Chestnut Street from Sixth Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Looking east on Chestnut Street from the corner of Sixth Street in Philadelphia, in June 1851. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The first photo is a print made from a daguerreotype that was taken in June 1851, looking east along Chestnut Street from the corner of Sixth Street. The photo shows a mix of brick commercial buildings, mostly ranging from three to five stories in height. They stood directly opposite Independence Hall, which is just out of view on the right side of the scene. Based on their architectural style, the buildings with the sloped roofs were likely older, probably from the early 19th century, while the ones with flat roofs were likely from around the 1840s.

In the foreground of the first photo, on the left side of the scene, is Hart’s Building, a five-story building constructed only a few years earlier in 1848 by publisher Abraham Hart. This building housed a number of commercial tenants. By late 1851 these included, on the first floor, a hat store, a bookstore, a draper and tailor, a music dealer, a Venetian blind manufacturer, another tailor, a shaving saloon, a cigar store, and a musical instrument manufacturer. The second floor housed a billiard saloon, along with Sattler’s Cosmorama, which appears to have been an art gallery of some sort. On the upper floors, the building housed several different businesses involved in the publishing industry, including wood engraver William Gihon, bookbinder John F. Ducomb, Butler’s copper plate printing, and Mears’s Stereotype Foundry.

Further down Chestnut Street, just to the right of Hart’s Building, was the law book publishing firm of T. & J. W. Johnson. Beyond it was the three-story Eagle Hotel, followed by a four-story building occupied by bookseller J. W. Moore. His bookstore was located on the first floor, and other tenants of the building included a restaurant and a boarding house. The only other building with legible signs in the first photo is the five-story building in the center of the scene. It has a large sign atop it that reads “China Hall,” and it was occupied by William J. Kerr, who sold china and other imported goods.

This scene was dramatically altered only months after the first photo was taken. In the early morning hours of December 27, 1851, a fire broke out in Hart’s Building, in the third floor drying room of Butler’s copper plate printing offices. Firefighting efforts were hampered by below-zero temperatures, which froze some of the water sources. Because of this, plus the amount of flammable materials stored inside it, the entire building was soon engulfed, and firefighters began trying to save the surrounding buildings.

In the end, Hart’s Building was a total loss, and was insured for only $10,000 of the estimated $100,000 that it would cost to replace it. The neighboring book publishing building was also completely destroyed, at a cost of about $50,000, and the Eagle Hotel likewise suffered heavy damage. The building beyond the Eagle Hotel was only minimally damaged, but the fire also spread across Sixth Street and damaged or destroyed several other properties. There were even fears that the fire might spread across Chestnut Street to Independence Hall, but the famous landmark ultimately escaped damage.

Even worse than the property loss, though, was the loss of life from the fire. Contemporary newspaper articles give different reports on the death toll, but there appear to have been at least five fatalities. The early accounts mentioned two unidentified African Americans who were killed by falling debris, along with a police officer named Johnson who was also killed in the fire. As workers sifted through the debris, though, they uncovered the bodies of William H. Haly and William Baker. Haly, a lawyer and former state legislator, was probably the most notable victim of the fire. However, his body was burned to the point where it was indistinguishable from Baker’s body, so the two men were buried together in the same coffin.

A number of other people were badly injured in the fire, including at least three other police officers and a fireman. One of the officers, Thomas Grant, was pulled from the wreckage while on fire, and was described as having been “bruised in a shocking manner.” Newspaper accounts gave little hope for his recovery, but it seems unclear as to whether he ultimately succumbed to his injuries.

The damaged area was rebuilt soon after the fire, and for the next century this block of Chestnut Street continued to feature a mix of low-rise commercial buildings. However, this all changed in the mid-20th century, as part of an urban renewal project to create Independence Mall, a three-block park area with Independence Hall at its southern end. As part of this, all of the buildings between Fifth and Sixth Streets were demolished, from Chestnut Street up to Race Street, with the sole exception of the Free Quaker Meeting House on Arch Street. This included all of the buildings that stood in this scene, although it seems as though few, if any, of the buildings from the 1851 photo were still standing by that point anyway.

Today, the Independence Mall is part of the Independence National Historical Park, and it remains mostly open parkland, with a few modern buildings running along the Sixth Street side. Here at the corner of Sixth and Chestnut Streets, just out of view on the far left side of the scene, is the Liberty Bell Center, which houses the famous bell across the street from its original location at Independence Hall.

Library Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Library Hall, on Fifth Street near Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, in February 1859. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The Library Company of Philadelphia was established in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin as the first lending library in the present-day United States. At the time, free municipally-supported libraries were still more than a century in the future, but Franklin’s library functioned as a sort of quasi-public library, making books available to subscribing members. These types of subscription libraries would become common in America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the Library Company of Philadelphia served as a model for many of these.

During its early years, the library did not have a permanent home. Instead, it was successively located in several different rented spaces, including the second floor of Carpenters’ Hall, which was occupied by the library starting in 1773. However, the library wanted a building of its own, a move that Franklin himself encouraged. So, in 1789 the library solicited designs for a new building, stipulating that it should measure 70 feet by 48 feet, and be two stories in height. The winning entry came from a rather unlikely source in William Thornton, a physician who had no architectural training and had never before designed a building. This would not be the only such competition that he would win, though. Four years later, George Washington selected his design for the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

The new building, known as Library Hall, was built here on the east side of Fifth Street, a little south of Chestnut Street. This was an important location, as it was less than a block away from both Independence Hall, where the state legislature met, and Congress Hall, which would serve as the national capitol from 1790 to 1800. Construction began on Library Hall in 1789, and the cornerstone was laid on August 31. The stone featured an inscription written by Benjamin Franklin, who was still alive more than 50 years after he established the library. However, he would not live to see the building completed; he died on April 17, 1790, and the library moved into it around October. Two years later, the library added a marble statue of Franklin, which was installed in the niche above the front entrance.

