Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Fenway Court, which later became the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The museum in 2015:

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In the late 1800s, Boston resident Isabella Stewart Gardner began acquiring a substantial art collection. Her husband, Jack Gardner, was a wealthy merchant, and the two began planning a museum to house their rapidly growing collection. He died in 1898, before any real work could be done, but Isabella soon began creating the museum, which she had built in the city’s Fenway neighborhood.  At the time, this area was recently-filled marshland with very little development, and the museum would be the first building in this section of Fenway.

By 1900, the construction was underway, with Willard T. Sears as the architect.  Sears’s most notable work was probably the New Old South Church, although architecturally speaking the museum probably could not have been more different.  While the church is an excellent example of Gothic Revival architecture, the museum was built in the style of a Venetian palace, with a red tile roof, tan brick walls, and a glass-enclosed courtyard in the center of the building.

The museum, which was originally named Fenway Court, opened in 1903, probably not long before the first photo was taken.  Isabella Stewart Gardner died in 1924, and the museum was subsequently named for her.  In her will, she left a $1 million endowment to the museum, along with instructions on how the museum was to be run.  These included significant stipulations about the collection not being substantially altered, but in keeping with her somewhat eccentric personality it also included items such as free admission for anyone named Isabella and discounted admission for anyone wearing Red Sox attire (to this day, Red Sox paraphernalia entitles visitors to a $2 discount off admission).

Today, the Gardner Museum is less than a quarter mile away from the much larger Museum of Fine Arts, which relocated there in 1909, only six years after the Gardner Museum opened.  Both museums have significant collections of prominent works, but but unfortunately the Gardner Museum is perhaps best known for what it doesn’t have in its collection.  In 1990, the museum was the scene of the most expensive art theft in history, when two men entered the building disguised as Boston police officers and stole 13 works, including The Concert by Vermeet and The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt, along with other works by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and Flinck.  Together, the stolen items had an estimated value of $500 million, and despite over 25 years of investigation and a $5 million reward, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been unable to recover the paintings.

Aside from the stolen paintings, though, the most significant change to the museum has been the addition of a new wing, which was completed in 2012.  It is barely visible on the far left beyond the trees, about 50 feet west of the original building, and it was intentionally designed to expand the size of the museum while at the same time preserving its historical integrity.  Otherwise, not much has changed between the two photos, except for the giant inflatable medallion hanging from the chimneys at the front of the building.

Boston Public Library Entrance, Boston

The main entrance to the Boston Public Library on Dartmouth Street, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The library in 2015:

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These photos show the detail of the entrance to the Boston Public Library’s main branch at Copley Square.  The history of the library building is explained in more detail in this post, but it was completed in 1895 and served as a precursor to many similar libraries across the country in the early 20th century.  The main entrance reflects the building’s Renaissance Revival architecture, which includes a symmetrical design with arched doorways, as seen here.  Above the central arch is the head of Athena, which was carved by famed sculptors Domingo Mora and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and further up are three relief sculptures that were also carved by Saint-Gaudens.  The central one features the seal of the Boston Public Library, with a banner above it reading “Lux Omnium Civium,” or “The Light of the People.”  To the left is the seal of Massachusetts, and to the right is the seal of the city of Boston.

The building was designed by Charles McKim of the firm McKim, Mead & White, and it is named the McKim Building in honor of him.  Over 120 years after its completion, it has seen few changes, as the two photos show here.  It was expanded in 1972 to accommodate the library’s growing collections, but there were no major alterations to the original section, and it still Boston’s central library as well as a major architectural landmark in the city.

 

Boston Public Library, Boston

The Boston Public Library’s McKim Building at Copley Square in 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

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This style of Renaissance Revival architecture was common for public libraries in the United States in the early 20th century, but Charles Follen McKim’s design for the Boston Public Library was the first.  It was constructed between 1888 and 1895, and is one of the most architecturally significant library buildings in the country.  It set the stage for similar grand libraries in American cities, including the main branch of the New York Public Library, which opened just over a decade later. Like many of Boston’s other cultural institutions, the library was strategically located in the Back Bay neighborhood, which had gone from polluted tidal marsh to affluent residential neighborhood in less than 50 years. However, one of the challenges in constructing large buildings here was the high water table and the tendency of the filled-in ground to subside.  As a result, the 19th century Back Bay buildings are supported by wooden piles; the library alone has about 4,000  piles that were driven 25 to 31 feet into the ground in the 1880s.

Today, the McKim Building is well-preserved on both the exterior and interior.  The interior includes a grand staircase and the massive Bates Hall reading room, along with a central courtyard, all of which was, as the inscription reads, “dedicated to the advancement of learning.” The main branch of the Boston Public Library has since outgrown the original building, so in 1972 an addition was put on the back, expanding the building to include the entire city block between Dartmouth and Exeter Streets.  Named after its architect, Philip Johnson, this building houses the library’s circulating collections, leaving the original building for the library’s extensive research collections.  Many of these collections are also available online, including a massive collection of historic photographs on Flickr that has been a great resource for this blog.

The greatest change in this scene, however, is the city around the library.  The secion of the Back Bak to the north of Boylston Street has been largely preserved in its original Victorian appearance.  However, to the south of Boylston Street, as seen here, the area has become home to some of the city’s tallest buildings, including the Prudential Tower to the right, the second-tallest in New England after the nearby John Hancock Tower.  Probably the oldest building in the 2015 photo other than the library is the Lenox Hotel, barely visible on the far right beyond the library.  It was built in 1900, so it may have even been under construction when the first photo was taken.

Seeing New York City, at the Flatiron Building

New York tours at the Flatiron Building, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The same scene in 2014:

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New York City sightseeing tours are nothing new, although the vehicles in the 1904 photo hardly resemble the tour buses that now roam the streets of New York.  Taken along the Fifth Avenue side of the Flatiron Building, the 1904 vehicles advertise that tours start at the “Flat Iron Building,” even though the sign above the door of the building is marked with its then-official name, the Fuller Building.  The vehicles also state “Telephone Connection,” which I presume means that the tour offices have a telephone.  One would think that the number would also be provided, though, but perhaps back then all one needed to do was tell the operator to connect them with “Seeing New York.”  The tour buses also look incredibly dangerous – there are no seat belts or other safety equipment, and it’s a long way down if anyone falls off.  I don’t know what eventually became of the company, but the Flatiron Building is still there, as is the other building visible to the right.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, New York City

The view of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, looking east on 23rd Street in New York City, in 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The same view in 2014:

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Prior to the construction of the tower, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was headquartered in the 11-story building at the corner of Madison Avenue and 23rd Street.  It was built in 1893, and appears to dominate over its surroundings.  However, as seen here, it was soon dwarfed by the tower when it was completed in 1909.  It was demolished in the 1950s and replaced with the current, nondescript concrete and glass structure at the same location.

As an interesting historical note, the building in the 1900 photo has a banner on it that reads “Headquarters Republican National Committee,” and a huge banner over 23rd Street to promote the candidacy of William McKinley for president and Theodore Roosevelt for vice president.  They would go on to win the election in the fall, and a year later Roosevelt became president after McKinley’s assassination.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower, New York City

The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower, between 1909 and 1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The same building in 2014:

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Completed in 1909, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower was the tallest building in the world until the completion of the Woolworth Building in 1913.  It was the company’s headquarters until 2005, and the tower portion is now being converted into a hotel.  At the base of the tower in the first photo, to the right, is the original office building, which built in 1893 and replaced by the current one in the 1950s.