Thomas Wason House, Springfield, Mass

The house at 270 Liberty Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The house in 2019:

This brick Italianate-style house was built sometime around the early 1850s, and it was the home of Thomas Wason, the founder of the Wason Manufacturing Company. At the time, this area of Springfield to the east of Chestnut Street and north of the railroad tracks was sparsely developed, consisting primarily of upscale homes that were modeled on rural Italian villas. A number of these houses are visible in the first photo of an earlier post, which shows the view around 1882, before the area was transformed into the working-class Liberty Heights neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century.

Thomas Wason was born in New Hampshire in 1811, and he grew up in a family with 15 children. His father was a carpenter, so Thomas worked in the shop when he was young, and gained valuable skills that he would put to use after he and his younger brother Charles moved to Springfield in the 1830s. At the time, Springfield was a small but rapidly-growing manufacturing center, and it was also an important transportation hub that would soon become the crossroads of several important railroads.

The Wason brothers took advantage of this new method of transportation, and they started out by preparing timbers for railroad bridges and repairing railroad cars before starting a railroad car manufacturing business in 1845. The company started small, with the Wasons producing cars in a shed that was not even large enough for a single car. However, the rapid growth of the nation’s railroad system resulted in high demand for railroad cars, so the Wasons soon moved to a larger facility. Then, in 1848, they moved again, to the factory of the former Springfield Car and Engine Company, which was located in the block between Lyman and Taylor Streets in downtown Springfield.

Charles Wason ultimately left Springfield in 1851 and moved to Cleveland, where he established his own railroad car company. Thomas purchased his brother’s interest in their partnership here in Springfield, and he carried on the business for many years, turning it into one of the nation’s leading railroad car manufacturers. During that time, the Wason Manufacturing Company produced cars for most major railroads, and also had several overseas contracts, including a 161-car order that was sent to Egypt in 1860. The company also produced the nation’s first sleeping car in 1857, predating the more famous Pullman sleeping cars by several years.

The Wason company was one of the most important industries in Springfield during the second half of the 19th century, and the 1884 book King’s Handbook of Springfield declared that “no manufactory in Springfield has been more world-famed; and none has, during the past twenty years, handled so much money.” Thomas Wason himself also handled plenty of money, and by the mid-1860s he ranked among the city’s top earners, with an 1864 income of $17,944, equivalent to over $300,000 today.

Thomas Wason was around 40 years old when moved into this house in the early 1850s. He and his wife Sarah had two children, Jane and George, who would have been adolescents at the time. Like most affluent families of the period, they also employed servants who lived here in the house; the 1860 census lists 19-year-old servant Edwin Mehan, who was an Irish immigrant. A decade later, the family employed 18-year-old Annie Harris and 16-year-old Ellen Davis. Both were originally from Virginia, and Harris was listed as mulatto and Davis as black, so it is possible that the two may have previously been enslaved in Virginia.

In addition to manufacturing railroad cars, Thomas Wason’s business interests included being involved with several local banks. He was vice president of the Hampden Savings Bank, and he was also one of the directors of the First National Bank of Springfield. Wason was also active in local politics, serving at various times on the city council, the board of aldermen, and in the state legislature.

Thomas Wason died in 1870 at the age of 58, and he left behind an estate that was valued at nearly $450,000, or more than $9 million today. By far his largest asset was his ownership interest in Wason Manufacturing, which amounted to 760 shares worth a total of $200,000. He also held more than $60,000 in shares of companies like the Springfield Fire and Marine Insurance Company, the First National Bank, the Boston and Albany Railroad, and the Michigan Central Railroad. Most of his remaining personal estate was in the form of bonds and promissory notes, which were valued at more than $112,000. Wason also owned $58,500 in real estate, including his house here on Liberty Street, which was assessed at $20,000.

