Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Chestnut Street Theatre on the north side of Chestnut Street, just west of Sixth Street in Philadelphia, on April 30, 1855. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, James McClees Philadelphia Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

During the colonial era, theater was not a significant part of American culture, particularly in the northern and middle colonies. In New England, the Puritans saw plays and acting as immoral, and here in Philadelphia the Quakers similarly disapproved, believing that going to theaters was a frivolous use of time and money. Some colonies, including Pennsylvania, even outlawed plays. However, this trend began to change after the American Revolution, and one of the first purpose-built theaters in the country was the Chestnut Street Theatre, which opened here in 1794. 

At the time, Philadelphia was the capital city of both the United States and Pennsylvania, and the theater was located in the midst of these governmental buildings. The national capitol, Congress Hall, was diagonally across the street from the theater, and just beyond Congress Hall was Independence Hall, the seat of the state government. The Supreme Court met in a building on the other side of Independence Hall, and a block to the north of the theater was the President’s House, home of George Washington and later John Adams.

The original Chestnut Street Theatre burned in 1820, but it was rebuilt two years later. This new building, which is shown here in the first photo, was designed by prominent Philadelphia architect William Strickland, who was responsible for many important buildings in the city during the early 19th century. On the exterior, the theater featured classically-inspired elements such as the arched entryways on the ground level and the four columns on the upper floor. The columns were flanked by a pair of statues, representing Tragedy and Comedy, that were carved by sculptor William Rush. The interior of the theater featured three rows of boxes arranged in a semi-circle around the stage, and it could accommodate around 2,000 people. It was built with fire safety in mind, including large stairways and multiple exits with outward-swinging doors, and it was said that a full crowd could evacuate the building in under three minutes.

The theater opened on December 2, 1822, and the occasion was marked by the reading of a letter from poet Charles Sprague, followed by a performance of the comedy The School for Scandal. Several days later, the National Gazette reported on it, observing that it opened “to a crowded, brilliant and good humoured house. The spectators and the actors appeared to be in the best spirits and both performed their respective parts in the best manner.” The article went on to say that “Everything went on and off swimmingly and satisfactorily” and that “Several gentlemen who had been abroad, and some foreigners, were heard to say that the Theatre was the prettiest they had ever seen.”

The new Chestnut Street Theatre, which came to be known as “Old Drury,” remained a popular venue for plays and concerts throughout the first half of the 19th century. During this time, perhaps the most famous performer was Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer who toured America from 1850 to 1852. The tour was organized by P. T. Barnum, who used his showman skills to generate fanfare for her performances. She arrived in New York in September 1850, and a month later she came to Philadelphia, where her first performance in the city occurred here at the Chestnut Street Theatre on October 17. In order to meet the anticipated demand, the tickets were auctioned off. The first one sold for the astronomical price of $625, equivalent to around $20,000 today, but prices quickly dropped for the subsequent tickets. The second one sold for just $15, and before long they were selling for under $10. In the end, about 1,700 tickets were sold at the auction, at an average of $7 each.

The day after the concert, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an account of the event, including a description of the crowd inside the theater:

A more brilliant audience never assembled within its walls, and this is saying a great deal, for “Old Drury” ranked for many years as the very temple of taste, fashion, dramatic and musical triumph. The spectacle was, indeed, fairy-like. The splendid dresses, the bright eyes, the flushed cheeks, the eager expectation depicted on every countenance, the brilliant gas-lights, and the whisperings and buzzings of many voices, served to produce an unwonted excitement; and thus, long before the hour for the commencement of the entertainment, the blood seemed to flow more rapidly through the veins, even of the most passionless.

