Commonwealth Avenue, Boston (1)

Looking west along the north side of Commonwealth Avenue from the Boston Public Garden, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

From the start, the Back Bay was designed to be an upscale residential neighborhood, and these houses on the north side of Commonwealth Avenue typically commanded the highest prices. Here, the residents enjoyed the view of the broad Commonwealth Avenue Mall, and their southern-facing front windows gave them plenty of light. The work of filling the land and building homes began here at Arlington Street in the early 1860s, and as the years went on the development moved westward. By the early 1870s, Commonwealth Avenue reached as far as Exeter Street, four blocks from here. Most of the houses in the foreground of the first photo were built in the early to mid 1860s, when the block between Arlington and Berkeley Streets was developed. They represent the typical residential design for the Back Bay, with 3 to 4 story Victorian brownstones lining the streets that had to conform to strict building codes at the time.

Nearly 150 years after the first photo was taken, the strict building codes have paid off. The neighborhood retains its original 19th century residential appearance, and many of the houses from the first photo are still standing today. The trees, which were just saplings in the 1870s, now hide the view of most of the houses from here, but a few of the buildings are visible to the right, and are easily recognizable from the first photo.There have been some newer houses, like the light-colored one just to the right of the lamppost, but these have generally been in keeping with the original appearance of the neighborhood.

Hotel Vendome, Boston

The Hotel Vendome, at the corner of Dartmouth Street and Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

The Hotel Vendome was part of the original development of the Back Bay, a tidal marsh that was filled in over the course of about 30 years in the 1800s. By the start of the 1870s, the landfill project had reached Dartmouth Street, and the Hotel Vendome was built here along Commonwealth Avenue. The building was much smaller at the time, consisting of just the five-story section at the corner. It was designed by architect William G. Preston, and it has many characteristics of the Second Empire style that was popular at the time. Like many of the city’s 19th century hotels, it functioned more as an apartment building, catering mainly to long-term residents rather than visitors, and it included five rowhouses further to the right, down Commonwealth Avenue, which offered additional options for residents.

The building was sold in 1879, and in 1881 it was substantially expanded with an addition along Commonwealth Avenue where the rowhouses used to be. Architecturally, the addition was similar but not identical to the original building, and it was one story taller, giving the building an asymmetrical appearance from the Commonwealth Avenue side. Following this, there were few significant changes to the building, except for the addition of a penthouse on top of the original section.

Four small fires damaged the building in the 1960s, but the Hotel Vendome is probably best known for the tragic June 17, 1972 fire, which started while the building was mostly vacant and undergoing renovations. The fire was successfully brought under control, but then the southeast corner (far left in the photos) suddenly collapsed, killing nine firemen in what remains the deadliest firefighting accident in Boston Fire Department history.

Following the fire, the renovations were eventually completed, and the collapsed section of the building was rebuilt. The former hotel is now a mix of condominiums, offices, and stores, and although it has seen drastic changes from fire and renovations, especially on the upper floors, it is still recognizable from the first photo over 110 years ago.

Holmbrook, Monson, Mass

The Holmbrook mansion on Main Street in Monson, probably around 1900-1920. Image courtesy of the Monson Free Library.

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The house in 2015:


The restored house in 2018:

This beautiful Second Empire style mansion was built around 1870 for local factory owner Cyrus W. Holmes.  He named it Holmbrook, and he lived here until his death in 1891 at the age of 89.  Curiously, his son died only six days later, and the house eventually came into the ownership of Adelaide Wingate, who donated the house to Monson Academy in 1947 to use as a dormitory.  The school built tennis courts and a ski slope in the backyard, but in 1971 Monson Academy merged with Wilbraham Academy and moved to their Wilbraham campus.

The house was damaged by the June 1, 2011 tornado, which destroyed two former Monson Academy buildings across the street from here.  When the second photo was taken, the house was still undergoing repairs more than four years later.  A 1988 Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System report described it as “undoubtedly Monson’s best example of the Second Empire style,” and even after the tornado it still retains much of its original Victorian detail, and it will hopefully soon be fully restored.

2018 update: The exterior of the house has since been restored, and I have added an updated photo to reflect these changes.

Collins Inn, Wilbraham, Mass

Collins Inn at the corner of Boston Road and Chapel Street in North Wilbraham, probably in the 1890s or early 1900s.  Image courtesy of the Wilbraham Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

The historic center of the town of Wilbraham has always been along Main Street in the town’s approximate geographic center.  When it was first settled in the 1700s, this was the ideal place for farming, but as changes in industrialization, transportation, and communication came about in the 1800s, the village of North Wilbraham gained prominence.  Its location on the banks of the Chicopee River and along the main road from Springfield to Boston made this area an important spot for industry and transportation.  In 1839, the Boston & Albany Railroad opened through here, with the North Wilbraham railroad station being located right across the street from here.

The building in the foreground of the first photo was the Collins Inn, which was opened in 1874 by Warren L. Collins.  It sat directly across Boston Road from the railroad station, and across Chapel Street from the Hollister Block, which at the time was used as a drugstore and post office.  In addition to the inn, Collins also operated a livery stable on the site, and ran a stagecoach line from here to the center of Wilbraham, about two miles away.

Aside from transportation, though, the Collins inn also offered Wilbraham another connection to the outside world – the telephone.  The telephone was invented in 1876, and within just four years a line was established from here to the center Wilbraham, at a cost of $30 per year for subscribers.  However, a few years later the cost increased to $100 per year (equivalent to over $2,400 today), and the service was discontinued because of a lack of families willing to pay.  When phone service was re-established in 1904, the Collins Inn became the town’s telephone exchange office for the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company, serving 21 customers in Wilbraham.

The telephone exchange remained here until 1914, when it moved to a different building across the street.  Around the same time, the Collins Inn closed, although the building itself remained standing for some time.  The 1964 History of Wilbraham book indicates that it was still standing at the time, although today its former location is now a parking lot.

William H. Haile House, Springfield, Mass

The William H. Haile House at 41 Mattoon Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The houses in 2015:

This house on Mattoon Street was one of the first to be built on Mattoon Street; it was completed in 1871, and the first owner was William H. Haile, a businessman who had just moved to Springfield from Hinsdale, New Hampshire. Haile’s father had served as governor of New Hampshire from 1857 to 1859, and the younger Haile continued the family’s political legacy.  He represented Hinsdale in the New Hampshire state legislature for three years, and after he came to Springfield he served a year as the city’s mayor, in 1881.  From 1882 to 1883, he served in the Massachusetts Senate, and from 1890 to 1892 he was the Lieutenant Governor.  He was the Republican candidate for governor in 1892, but he lost a close race to incumbent governor William E. Russell.  I don’t know long Haile lived in this house, though, because by the early 1880s he was living in a larger house a few blocks away at 49 Chestnut Street, where the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts is located today.

35 Mattoon Street, Springfield, Mass

The rowhouse at 35 Mattoon Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The house in 2015:

Mattoon Street is a remarkable street in downtown Springfield, with beautifully restored Victorian rowhouses that make it seem more like Boston’s Back Bay than a neighborhood in Springfield.  This particular house is near the western end of the street, and it was built in 1872 along with its four identical neighbors to the right.  They were designed by architects E.C. Gardner and Jason Perkins, who later designed other Springfield buildings such as the Technical High School on nearby Elliot Street.  The original owners of all five houses were B.F. Farrar and Jesse F. Tapley, who sold them to individual owners after they were completed.  Today, the houses on the street, including this one, have been beautifully restored, and the neighborhood is part of the Quadrangle-Mattoon Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.