gore Hall in 1913, and it was completed two years later with a dedication ceremony on June 24, 1915. The first photo was apparently taken before this, probably in 1914 or 1915. The exterior of the building was essentially complete by this point, but the interior was likely still under construction, as indicated by the pile of debris on the right side, and the “Geo. F. Payne & Co. Builders” sign on the far left.

When it opened, the library had more than 50 miles of shelves, and a total capacity of over 3 million books. Even this would not be enough for the school’s ever-growing collection. By mid century its holdings were doubling approximately every 17 years, leading to the opening of new libraries around campus that specialized in particular fields. Then, in the 1980s the school constructed the Harvard Depository in Southborough, allowing for off-campus storage of library materials.

Throughout this time, the exterior of the Widener Library has remained essentially unchanged in more than a century since the first photo was taken, and it remains the central library at Harvard. Perhaps its single most famous work here is one of only 23 known complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be printed on a printing press. Like the library building itself, this Bible was a gift of the Widener family, who donated it to Harvard in 1944. However, it is only one of around 3.5 million books that are housed here in the Widener, making it one of the largest libraries in the world, and the largest university library.

83-89 Walnut Street, Springfield, Mass

The apartment building at 83-89 Walnut Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The scene in 2019:

This apartment building was constructed in 1906 on the east side of Walnut Street, about halfway between the corners of Union and Oak Streets. Its design was typical for Springfield apartment blocks of the period, with four stories and a Classical Revival exterior that featured elements such as an ornate cornice, along with bows that projected from the building’s facade.

According to current city records, the building has 16 units, and this was likely the case throughout its history, with census records showing anywhere from 9 to 16 families living here during the first half of the 20th century. The 1910 census, for example, lists 13 different families. Some of these families had roomers living with them in their units, and there were a total of 42 residents here at the time. A few were employed at the nearby Springfield Armory, but most worked for private companies or individuals. These included several clerks and traveling salesmen, a physician, a dressmaker, a silk winder, a manicurist, a chauffeur, a real estate broker, and a locomotive inspector. However, the youngest employed resident here was nine-year-old Chester H. Scott, who worked as a newsboy in the days before child labor laws.

By the time the first photo was taken in the late 1930s, the building was evidently filled to capacity, with the 1940 census showing 16 families and a total of 56 residents. Most paid between $30 and $40 per month in rent (about $550 to $750 today), and as was the case 30 years earlier, many took in roomers, presumably to help offset the cost of the rent. Despite the significant increase in the number of residents from 1910, though, there were actually fewer people here who were employed, with only 24 having an occupation listed on the census.

Most of those in the 1940 census who did work earned between $1,000 and $1,500 per year (about $18,500 to $27,700 today), and the highest-paid residents were railroad conductor William R. Braney and factory foreman Joseph Webber, who each earned $2,000. Other workers here included several machinists, a bartender, a truck driver, a radio repairman, a laundress, and a bookkeeper. Only two residents worked at the Armory, although this would likely have changed within a few years, as the Armory dramatically increased its workforce in order to meet wartime demand during World War II.

Today, around 80 years after the first photo was taken, remarkably little has changed in this scene. The house on the far right side is gone, and there are no longer any horse-drawn wagons parked here on the street, but the building looks essentially the same, and it survives as a well-preserved example of an early 20th century apartment block.

Masonic Temple, Springfield, Mass

The Masonic Temple on State Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The building in 2019:

The first Masonic organization in Springfield was the Hampden Lodge, which was established in 1817. The lodge originally met at the Hampden Coffee House on Court Square, and throughout most of the 19th century Springfield’s Freemasons met in a succession of rented quarters in the downtown area. However, in 1893 they moved into a building of their own, at the corner of Main and State Streets. This was used for the first few decades of the 20th century, but by the early 1920s the Freemasons were looking to construct a new building, located on this site further up State Street, opposite the Armory.

The new Masonic Temple was designed by local architects Edward McClintock and Charles Craig, both of whom were Freemasons, and it featured a Classical Revival-style design with an exterior of Indiana limestone. The architects also borrowed from ancient Egyptian and Assyrian designs, which was done, according to a contemporary article in the Springfield Republican, in order to “symbolically link the mythology of the past to the reality of the present and represent the earliest beginnings of Freemasonry.” On the interior, the building included lodge rooms on the first and second floors, and the third floor consisted of a large auditorium that could seat up to 1,500 people.

Construction began in October 1923, although the cornerstone was not laid until June 24, 1924. The building was completed by early 1926, and it was formally dedicated on February 16, 1926. The ceremony was attended by a variety of state and local Masonic leaders, including Frank L. Simpson, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. After the ceremony, over 500 people gathered in the basement for a banquet, before moving upstairs to the auditorium for speeches by Simpson and other Masonic dignitaries.

The building was used by the Freemasons for far longer than any of their previous locations in Springfield, but they ultimately sold the building in 2007, amid high maintenance costs and declining membership. It was sold to a church organization and renamed the Basilica of the Holy Apostles, but the new owners faced similar financial challenges in trying to maintain and improve the building, so it was sold again just a few years later. Since then, the building has undergone a major renovation to convert it into the new home of the Springfield Conservatory of the Arts School. This work was still ongoing when the first photo was taken during the spring of 2019, but it was completed later in the year, with the building reopening in the fall of 2019.