Sarah Wason continued to live here in this house for at least five years after her husband’s death, but she had evidently moved out by 1876. The 1880 census shows her living next door at 284 Liberty Street, at the home of her daughter Jane and son-in-law Henry S. Hyde. However, her old house here at 270 Liberty Street would remain in the family for many years, although it appears to have been used primarily as a rental property. Starting around 1877, it was the home of Aaron Wight, a sawyer who sold wood to railroads. He was also the brother of Emerson Wight, the mayor of Springfield from 1875 to 1878. Aaron lived here in this house for the rest of his life, until his death in 1885 from typhoid malaria at the age of 63.

By the late 19th century, this part of Springfield had begun to change. As the city grew, the old estates here were steadily subdivided into new residential streets, and the neighborhood became predominantly working class, with a number of immigrants and second-generation Americans. The area also became more industrialized during this period, thanks to its proximity to the railroad tracks. The 1899 city atlas shows a rail yard directly across the street from the house, and nearby industries included a stone yard, a coal yard, and a boiler and iron works.

The house was still used as a residence in 1900, although it was apparently divided into multiple units. One of the residents in that year’s census was George K. Geiger, superintendent at the Springfield Steam Power Company. He was an immigrant from Germany, and he lived here with his wife Rosa and their two sons, George and Arthur. The other family living here at the time was Hector and Nell Davis, who lived here with their children Mabel, Fred, and Eugene. Hector was a conductor for the Boston and Maine Railroad, and Mabel and Fred both worked as clerks.

This property underwent a dramatic transformation around 1909, when the Central Storage Warehouse purchased it and built a brick warehouse behind and to the right of the old house. The building evidently functioned much in the same way as modern storage units, with the company advertising, “Storage rooms to let. For furniture and other goods in separate locked compartments.” The warehouse was subsequently expanded in the early 1910s, with a new wing that extended all the way to Liberty Street, as shown on the right side of both photos here.

George Geiger was involved with the company in its early years, working as mechanical engineer and superintendent. By the 1910 census, both he and the Davis family were still living here in the house, although the Davises moved out soon after, and the Geigers left in 1912, when George resigned from his position with the company. After the Geigers, the last long-term resident of this house appears to have been Linda Daniels, who was here from around 1912 until her death in 1921. During the 1920 census she was 60 years old, widowed, and lived in the house with three of her children.

By the mid-1920s, the property seems to have been exclusively commercial in use. During this period, the company frequently listed advertisements in local newspapers, which reflected an expansion of its services beyond just storage. One 1925 ad offered “Local and long distance moving, packing, crating, storage of household furniture, pianos, office effects, merchandise.” Another ad from the same year assured potential customers, “Don’t worry on moving day. Call R. 98 and your moving problems will be solved to your complete satisfaction; storage for household, personal and office effects in strictly fireproof building; skilled workmen, competent to pack and crate any article safely.” In addition to these ads, the company also frequently posted classified ads for auctions and other sales of furniture, antiques, and similar items.

Judging by the few advertisements that appeared in the newspaper for Central Storage Warehouse in the 1930s, the business was probably hurt by the Great Depression. The first photo was taken during this time, probably around 1938 or 1939, and the company’s only appearance in the newspapers in those years seems to have been a December 1939 classified ad listing female canaries for sale, which were “guaranteed singers.”

The company remained here as late as 1940, but its business license was revoked in the fall of that year, and in February 1941 the property was sold at a foreclosure sale to the moving and storage company Lindell & Benson. Within a few years Lindell & Benson became Anderson & Benson, and this moving company would go on to operate here for many years before it was acquired by Sitterly Movers in 1975.

Today, the house has come a long way since being the home of one of Springfield’s most prosperous 19th century industrialists, and it has seen some exterior changes since the first photo was taken, including the loss of the porches on the left and right sides of the house. It is now almost entirely surrounded by larger industrial and commercial buildings, and the vacant lot on the left side of the first photo is now a building that partially blocks the view of the house from this angle.

Otherwise, though, remarkably little has changed in this scene over the past 80 years. Despite the exterior alterations, the house is still standing as one of the few survivors of the once-numerous Italian villas in this area. The early 20th century warehouse next to it is also still standing, with the same “Furniture Storage” advertisement still visible at the top, although it is more faded than in the 1930s. This property is still owned by Sitterly Movers, which continues to use this location as its Springfield branch, and in 2016 both buildings were designated as a local historic district.