The excitement of this event notwithstanding, by the 1850s the Chestnut Street Theatre was past its prime. Its location was no longer as desirable as it had once been, and the building was considered too small by this point. The first photo was taken on April 30, 1855, a day before its final performance, as indicated by the playbills at the main entrance, which indicate that it will be the “last night but one” for the old theater. That evening’s entertainment consisted of the burletta The Loan of a Lover, followed by the comedy Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady and the drama Sixteen String Jack. The leading performer was 21-year-old Philadelphia native Julia Daly, whose name appears prominently on the playbills. According to newspaper advertisements, admission started at 12.5 cents for the gallery. General admission was 25 cents, and reserved seats for 37.5 cents. Orchestra and private box seating was 50 cents, and the “Colored Gallery” was 25 cents.

Somewhat more ominously than the playbills, the first photo also includes several visible posters advertising for the public sale that would take place on May 2, the day after the final performance. The sale would include the theater’s scenery, wardrobe, machinery, and other items, along with building materials such as doors, windows, rafters, roofing, and even the marble facade. This included the four marble columns, which sold for $25 each.

The theater was demolished soon after the sale, and it was replaced by a commercial building. All of the other buildings in the first photo have since been demolished as well, and the site of the theater is now a bank, which was built in 1965. It was originally the First Pennsylvania Bank, but after a series of mergers it is now a Wells Fargo branch. Further in the distance, on the other side of Sixth Street, is part of the Independence National Historical Park, and just out of view on the far right is Congress Hall and Independence Hall.

Clio and Whig Halls, Princeton, New Jersey

Clio Hall and Whig Hall, on the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, around 1903. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The American Whig–Cliosophic Society at Princeton is one of the most prominent collegiate debate organizations in the country. Its history traces back to the 1760s, and over the years its membership has included some of Princeton’s most distinguished graduates, including many of the Founding Fathers and two future U. S. president. The organization was originally two separate groups, the Whig and the Clio, and each had its own facility on campus. However, in 1928 the two were united as the Whig–Cliosophic Society, and it remains an active student-led organization here at Princeton.

The first photo, taken around 1903, shows the view looking east on Chapel Drive from near West College–now Morrison Hall–and Witherspoon Hall. On the left side of the scene is Cannon Green, and in the distant center is Marquand Chapel. On the right side of the scene are two identical buildings, which were completed in 1893 as the homes of the Whig and Clio societies. They were both designed by noted architect Arthur Page Brown, and their marble, Greek Revival-style exteriors evoke a sense of the philosophers and democratic ideals of classical antiquity. The building here in the foreground was Clio Hall, while the one further in the distance was Whig Hall.

About a decade after the first photo was taken, a young F. Scott Fitzgerald enrolled at Princeton, and during his time here he joined the Whig society. Fitzgerald never graduated, instead dropping out to join the Army during World War I, but his experiences at Princeton ultimately formed the basis of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. This book established Fitzgerald as the leading voice of the Jazz Age, and it even included a passing mention of Whig and Clio Halls, describing how the protagonist, Amory Blaine, “wanted to ramble through the shadowy scented lanes, where Witherspoon brooded like a dark mother over Whig and Clio, her Attic children.”

After the Whig and Clio organizations merged in 1928, the Whig–Cliosophic Society occupied Whig Hall, which it continues to use nearly a century later. During this time, the debate society has continued to have a number of prominent members, including Senators Claiborne Pell, Paul S. Sarbanes, and Ted Cruz, and U. S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. In the meantime, Clio Hall was put to other uses, and it is now the administrative offices of the Princeton Graduate School. Overall, this scene has remained largely unchanged since the first photo was taken, and the only significant difference is the Princeton University Chapel. It is barely visible in the distance, mostly hidden by trees, but it was built in 1928 to replace the earlier Marquand Chapel, which burned in 1920.

City Hall, Albany, New York

City Hall on Eagle Street in Albany, around the 1860s or 1870s. Image from Albany Chronicles (1906).

The scene around 1900, with a new City Hall. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

City Hall in 2019:

Albany is one of the oldest cities in the United States, and over the years its municipal government has occupied several different buildings, starting with the Stadt Huys in the 17th century. Dutch for city hall, this name—and building— survived long after the English took control of the former Dutch colony. A new Stadt Huys was built in 1740, and it remained in use until the early 19th century. It also temporarily functioned as the state capitol, from 1797 until Albany’s first purpose-built capitol was completed in 1809.

