High Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking east on High Street, toward Main Street in Brattleboro, around 1894. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The scene in 2017:

The first photo portrays an idyllic small-town scene, with horse-drawn carriages traveling along a rutted dirt road that was lined with trees. Two elegant Queen Anne-style homes stand on the far right side of the photo, while the Brooks House, perhaps the town’s finest hotel of the era, is visible at the bottom of the hill, at the corner of Main Street. Further in the distance, on the other side of the Connecticut River, is Mount Wantastiquet, which rises to an elevation of 1,388 feet and forms a dramatic backdrop to downtown Brattleboro.

Today, nearly 125 years later, this scene has not significantly changed, although it has lost some of its picturesque charm from the first photo. High Street is now a major road, carring Vermont Route 9 through downtown Brattleboro, and the bottom of the hill has been developed with early 20th century commercial and apartment blocks, including the 1918 Manley Apartment Building on the left side. However, the Brooks House is still there, as are the two homes on the right, although their sloping front lawns have been replaced by a large concrete retaining wall. Across the street on the left side, the sidewalk is narrower and closer to the street than it was in the 1890s, but the granite blocks and steps are still there on the left side of the sidewalk.

Green Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking north on Green Street toward High Street in Brattleboro, around 1894. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The scene in 2017:

Downtown Brattleboro is located right along the Connecticut River, with Main Street running parallel to the the river. However, the topography quickly rises to the west of the river, and much of the downtown area is built into the side of a hill, as shown in this scene. When the first photo was taken, this area consisted primarily of modest, wood-frame houses, in contrast with the large brick commercial blocks that were located just a block to the east on Main Street. At the bottom of the hill is High Street, one of the main east-west roads in the town, and further in the distance the two steeples mark the location of Main Street. The one closer to the foreground is the First Baptist Church, which was completed in 1870, and the one further in the distance on the right is the Centre Congregational Church, which was built in 1842 and had its current steeple added in 1864.

The buildings on the right were demolished within about 15 years after the first photo was taken. They were replaced by the present-day building, which was completed around 1910. It was owned by the neighboring Hotel Brooks, and was used as an automobile repair and rental business, which was run by John and Robert Manley. The main entrance to the building was at the bottom of the hill on High Street, but there was a second entrance here on Green Street, on the far right side of the 2017 photo, which allowed direct access to the third floor. Known as the Brooks House Garage, this building was advertised as “the largest and most complete garage in Vermont,” and offered day and night repair work, tires, and “Cars to rent by the hour, day and week.” They were also agents for Stoddard-Dayton, Mitchell, Maxwell, and Ford car companies,  and the advertisement in the Automobile Blue Book promised that “Tourists Will Receive Special Attention.”

Today, the only identifiable feature from the first photo, aside from Green Street itself, is the First Baptist Church steeple, with its spire still rising above the roofline of the old Brooks House Garage. The Centre Congregational Church is also still there, although its steeple is no longer visible from this angle. Otherwise, this scene is completely changed from the first photo, and the two most visible buildings are the garage on the right and the Shriners Hall on the left, which was evidently built here sometime in the early 20th century, on the site of a house that had stood here when the first photo was taken.

Main Street from High Street, Brattleboro, Vermont (2)

Looking north on Main Street from the corner of High Street in Brattleboro, probably around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo is from an undated stereocard, and could have been taken anytime around 1865 to 1885. However, it may have been taken in the earlier end of that range, since the First Baptist Church is not visible on the left side of the photo. This church was completed in 1870, and its absence seems to suggest that the photo was taken before this year, although it is possible that it could be hidden by trees. Either way, this photo shows Main Street as it appeared in the second half of the 19th century, when Brattleboro was developing as a small but prosperous mill town in the southeastern corner of Vermont.

On the extreme right side of the first photo is the corner of the town hall, which was built in 1855 and stood here for nearly a century before its demolition in 1953. Further in the distance on the right is the Centre Congregational Church, which was initially built in 1816 on the town common. In 1842, the church was dismantled, moved, and reconstructed here on Main Street, where it originally featured a Greek Revival-style design that included a columned portico and a steeple above it. However, this steeple was destroyed in a windstorm in 1864, and was subsequently rebuilt with a new design that also eliminated the portico.

The first photo shows the 1864 steeple, possibly only a few years after it was completed. This steeple was damaged in a fire in 1929, but it was repaired and now looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken. Today, the church is the only identifiable photo from the first photo that still survives. The buildings on the left side of the present-day scene date back to around the late 1920s, replacing the old Jonathan Hunt House that once stood on this lot. On the other side of the street is the old W. T. Grant department store, which was built in the mid-1950s to replace the old town hall. Overall, this section of Main Street has undergone far more changes than other parts of downtown Brattleboro, but some of these buildings – including the two churches – are now contributing properties in the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Town Hall, Brattleboro, Vermont (2)

The town hall on Main Street in Brattleboro, seen from the corner of High Street in May 1937. Image taken by Arthur Rothstein, courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2017:

As mentioned in the previous post, the old Brattleboro town hall was built in 1855, and over the years it was used for town offices and town meetings, but it also housed the library, police department, post office, and county clerk’s office, along with several different commercial tenants. The meeting hall was also used for concerts and other performances, and in 1895 the building was expanded with the addition of an auditorium that was originally known as the opera house. The building hosted a number of notable speakers throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick Douglass, Horace Greeley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Mark Twain.