Ambrose O. Smith House, Springfield, Mass

The house at 178 Boston Road in Springfield, around 1938. Image courtesy of the Springfield Building Department.

The scene in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post, Boston Road in Springfield was a sparsely-settled area prior to the turn of the 20th century. Most city maps throughout the 19th century show fewer than 20 houses along its entire 3.3-mile length from present-day Berkshire Avenue to the Wilbraham town line. This house, which was probably built around the mid-19th century, was one of those widely scattered houses, standing along Boston Road in what would eventually become the Pine Point neighborhood.

The early history of this house is difficult to trace because the outlying parts of the city did not have street numbers at the time, but a house appears near this spot on the 1835 map of Springfield. It was owned by John Butler, but it does not seem clear as to whether this is the same house from the first photo, because it is not shown on the 1855 county map. Probably the best indicator for the house’s age is its architecture, which features a blend of Greek Revival and Italianate elements. This style was particularly popular here in Springfield prior to the Civil War, so the house likely dates back to around the 1850s.

The first verifiable owner of this house was Ambrose O. Smith, who was living here by 1866. Born in Middlefield Massachusetts in 1829, Smith moved to Springfield in the mid-1860s, and during the 1870 census he was living here with his mother Nancy and his sister Mary C. Otis. He and his family lived here until at least 1872, but by 1873 he had moved to a house at 46 Walnut Street, where he was listed in the 1880 census as being a milk dealer. However, he continued to own this house for many years. He moved back here by the mid-1880s, and soon after he became one of the first landowners in this part of the city to subdivide his property into new streets and house lots.

Prior to the late 19th century, this area, which is located three miles east of downtown Springfield, was not a particularly desirable place to build houses. But, as the city grew in the post-Civil War era, developers began creating new residential neighborhoods to meet the increased demand for single-family homes. This was aided in part by the opening of trolley lines across the city, and by the 1890s one of these lines passed through modern-day Pine Point, connecting downtown Springfield to Indian Orchard.

Likely motivated by his land’s proximity to the trolley line, Ambrose O. Smith turned his Boston Road farm into a residential subdivision. His property extended behind this house as far north as Berkshire Avenue, and he also owned the land across the street on the south side of Boston Road, as far south as the North Branch of the Mill River. The 1899 city atlas shows a number of streets that had been laid out across his property, with Jasper Street on the north side, and Ambrose, Boyer, Coleman, Denver, Embury, and Falmouth (now Devonshire) streets on the south side. The land along these streets was divided into individual lots, although very few of them had been developed at this point. Aside from a handful of houses on Coleman Street, nearly all of these lots were still vacant in 1899.

Smith was still living in this house in 1899, but by the 1900 census he was on Lenox Street in Forest Park, and he died in 1904. The next long-term resident of this house was Joseph M. LaRiviere, who was living here as early as 1901. During the 1910 census he was 54 years old, and he lived here with his 44-year-old wife Evalena and their 23-year-old son Victor. Around this time, he sold postal cards in a shop on Main Street, while Evalena was a dressmaker and Victor worked as a clerk in Indian Orchard.

The LaRiviere family was still living here a decade later during the 1920 census, but by this point they had apparently divided the house into several different apartment units, because the census also shows two other families living here. They moved out soon after, though, because the 1921 city directory shows Joseph and Evalena living in a house on Douglas Street in the North End.

By the 1930 census, three families were renting apartments in this house, and their monthly rents ranged from $20 to $28. In one unit was Corinne LaTaille, a 36-year-old widow who lived here with her three children. Five years earlier, while living in a house on Denver Street, her husband Frank had committed suicide. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, this was likely caused by his recent two-month jail sentence for driving under the influence of alcohol, along with unspecified “family troubles.” The latter may have been related to the fact that, just two weeks after his death, Corinne gave birth to twin boys.