The city government followed the state government to the new building, and for several decades it served as both the state capitol and as city hall. However, its small size soon became inadequate for the two governments, and in 1832 the city built a new City Hall nearby, on the east side of Eagle Street roughly diagonal to the capitol. The building, which is shown in the first photo here, was designed by prominent local architect Philip Hooker. The exterior was built of white marble, and it featured a Greek Revival design, with Ionic columns supporting the pediment above the front entrance and a dome at the top of the building. It was one of Hooker’s last commissions, and was completed just four years before his death. Over the course of his long career he designed a number of important buildings in Albany, including the First Church, the 1809 capitol, and the Albany Academy, which stands across the street from here.

This City Hall remained in use for nearly a half century, but it was ultimately destroyed in a fire on February 10, 1880. The city subsequently hired famed architect Henry H. Richardson to build a new City Hall here on the same spot. Richardson was, at the time, also involved in the construction of the new state capitol building. He was one of several architects who worked on the capitol over the span of 31 years, and its final design reflected this mix of styles. However, his design for City Hall was entirely his own, and it stands as an excellent example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style that he pioneered.

Thanks to Richardson’s influence, Romanesque architecture was popular for public buildings during the 1880s, and City Hall includes many of the style’s typical features. These include narrow windows, rounded arches above the windows and entryway, asymmetrical facades with a tower in the corner, and a rusticated exterior with contrasting light and dark-colored stones. The majority of City Hall’s exterior is granite from Milford, Massachusetts, and the trim is brownstone from East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, which was one of Richardson’s preferred building materials. Overall, the most distinctive feature of city hall is the 202-foot tower, which rises above the southwest corner of the building. Although Romanesque in its appearance, some architectural historians have viewed the tower as an early hint of modern architecture, with its emphasis on vertical lines.

The new building was completed in 1883, and it is shown in the second photo a few decades later, around the turn of the 20th century. The photo was taken from the grounds of the recently-finished state capitol, presumably from one of the walkways, since the sign in the foreground warns pedestrians to keep off the grass. On the far left side of the photo is State Hall, a state office building that was built in 1842. It is also visible in the first photo, and its Greek Revival design echoes that of the old City Hall. On the far right side of the photo, opposite Maiden Lane (now Corning Place), is a four-story brick commercial block that was likely built around the 1860s or 1870s.

Today, more than a century after the second photo was taken, very little has changed in this scene. City Hall is still standing with few exterior alterations, and it is still in use by the city government. From this angle, perhaps the only noticeable difference is near the top of the tower, where clock faces were added around the 1920s. The neighboring buildings on either side of the photo are also still standing today, although State Hall was extensively renovated in the early 20th century and is now occupied by the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. Because of their historical and architectural significance, both this building and City Hall were added to the National Register of Historic Places, in 1971 and 1972 respectively.

State Hall, Albany, New York

Looking south on Eagle Street in Albany, with State Hall in the foreground and City Hall further in the distance, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

For most of the 19th century, the seat of the New York state government was the old capitol building, which was completed in 1809 and demolished in 1883. However, the capitol was too small for all of the state offices, so during the early 19th century many of these offices were located in what became known as the Old State Hall, at the corner of Lodge and State Streets. Then, in 1842, a new State Hall was built here on Eagle Street, on the left side of both of these photos.

The new building housed a variety of officials from both the executive and legislative branches. These included the secretary of state, comptroller, treasurer, attorney general, state engineer and surveyor, superintendent of the bank department, superintendent of public instruction, canal commissioners, canal appraisers, state chancellor, register of chancery, and clerk of the court of appeals.

