Chester W. Chapin House, Springfield, Mass

The Chester W. Chapin House at 149 Chestnut Street, just south of Bridge Street, around 1893. Image from Sketches of the old inhabitants and other citizens of old Springfield (1893).

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The scene in 2016:

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One of Springfield’s most prominent residents of the 19th century was Chester W. Chapin, a businessman and politician who lived here in this home on Chestnut Street for nearly 40 years. Chapin was born in Ludlow, Massachusetts in 1798, and was the youngest of seven children. The family soon relocated to Chicopee, at the time still part of Springfield, where his father died in 1806, just 10 days before Chester’s eighth birthday. As a young adult, he worked for $1.50 a day, building foundations for the cotton mills in Chicopee, and he later took a job as a clerk for his brother Erastus, who owned the old Parsons Tavern in Springfield.

Chapin soon went into business for himself, and in the early 1820s he opened a store in Chicopee. From here, he went on to make a series of  business investments, starting around 1826 when he purchased an interest in the Hartford to Brattleboro stagecoach line. His portfolio expanded in 1831 when he purchased a steamboat line from Springfield to Hartford, and along with this he also owned large interests in several other steamboat companies.

Stagecoaches and steamboats were soon to become largely obsolete, though, and in 1844 Chapin wisely sold his investments and purchased the Hartford & New Haven Railroad. In 1850, he became president of the Connectict River Railroad, which had just been completed from Springfield north to the Vermont border. With these two railroads, he controlled largely the same transportation corridor that had once been served by his stagecoaches and steamboats, but his most significant role as a railroad executive came in 1854, when he became president of the Western Railroad. Extending from Worcester to Albany, this line was later merged with the Boston and Worcester  Railroad in 1867 to form the Boston and Albany Railroad, and Chapin became the new company’s first president.

Aside from his railroad interests, Chapin founded the Agawam Bank in 1846, serving as its first president and later as a director. He was also a director of the New York Central Railroad, the Springfield Fire and Marine Insurance Company, Springfield Gas Light Company, Chapin Bank, Parsons Paper Company, and a number of other companies. By the 1860s, he was among the wealthiest men in the city, as seen in his 1865 income of $78,886, equivalent to over $1.2 million today. Only two other residents of the city, pistol manufacturers Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, had a greater income that year.

Chapin built this house on Chestnut Street in 1844, the same year that he started investing in railroads. Like most of the other mansions on the street in this era, its design was heavily influenced by the Greek Revival style, but it also shows elements of Italianate architecture, such as the overhanging eaves and the cupola, which would become more popular by the middle of the century. Because this area of Springfield was still sparsely developed, the house was on a large lot that extended behind it, almost all the way to Spring Street.

During the time that he lived in this house, Chapin also served one term in the US House of Representatives, from 1875 to 1877, before being defeated in his re-election bid. He was one of only two Democrats to represent Springfield in the House prior to the mid-20th century. For years, Western Massachusetts was a Republican stronghold, and no other Democrats would be elected to Congress from Springfield’s district until Foster Furcolo in 1949.

Chapin died in 1883 at the age of 84, and the house was owned by his family for the next 30 years. By the early 1900s, though, the property, with its large backyard, was valuable commercial real estate. It was demolished in 1913, and Winter Street was developed through the lot. Here along Chestnut Street, the Willys-Overland Block was built on the left side, and another brick commercial block was built on the right side, where a parking lot is located today.

Daniel L. Harris House, Springfield, Mass

The Daniel L. Harris House at the corner of Chestnut and Pearl Streets, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

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The scene in 2016:

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In the mid-19th century, Chestnut Street was Springfield’s most prestigious residential street. Running parallel to Main Street on a bluff overlooking downtown Springfield and the Connecticut River, it was lined with mansions of many prominent residents. Many of these homes were originally owned by members of the Dwight family, and this particular house, located at what would later become the corner of Pearl Street, was built in 1835 by William Dwight (1805-1880). He and his wife Eliza lived here with their seven sons, four of whom would go on to serve in the Civil War. Two, Wilder and Howard, died during the war, and another, General William Dwight, was badly wounded and left for dead after the Battle of Williamsburg. He survived, but was captured and spent time in a Confederate prison.

At some point before 1851, the house was moved slightly to the left of its original location in order to open Pearl Street through the property. At this point, the house was owned by Daniel L. Harris (1818-1879), a civil engineer who built railroads and bridges. He served as the president of the Connecticut River Railroad, and in 1859 he traveled to Russia as a consultant for the St. Petersburg and Moscow Railway. The following year, he served a term as mayor of Springfield, and at this point he was one of the wealthiest men in the rapidly-growing city. In 1866, the Springfield Republican published a list of the taxable income of residents from the previous year, and Harris had the ninth highest income, earning $24,117, or about $377,000 in 2016.

Harris lived here until his death in 1879, and the house remained in his family for nearly 50 more years. By the early 1920s, though, Chestnut Street was no longer the city’s preeminent neighborhood. Springfield’s commercial center had spread up the hill from Main Street, and one by one the 19th century mansions were replaced by 20th century development. Most of these homes disappeared during the 1920s, including the Harris house.