The other two families living here in 1930 included 44-year-old Charles and Annie Edson, who lived in an apartment with their six young children. Charles worked as a machine operator in a factory, and the family’s stay here was evidently short, because in 1929 they had been in a house on Denver Street, and within a few years they had moved elsewhere. The third tenant here in 1930 was George E. Miller, a 57-year-old radio mechanic who lived here with his 63-year-old wife Idella and their 29-year-old son George.

The first photo was taken in 1938, and two years later the 1940 census shows three more families living here. The rents had declined somewhat since 1930, likely because of the Great Depression, and all three tenants paid $20 per month. In one unit was John and Flora Kenney, in the second was Adele Rieck and her son Royal, and in the third was Arthur and Anna Allen and their young children Dorothy and George. Of all the residents here, Arthur was the only one who had been employed full-time in the previous year, earning $1,560 while working in a hotel laundry. During that same time, John Kenney worked for eight weeks as an inspector at the Armory, earning $203, while Royal Rieck earned $20 for two weeks as an elevator operator.

It is difficult to trace the subsequent fate of this house, but it appears to have still been occupied by residents as late as the early 1950s. However, by the mid-1950s this lot had become the junkyard of City Towing Service, although it seems unclear whether or not the house was still standing on the site. Then, in 1963 the property became the Pine Hill Motors car dealership. Its name has changed several more times since then, but this site continues to be a car dealership, and today the only surviving remnant from the first photo is the adjacent house on the far left at 168 Boston Road, which is still standing.

Wilson Hotel, North Adams, Mass

The Wilson Hotel at the corner of Main and Holden Streets in North Adams, around 1901-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The Wilson Hotel, also known as the Wilson House, opened here in 1866. At the time, North Adams was still part of the town of Adams, but this village was a growing manufacturing center. Between 1860 and 1870, the town as a whole grew from under 7,000 to over 12,000, and much of this increase was here in the northern section, which had a population of over 10,000 by 1880, several years after it was incorporated as the town of North Adams. During this time, the town’s prosperity was also aided by the ongoing construction of the Hoosac Tunnel nearby. Begin in 1851 and completed in 1875, the tunnel gave the town railroad connections to the east, and also put it on one of the major east-west routes through New England.

The hotel was owned by Allen B. Wilson, a former North Adams resident and inventor who made significant improvements to sewing machines. His company, the Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company, was one of the leading American sewing machine producers of the second half of the 19th century, and Wilson used some of his profits to build a hotel here in his old hometown.

The building stood here at the northwest corner of Main and Holden Streets, in the midst of North Adams’s central business district. It stood four stories in height, with an ornate Italianate-style exterior comprised of brick and cast iron. In addition to about a hundred guest rooms in the hotel, it also included eight stores on the ground floor, plus a hall that could seat about 800 to 1,000 people. The hotel was intended to serve both travelers and long-term boarders, and it featured modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing, gas lighting, steam heat, and a telegraph office.

Around the mid-1870s, Foster E. Swift became the proprietor of the hotel. He and his wife Frances narrowly escaped death in the Ashtabula River railroad disaster of 1876, one of the deadliest train wrecks in American history, and he subsequently purchased the hotel in 1880. It appears to have been a foreclosure sale of some sort, because he acquired it from the Adams National Bank for just $65,000, barely half of the cost to build it 14 years earlier.

The 1880 census shows Foster and Frances Swift living here at the hotel. Most of the other staff apparently lived here too, with the census listing a clerk, a steward, two porters, two cooks, 12 waiters, and 11 other employees. About half were immigrants, with many coming from Ireland and a few from England and Germany. In addition, more than half of the staff members were female, most of whom were single and between 18 to 30 years old.

Also during the 1880 census, there were 40 residents living here as boarders. Some were families, but most were men in their 20s or 30s who lived here without any other family members. The majority of these were railroad employees, including nine conductors, two clerks, two agents, and a railroad contractor. Nearly all of these men were listed as being married, but they were evidently working and living away from home at the time when the census was taken.

Swift continued to operate the hotel for the next few decades, and during this time he was even elected to the state senate, representing the northern Berkshire district in 1883. He remained here until around the turn of the century, and the property was subsequently sold to John F. Sullivan, who was running the hotel when the first photo was taken around 1901 to 1910.