Architecturally, State Hall was a far more imposing building than the old capitol. It was designed by architect Henry Rector, and it features a Greek Revival exterior, which was fashionable for public buildings of this era. Here at the front entrance, facing Eagle Street, is a large portico with a pediment that is supported by six large Ionic columns. Around the rest of the building, Doric pilasters are interspersed between the window bays, and the building is topped by a large dome. State Hall was also far costlier to build than the capitol, and it generally had better quality building materials, most notably an all-marble exterior, as opposed to the capitol’s relatively plain brownstone.

The old capitol was eventually demolished in 1883, after the state government moved into the current capitol building, which stands diagonally across the street from State Hall. However, State Hall remained in use throughout this time, and it was still occupied by state offices when the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century. By this point, it had also been joined by the current Albany City Hall, located just beyond the building in the center of both photos. This was the work of prominent architect Henry H. Richardson, who had also been involved in designing the new capitol. Its distinctive Romanesque architecture provides an interesting contrast to the Greek Revival design of State Hall, reflecting the shifts in architectural tastes over the course of the 19th century.

Although the new capitol building was much larger than its predecessor, it was still insufficient for the growing New York state government. As a result, by the early 20th century the Court of Appeals, which was located in the capitol, was looking for new space elsewhere. In New York, the Court of Appeals is actually the state’s highest court, equivalent to the Supreme Court in most other states, and the court was in need of a facility of its own. The state government explored the possibility of building a new courthouse behind the capitol on Swan Street, but instead decided upon converting State Hall into a courthouse.

Along with renovating the interior, the project also involved expanding the building with an addition to the rear, which housed the courtroom itself. The courtroom had originally been located in the capitol, where it was designed by Henry H. Richardson. However, when the Court of Appeals judges left the capitol they took the courtroom with them, and its ornate oak paneling, fireplace, and furnishings were reinstalled here in State Hall.

The project was completed in 1917, and the building was renamed Court of Appeals Hall. It has undergone several renovations since then, in the late 1950s and early 2000s, and it also suffered a large fire in 1958 that destroyed the roof and dome. However, it is still occupied by the Court of Appeals, and this view of the building has remained essentially unchanged since the first photo was taken, aside from the “Court of Appeals State of New York” inscription on the entablature. Further in the distance, City Hall is also still standing with few exterior changes, and it remains in use by the city government. Because of their historical and architectural significance, both of these buildings were added to the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1970s.

United First Parish Church, Quincy (2)

The United First Parish Church on Hancock Street in Quincy, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The church in 2019:

Quincy’s United First Parish Church was previously featured in one of the first blog posts on this site, which shows the building from the southwest corner. These two photos here show a similar view of the church, but from the northeast side, from directly in front of Quincy City Hall.

The church was completed in 1828, and it is constructed of locally-quarried Quincy granite, most of which was taken from quarries owned by the Adams family. It features a Greek Revival-style design that was common for New England churches of the era, including columns and a portico at the main entrance, and a multi-stage steeple above it. The design was the work of prominent Boston architect Alexander Parris, who is perhaps best remembered for Quincy Market, which had been completed two years before the church and shares some similar design elements.

At the time of its completion, the most notable parishioner of this church was President John Quincy Adams, whose family had help to finance its construction. His father, President John Adams, had also been a member of the same congregation, although he died in 1826, a year before construction began on this building. Both John and Abigail Adams were subsequently interred here in 1828, in a crypt beneath the church. Then, in 1852, John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa were also interred in the crypt, giving the church the unusual distinction of being the final resting place of two United States presidents.

The church was formally dedicated on November 12, 1828, less than two weeks after John Quincy Adams lost his re-election bid to Andrew Jackson. Contemporary newspaper accounts observed that the crowd at the dedication ceremony was smaller than expected due to the “uncommon tempestuousness” of the weather, but the Boston Courier nonetheless noted that:

The house was well filled, and the exercises were such as might be expected from the gentlemen who took part in them. The choir were well versed in their pieces, and performed with gratifying precision.