During the early 20th century, movies began to eclipse live performances in popularity, and by the 1920s the opera house in the town hall was converted into a movie theater, known as the Auditorium. The first photo, taken in 1937, shows the front entrance of the building, the the marquee advertising Night Must Fall, starring Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. At the time, the Auditorium was the only movie theater in town, following the a March 15, 1937 fire that destroyed the Princess Theatre on Elliot Street. However, it would soon face new competition from new, modern theaters. Later in 1937, the building next door on the right side of the photo was converted into the Paramount Theatre, and a year later the Latchis Theatre opened a little south of here on Main Street.

This new competition hurt the older Auditorium, which entered a steady decline in the following years. The building continued to be used as the town hall during this time, but in 1951 the town offices were moved to the old high school building, located just north of here on Main Street. The old town hall was mostly demolished two years later, and a W. T. Grant department store was built on the site. However, parts of the exterior brick walls of the town hall were left standing, and were incorporated into the new one-story building. Part of the old wall can be seen on the right side of the building in the present-day photo, with light-colored bricks that contrast with the darker bricks of the front part of the building.

Town Hall, Brattleboro, Vermont

The old town hall on Main Street in Brattleboro, around 1894. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The scene in 2017:

The Brattleboro town hall was built here on Main Street in 1855, and served a wide variety of roles during its 98 years of existence. Aside from the town offices, this building housed the police department, post office, county clerk’s office, and library, and its hall was used for town meetings, concerts, theatrical performances, and other public events. The town also rented space in the building to private tenants, and over the years these included a bookstore, a dry goods store, and lawyers’ offices. Another tenant was William Morris Hunt, a prominent artist who had lived across the street from here as a child in the 1820s and early 1830s. He subsequently spent many years in Europe, but returned to Brattleboro for about a year in 1856, living in his old boyhood home and renting studio space here in the town hall.

The first photo was taken around 1894, nearly 40 years after the building was completed. The town hall had not changed much at that point, but about a year later it underwent an extensive renovation and expansion, which added an 875-seat opera house to the building. Like the original meeting hall in the building, this opera house was used for a variety of live performances, but by the early 1920s it had been converted into a movie theater, known as the Auditorium. Over the next few decades, though, the theater steadily declined, especially as newer, purpose-built movie theaters opened in downtown Brattleboro. In 1937, the building just to the right of the town hall was converted into the Paramount Theatre, and a year later the Latchis Theatre opened a few blocks to the south.

In the meantime, the building remained in use as the town hall until the early 1950s. However, in 1951 a new high school building opened in the southern part of town, leaving the old downtown school building vacant. The school was then converted into town offices, and the old town hall was sold. It was mostly demolished in 1953, although some of the exterior walls were left standing and were incorporated into the W. T. Grant department store, which was built on this site. This store is now long gone, but the one-story building remains, and still has some of the original walls of the town hall.

Aside from these walls, the only other surviving feature from the first photo is the building on the far right. Built around 1850, this commercial block is distinctive for its Main Street facade, which is made of granite blocks. The building was substantially altered when it was converted into the Paramount Theatre in 1937, including a large addition to the rear, a flat roof to replace the original gabled roof, and metal panels that covered the granite exterior. The building was gutted by a fire in 1991, but it was subsequently restored and is still standing today. Now that it no longer has the metal panels or the theater marquee, it looks more like its original appearance than it did for most of the 20th century, and despite the many changes it is still recognizable from the first photo.

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Brattleboro, Vermont

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church on Main Street in Brattleboro, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

Throughout New England’s early history, Episcopalians were a religious minority, particularly in small, rural towns, where the Congregational church was the predominant religious organization. However, there were Episcopalians in the Brattleboro area as early as 1817, when a church was built in neighboring Guilford. Episcopalian services were apparently held here in Brattleboro on occasion, and the first regular church was established in 1836, although this only lasted for a few years. By the early 1850s, though, the town’s population increase, combined with an influx of affluent summer visitors, led to the establishment of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in 1853.

The parish’s first, permanent church building was completed in 1858, on a lot immediately to the north of the recently-constructed town hall. It is set back from the street, and the ivy and trees hide much of the building’s design in the first photo, but its appearance resembled a medieval English country church. It featured a blend of Gothic and Tudor elements, including a steep roof, a quatrefoil window below the main gable, and a half-timbered exterior with brick infill. Local tradition holds that it was the work of prominent architect and Brattleboro native Richard Morris Hunt, but there does not appear to be any documentation to support this. Instead, it was evidently based on the designs of Joseph Coleman Hart, a New York architect who was responsible for a number of Gothic-style churches during this period.

The church stood here for nearly a century, but by the early 1950s this Main Street site had become valuable commercial real estate. The mid-20th century saw a number of downtown redevelopment projects across the country, most of which involved the demolition of significant numbers of historic buildings. Here in Brattleboro, this included the 1953 demolition of the old town hall, which was located just to the right of St. Michael’s Church. The site of the church was also slated for redevelopment, but unlike the town hall, the old church was moved to a new location about a half mile north of here, at the corner of Putney Road and Bradley Avenue. A bank building now stands on the lot that the church once occupied, but the historic church is still standing at its new location, and remains in use as an active Episcopalian parish.