The first photo shows a busy scene in front of the hotel. Although around 40 years old by this point, it was still considered one of the finest hotels in western Massachusetts, and it housed a variety of other businesses on the ground floor. In the center, with the large awning, was the dry goods store of Tuttle & Bryant. To the right of it was a small postcard shop, and at the corner in the foreground was the Wilson House Drug Store, which advertised Coca Cola for 5 cents at its soda fountain.

However, the largest sign here on the front of the building was for the Empire Theater, a 1,400-seat theater that opened in 1901. It was located in the rear of the hotel, but the entrance was here on Main Street, just to the left of the drug store. The theater was ultimately in existence for just over a decade, but it hosted at least one distinguished visitor when Theodore Roosevelt made a brief campaign stop here on April 29, 1912, during his bid to capture the Republican nomination for president. He spoke for 15 minutes to an enthusiastic crowd of about 2,000 people. It was reportedly the largest audience for a political speech in the city’s history, and Roosevelt himself remarked that “It was a bully crowd, it was a fine gathering.”

This event proved to be something of a last hurrah for the old Wilson Hotel, though. Just over two months later, the entire building, along with the Empire Theater and several other adjacent buildings, was destroyed in a massive fire. The fire, which was suspected to have been the work of an arsonist, began around 2:30 a.m. on the morning of July 2, in either the kitchen or laundry of the hotel. There were about 30 guests in the hotel at the time, and all of them were able to escape safely, although most lost all of their belongings. In the end, the fire caused about a half million dollars in damage, equivalent to over $13 million today, and it completely gutted the old hotel, leaving only the burned-out brick shell still standing.

In the aftermath of the fire, the site here on Main Street was soon rebuilt, although on a much smaller scale. Instead of the grand four-story, 100-room hotel, its replacement was a far more modest two-story commercial block. This building has survived far longer than its predecessor, though, and it is still standing here, as shown in the present-day scene. It is one of a number of historic buildings that line the north side of Main Street in North Adams, and it is part of the Monument Square – Eagle Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

423-427 State Street, Springfield, Mass

The building at 423-427 State Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The scene in 2019:

It seems difficult to determine exactly when this building was constructed. City maps show buildings on this lot as early as 1851, although this particular building clearly does not date that far back, at least not in its current form. This property was sold at auction in 1890, and the classified ad for it described the building as a “Good two-tenement brick house, 12 rooms, also a small barn.” The current building seems much larger than just two units with 12 rooms total, so it was likely either built shortly after this sale, or significantly expanded. Either way, it had largely assumed its present appearance by 1892, as it is visible in the background of a photo taken of the neighboring Olivet Church. At the time, though, the building had a three-story porch on the right side, and there was no storefront here on the ground floor.

By this point, the building was owned by Frederick B. Taylor, a merchant who sold building materials such as doors, windows, blinds, and paint in his shop on Market Street. It does not seem clear as to how many apartments were in this building, but the 1900 census shows at least two different families living here, and contemporary classified ads suggest that there were least two other units that were vacant at the time of the census. Of the two tenants listed on the census, one was Dr. Delia L. Chapin, a physician who lived here and also had her medical practice in the building. She was 45 years old at the time, and lived with her younger sister Sarah, who worked as a nurse. The other tenant was Louisa E. Madison, a 48-year-old African-American woman who worked as a laundress. She lived here with her two teenaged sons, Walter and Lawrence.

The first photo was taken almost 40 years later in the late 1930s, and by then the porch on the right side had been removed, and two storefronts were added to the ground floor. The business on the left was the tailor shop of Joseph D’Aversa, and the one on the right was a shoe repair shop owned by Saverio Gozzi. During the 1940 census, there were at least four different families living on the upper floors, and they paid between $22 and $33 per month in rent. These residents held a variety of jobs, including a maintenance man at an apartment complex, a salesman, a waitress, and a milling machine operator and an assemblyman at Indian Motocycle. They all worked full-time, and their wages ranged from $480 per year for the waitress, to $1,200 per year for the salesman.