The land became the Apremont Triangle, a small park bounded by Chestnut, Pearl, and Bridge Streets, but the house itself was not completely lost to history. In 1923, it was dismantled and moved to Westerly, Rhode Island, where it was rebuilt to its original design. Today, it is still standing, although it is essentially unrecognizable in its current appearance because of a dramatic 1970 renovation that removed most of the second floor. This article on the Westerly Sun website provides photographs as well as more details about the building’s highly varied history.

Public Library, Worcester, Mass

The Worcester Public Library on Elm Street, around 1905-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

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Prior to the mid-19th century, public libraries were almost unheard of in the United States. However, by the late 1850s many cities were establishing their own libraries, including Worcester in 1859. It began with about 10,000 books, donated from the Worcester Lyceum and the private collection of Dr. John Green, and was originally housed on the third floor of a commercial block at the corner of Main and Foster Streets.

In 1862, the library moved into its first permanent home on Elm Street, the building on the right side of the first photo. In the following decades, though, the library’s collections outgrew this original space, and in 1891 it was expanded to the east with the massive addition on the left side of the photo. This addition was designed by Worcester architect Stephen Earle, with a Romanesque style design that bore no relation to the more Italianate-based style of the original building.

The Worcester Public Library remained here until 1964, when it moved to its current location on Salem Street. The century-old building here on Elm Street, along with its 1891 addition, were then demolished, and the site was redeveloped as a parking garage.

Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Mass

Mechanics Hall on Main Street in Worcester, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The building in 2016:

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Mechanics Hall is a concert hall and a prominent landmark in Worcester. It was built in 1857 by the city’s Mechanics Association, with prominent local architect Elbridge Boyden designing the Italianate structure. With a seating capacity of nearly 2,000, it was by far the largest public hall in the city during the second half of the 19th century, and it attracted many prominent speakers and performers.

In 1868, Mechanics Hall was a stop on Charles Dickens’s tour of the United States. He had previously visited Worcester in 1842, when he was still a young writer, but when he returned to America for his 1867-1868 tour he was an international celebrity. His tour featured sell-out crowds in venues across the northeast, and when he visited Boston there were even people who out overnight on the sidewalk to buy tickets. Here in Worcester, he probably had a similar reception, and in his March 23 performance at Mechanics Hall his audience heard him read A Christmas Carol and part of The Pickwick Papers.

Over the years, the concert hall has seen many other notable performers. It fell into decline in the mid-20th century, though, and was threatened with the possibility of demolition. All of the surrounding buildings from the first photo have since disappeared, but Mechanics Hall has survived. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and later in the decade it was restored to its former appearance. Today, the third-floor hall remains in use for a variety of events, including, appropriately enough, a 2012 reading of A Christmas Carol by Gerald Dickens, the great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens.

Main Street, Worcester, Mass

Looking north along Main Street from just south of Pleasant Street, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

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Taken just across Main Street from the previous post, this scene shows the buildings along the east side of Main Street, many of which are still standing some 110 years after the first photo was taken. Most prominent in this view is Harrington Corner, the four-story commercial block on the right side at the corner of Front Street. This Italianate brick building was designed by local architect Elbridge Boyden and completed in 1850, several years before his more famous Mechanics Hall was built a few locks away in the distance. When the first photo was taken, it had several businesses in the ground-level storefronts, including D.H. Eames Men’s & Boys’ Clothing, and Bemis & Co. Fine Shoes. The upper floors had professional offices, with signs showing offices for a stock broker, architect, and even Whittemore’s Dancing Academy on the top floor. Today, the building is somewhat altered, but is still standing as a prominent historic landmark in downtown Worcester.

Beyond Harrington Corner on the right side of the street, starting closest to the foreground in the first photo, is the Piper Block, the Richmond Block, and the Clark Block, all of which were built in the 1850s. Today, these buildings are still standing, but they were heavily altered in the second half of the 20th century with drastically different Main Street facades, leaving only the two upper floors of part of the Clark Block still recognizable from the first photo. Even further in the distance on the right side are several other historic buildings, including the 1871 Grout’s Block and the 1857 Mechanics Hall. The left side of the photo has seen more changes, but a few buildings are still standing, including the 1869 Rogers Building, in the foreground at the corner of Pleasant Street, and the 1897 State Mutual Building further in the distance.

Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut (2)

Looking north on Main Street from State Street in Hartford, on January 30, 1904. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

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Main Street in 2016:

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These photos were taken from nearly the same spot as the ones in the previous post, just looking a little further to the left. This view shows the commercial development along the east side of Main Street north of State Street, including the mid-19th century Exchange Block on the right. Beyond it, there are several other buildings from around the same time period, all of which have long since been demolished. The site of these buildings has since been redeveloped into State House Square, which now stands on the right side of the photo.

Most of the other buildings from the first photo have since been demolished, but a few are still standing. The tall building in the center of the first photo was built only a few years earlier, in 1898, and was the home of the Sage-Allen department store. The company closed in 1994, and for almost a decade the building’s fate was in limbo, but its facade was ultimately preserved and incorporated into a new development.

Another prominent building, which has survived more or less intact from the first photo, is the Cheney Building at the corner of Temple Street, just beyond the Sage-Allen Building. This brownstone building was designed by prominent architect Henry Hobson Richardson and completed in 1876, and for many years it was the Brown-Thomson department store. A third department store, G. Fox, was also located along this section of Main Street. Their building, barely visible in the first photo beyond the Cheney Building, burned in 1917, and was replaced with their much larger flagship store, which is still standing in the distance of the 2016 photo.