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:

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 large number of historic photographs on Digital Commonwealth, which has been a great resource for this blog.

The greatest change in this scene, however, is the city around the library.  The section of the Back Bay 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.


The same scene in 2014:


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.


The same view in 2014:


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.


The same building in 2014:


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.

Flatiron Building, New York City

The view of the Flatiron Building around 1902. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The same scene in 2014:


Another view of the Flatiron Building, looking south with Broadway on the left and Fifth Avenue on the right.  Besides the Flatiron Building, a few other ones still exist from the 1902 photo, including the  building with the gold dome to the right, and the short, yellow brick building just beyond the Flatiron Building along Broadway.  Notice the horse-drawn cabs along the side of Broadway – this photo was taken from almost the same location as this one, except in the road instead of along the sidewalk.

Flatiron Building from Madison Square Park, New York City

View of the Flatiron Building around 1903. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The same view in 2014:


Built in 1902 on a triangular plot of land between Broadway and Fifth Avenue at Madison Square, the Flatiron Building remains one of New York’s most distinctive skyscraper.  At the time of its completion, it was one of the first skyscrapers outside of the downtown area, and the first north of 14th Street, which set the stage for subsequent skyscrapers that now dominate the midtown skyline.