A number of local clergymen participated in the ceremony, and Quincy’s own pastor, the Reverend Peter Whitney, gave the sermon on Genesis 28:17, “This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Among the hymns was one written by noted Boston poet and clergyman John Pierpont, who is probably best remembered today as the grandfather and namesake of Gilded Age financier John Pierpont Morgan. Reverend Pierpont’s hymn included many references to the late John Adams, particularly the final two stanzas, which read:

Here the water of salvation
Long hath gushed a liberal wave;
Here, a Father of our nation
Drank, and felt the strength, it gave.
Here he sleeps, his bed how lowly!
But his aim and trust were high;
And his memory, that is holy;
And his name, it cannot die.

While beneath this Temple’s portal
Rest the relics of the just,
While the light of hope immortal
Shines above his sacred dust,
While the well of life its waters
To the weary here shall give,
Father, may thy Sons and Daughters
Kneeling round it drink and live!

The first photo shows the church as it appeared sometime during the second half of the 19th century, probably around the late 1860s or 1870s. Since then, there have been some changes to this scene. The building in the distant right of the first photo was demolished at some point in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, and in 1924 the old Quincy Patriot Ledger building was constructed on the site. More recently, in the 2010s this section of Hancock Street in front of the church was closed to traffic, and it was reconstructed as a pedestrian-only plaza, as shown in the present-day scene.

Overall, though, remarkably little has changed with the church in the intervening 140 to 150 years, aside from an 1889 addition to the rear of the building, which is not visible in this view. It is still an active Unitarian Universalist congregation, and the building remains well-preserved on both the interior and exterior. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and since 1976 the church has been opened to the public for guided tours, including visits to the Adams family crypt.

Quincy City Hall, Quincy, Mass

The Quincy City Hall on Hancock Street in Quincy, around 1890-1910. Image courtesy of the Thomas Crane Public Library.

The building in 2019:

The city of Quincy is probably best known and the birthplace and home of both John Adams and John Quincy Adams. They were born 32 years and 75 feet apart from each other, in adjoining houses less than a mile south of here. As such, Quincy is one of only two cities in the country—along with New York City—to have been the birthplace of two presidents. However, at the time Quincy was neither a city, nor was it even its own municipality. Throughout the colonial era, present-day Quincy was the northern part of the town of Braintree, before being split off as a separate town in 1792. From there, it would be nearly a century before Quincy was incorporated as a city in 1888.

During this time, Quincy saw significant growth. From a population of just over a thousand in 1800, it had grown to nearly 3,500 by 1840, and in 1844 the town began construction on a new town hall, which was completed later in the year. It was designed by prominent architect Solomon Willard, who is best-known for the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston. Like the Bunker Hill Monument, it was constructed out of locally-quarried Quincy granite, and it was built only a year after the monument’s dedication in 1843.

Overall, the exterior of the town hall is a good example of Greek Revival architecture, which was common for public buildings of this era. The front facade, shown here in these two photos, features a triangular pediment above four Ionic pilasters. The main entrance is located between the two central pilasters, with the inscription “Town Hall Erected A.D. 1844” inscribed above it. Originally, the ground floor included two storefronts, although these were altered later in the 19th century.

Quincy became a city in 1888, and the old town hall building here became city hall instead. The changes to the front of the building came afterward, and included the addition of a “City Hall” sign above the entrance. The first photo was also taken sometime after these changes occurred, probably around the turn of the 20th century. In this scene, four men stand outside the entrance, with a uniformed police officer standing to the left at the corner of the building. Aside from the modifications to the building, another sign of progress was the trolley line running in front of the building, with the tracks visible in the street and the electric wires above them.

Today, this building remains in use as Quincy City Hall, although it has been significantly expanded with a modern addition behind and to the right of the original structure. Most recently, the building underwent a major restoration that began in 2013. It was damaged by a fire during the project, but the work was ultimately completed in early 2016. This project also coincided with the closure of the portion of Hancock Street in front of city hall, creating a pedestrian-only plaza between it and the United First Parish Church across the street from here. Today, the exterior of the building is not significantly different from its appearance in the first photo, and it stands as a well-preserved example of a mid-19th century municipal building.