More than 80 years after the first photo was taken, this building is still standing. According to city records, it currently has five apartment units, and on the ground floor it currently houses a barbershop. It has seen some changes over the years, including the removal of the early 20th century storefronts, and the brick exterior has been covered in stucco. Overall, though, it is still easily recognizable from the first photo, and it stands as one of several historic 19th century commercial buildings along this section of State Street.

429-435 State Street, Springfield, Mass

The building at 429-435 State Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

The scene in 2019:

This building was probably constructed sometime around the 1870s or 1880s, on the south side of State Street opposite the Springfield Armory. At the time, this block of State Street included a number of similar brick, three-story commercial buildings, and these generally had retail tenants on the ground floor, with apartments on the upper two floors. It is difficult to precisely date the building, but it was definitely here by the turn of the 29th century, when it appears in the city atlas as the property of Oscar F. Swift. At the time, it had at least three businesses on the ground floor, with grocer Charles H. Montgomery on the right, boot and shoe dealer Arthur O. Etienne in the middle, and locksmith Charles C. Spencer on the left.

The first photo was taken about 40 years later, in the late 1930s. By this point its tenants included launderer Charles Murphy on the right, barber Michael M. Sheehan in the middle, and antique dealer Harrison H. Bovee on the left. On the upper floors, the building had at least four families renting apartments, including Bovee, who lived here with his wife Agnes and their son Gerald. According to the 1940 census, they paid $17 per month in rent, and the other three families paid between $16 and $18.

The building was still standing here for at least a few decades after the first photo was taken, and perhaps its last retail tenant was DeMarco’s Wholesale Toy & Novelty, which was located here in the late 1950s and 1960s. It was ultimately demolished sometime around the 1970s, and the property subsequently became a parking lot adjacent to the now-vacant Kavanagh Furniture Company building, which stands on the left side of the scene in the present-day photo.

447-455 State Street, Springfield, Mass

The buildings at 447-455 State Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

These three commercial buildings were constructed around 1875 on the south side of State Street, a little west of Walnut Street and directly across from the Springfield Armory. As was typical for these types of buildings, they were built with retail space on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors, many of which were likely rented to Armory workers. The businesses here would have also served the workers across the street, and at the turn of the 20th century these included the tailor shop of Edward G Kopp, the billiards room and tobacco shop of Louis Herchowitz, and the grocery store of W. C. Belding Jr.

Of these establishments, Herchowitz’s shop had a remarkably long tenure here in this building. Along with his brothers Abraham and Henry, Louis immigrated to the United States from Lithuania as teenagers around 1890. They originally lived in New Haven, but came to Springfield in 1900, where they opened their store here in this building. For a time they rented space in the building on the left, but by 1920 they had purchased the property and were living above the store, along with their mother Bessie. In that year’s census, Abraham was listed as the owner of the shop, while Louis and Henry were operating a bowling alley around the corner on Walnut Street.

Although only partially visible on the far left side of the scene, Abraham Herchowitz was still running the tobacco shop here when the first photo was taken in the late 1930s. However, by this point the other two storefronts had become the Armory Auto Supply. The storefront on the right side had apparently been converted into a garage, and there was a Socony gas pump in front of the building. A variety of signs indicated that they offered brake service, motor tune-ups, and lubrication, along with advertising for Prestone antifreeze and Fisk tires. The business had been here since the mid-1920s, and throughout this time it was owned by Peter J. Gray.

Both the tobacco shop and auto store were here for many years after the first photo was taken. Abraham Herchowitz continued to run his store here until his death in 1959 at the age of 84, and Peter Gray died a year later, after suffering a heart attack here in front of the building. Since then, the storefronts have had a variety of tenants, and in 1999 the upper floors of the building on the right were damaged by a fire, as shown by the smoke marks above two of the windows. Otherwise, though, the buildings look much the same as they did when the first photo was taken, aside from alterations to the ground floor, and they stand as some of the oldest surviving commercial buildings on State Street.