Mount Vernon, Virginia (4)

Looking south along the east piazza of the Mount Vernon mansion in Virginia, around 1900-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As shown in the previous post, perhaps the most distinctive feature of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate is the piazza here on the east side of the mansion, although it is not original to the house. The house was constructed in several stages, starting around 1734 when the future president’s father, Augustine Washington, built a small house here. This was later expanded twice by George Washington, first in 1758 with the construction of a full second story, and then in 1774 with additions on both the north and south sides, along with the piazza on the east side.

The mansion sits on a bluff about 125 feet above the Potomac River, and from here the piazza offers expansive views of the river and the Maryland shoreline on the opposite side. Following the American Revolution, George Washington had envisioned that the river would serve as the primary gateway to the west, with all of the resulting east-west traffic literally passing by his front door. He was even involved with establishing the Patowmack Company, which made navigational improvements further upstream. The river ultimately did not become the great trade route that he had hoped, but it did become the site of the new national capital of Washington, D. C., which was built only 15 miles upstream on Mount Vernon.

After George Washington’s death in 1799 and his widow Martha’s in 1802, Mount Vernon remained in the Washington family for more than 50 years. It steadily declined during this period, though, and by the late 1850s the piazza was in danger of collapsing, with ship masts being used to support the roof. Then, in 1858 the last Washington owner, John Augustine Washington III, sold the property to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. This organization restored the mansion, and opened it to the public and a museum in 1860, making it one of the first historic house museums in the country.

Very little has changed here at Mount Vernon since then. The first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, showing at least nine visitors, mostly women, on and around the piazza. More than a century later, it looks essentially the same as it did then, with even the same style chairs still lined up here. The estate is still owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and it remains open to the public as one of the most popular tourist attractions in Virginia.

US Capitol, Washington, DC (3)

The view of the Capitol from the west side, around 1880-1897. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

This scene shows the west portico of the Capitol, the side of the building that faces the Mall and the Washington Monument. As discussed in an earlier post, which shows the view from the east side, the Capitol has been in use since 1800, although it has undergone significant changes during this time. The building was burned by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812, and it was subsequently rebuilt. This work was completed in 1826, but the Capitol was much smaller at the time, consisting of only a low dome and the two small wings on either side. The north wing, visible immediately to the left of the dome in this scene, housed the original Senate chamber, while the House of Representatives was located in the south wing.

By the mid-19th century, Congress had outgrown the building, so in the early 1850s work began on a major expansion, with two new wings that extended the Capitol further to the north and to the south. The project included new chambers for both the House and the Senate, which opened in 1857 and 1859, respectively. These wings are only partially visible in this scene, with the present-day Senate chamber on the far left, and the House chamber on the far right. Aside from these wings, the project also included a new, much larger dome, which was completed in 1863 and topped with the 19.5-foot bronze Statue of Freedom, as shown in these photos.

With the completion of the dome, the Capitol largely assumed its present-day appearance. The first photo was taken several decades later, around the 1880s or 1890s, and very little has changed in this view since then. Today, the west portico is probably best known as the site of the presidential inauguration, which occurs here every four years on January 20. However, for most of the building’s history the event was held on the east portico, and it was not until the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan that it was held here on the west side. This was done in part as a cost-saving measure, and also as a way to allow for more spectators, with the mile-long Mall providing plenty of open space and views of the Capitol. With the exception of Reagan’s second inauguration, which was held in the Capitol Rotunda, every ceremony since then has been held here. Of these, Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 reportedly drew the largest crowd, with an estimated 1.8 million visitors gathering on the Mall.

US Capitol, Washington, DC (2)

The U. S. Capitol, seen from the northwest around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The Capitol in 2018:

This view of the Capitol is similar to one in a previous post, except it shows the building from the northwest instead of the northeast. As discussed in that post, construction on the Capitol began in 1793, and the partially-completed building was first used by Congress in 1800, when the federal government moved from Philadelphia to Washington. It subsequently burned during the War of 1812, and for several years afterward Congress met in temporary quarters on the current site of the Supreme Court building. Congress returned to the Capitol in 1819, although the building was not fully completed until 1826.

At the time, though, the exterior of the Capitol was very different from its current appearance. Instead of its current cast iron dome, it was topped with a low copper-covered wood dome, and on either side of the Rotunda were small wings for the House and Senate. However, as the country grew so did the size of Congress, and by the mid-19th century the Capitol was becoming too small. This resulted in a massive expansion project that began in the early 1850s and was completed in 1863. As part of it, new wings were constructed for the two houses of Congress, and a new, much larger dome was added above the Rotunda.

By the end of the Civil War, the exterior of the Capitol had largely assumed its current appearance. The first photo was taken about 50 years later during the 1910s, looking up the walkway towards the west portico of the building. Remarkably little has changed in this scene since then. Perhaps the only significant difference in the present-day scene is the barricade in the distance at the base of the steps, in place as a security measure. Otherwise, though, this view looks the same as it did a century ago, and the Capitol remains an iconic symbol of both Washington D. C. in general and the federal government in particular.