The building’s completion occurred around the same time that the national government returned to Philadelphia, after a seven-year absence. The city would remain the capital for the next ten years, before the government moved to Washington. At the time, there was no Library of Congress, so the Library Company of Philadelphia served as the de facto national library for members of Congress during these formative years in the country’s history.

Also during this time, the library continued to expand its collections. In 1792 it absorbed the nearby Loganian Library, with its nearly 4,000 volumes. Although just completed, the new building here on Fifth Street was already too small, requiring a new wing to the rear that opened in 1794. This growth would continue into the 19th century, through a variety of bequests and purchases from private collections. By 1851, the library had around 60,000 volumes, making it the second-largest in the United States, behind only Harvard’s library.

As a result, the library was again in need of more space. A solution to this problem came in 1869, when Dr. James Rush left the library nearly $1 million in his will, for the purpose of constructing a new building. However, it came with stipulations, most significantly that it had to be located at the corner of Broad and Christian Streets in South Philadelphia. This was far removed from the city center, and from the homes of most of the library’s patrons, so the gift caused considerable controversy. By a very narrow margin, library members ultimately voted to accept it, and the building—known as the Ridgway Library—was completed there in 1878. Because of its remoteness, though, the building was used primarily for storage and for housing rare books.

Around the same time that the Ridgway Library was completed, the Library Company began constructing a new downtown building. With a more convenient, central location, this would serve primarily as a lending library, and its collection focused on modern works. It opened in 1880 at the corner of Juniper and Locust Streets, replacing this Fifth Street building as the Library Company’s downtown facility. The old building was then sold, and it was demolished in the late 1880s to make way for an addition to the adjacent Drexel Building.

The Drexel Building was demolished in the 1950s as part of the development of the Independence National Historical Park. This project involved demolishing entire blocks in the area adjacent to Independence Hall, leaving only the most historically-significant buildings as part of the park. Most of this cleared land then became open space, but here on Fifth Street the Drexel Building was replaced by a replica of the old Library Hall. This building was completed in 1959 as the home of the American Philosophical Society.

Today, there is little evidence of the changes that have occurred here since the first photo was taken in 1859. Despite being barely 60 years old, the new building has the appearance of being from the 18th century, and it fits in well with the nearby historic buildings. There are hardly any differences between its exterior and that of its predecessor, and it even has a replica of the Franklin statue in the niche above the door. In the meantime, the original statue is probably the only surviving object from the first photo. The marble is now badly weathered, but it is on display inside the current home of the Library Company of Philadelphia, at 1314 Locust Street.

Philadelphia Bourse, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Black Bear Tavern on South Fifth Street, seen looking south from near Market Street, in February 1859. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Collection.

The scene around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The first photo was taken in February 1859, showing the scene looking south on South 5th Street from near Market Street. In the foreground on the left is the Black Bear Inn, a four-story hotel that was built around 1816. The inn itself had been in operation since the 18th century, and it was originally located around the corner on Market Street before moving to this building. It was still in operation when the first photo was taken, and by this point the building had several other commercial tenants as indicated by the signs, including grocer Jeremiah Starr and wine and liquor dealers Schaffer & Montgomery.

Further down the street were several other early 19th century buildings. Among these was a group of rowhouses, visible to the right of the center of the photo with three dormer windows on the roof. The one furthest to the left, at 23 South 5th Street, was at the time the home of noted portrait artist Thomas Sully. Although born in England, Sully spent most of his life in Philadelphia, and he lived in this house for many years. During his long career he painted a number of prominent individuals, and he was responsible for the Seated Liberty coin design. Many years after his death, his work made another appearance on American money when his portrait of Andrew Jackson was incorporated into the design of the $20 bill.

The Black Bear Inn was ultimately demolished soon after the first photo was taken, and it was replaced by the Eastern Market, which opened here in November 1859. This building remained in use as a marketplace throughout the next few decades, but it was ultimately demolished in the early 1890s in order to construct the Philadelphia Bourse, which is shown here in both the second and third photos.

The Bourse was established in 1891 as a commodities exchange. Its founder, George E. Bartol, modeled it after the Bourse in Hamburg, Germany, and it was located in temporary quarters for several years while this building was under construction. The work was completed in 1895 after two years of construction, at a cost of about $2.4 million, equivalent to about $75 million today. It was designed by the noted Philadelphia architectural firm of G. W. & W. D. Hewitt, and it was one of the city’s first steel-frame skyscrapers.

When the building opened on October 1, 1895, its tenants included the Board of Trade, the Trades League, the Lumbermen’s Exchange, the Grocers and Importers Exchange, and the Hardware Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association. The Bourse soon became the commercial center of the city, and by the early 20th century it was also occupied by the Commercial Exchange, the Maritime Exchange, the Paint Manufacturers’ Club, and the Drug Exchange. Other tenants during this period included the Philadelphia offices of the Government Weather Bureau and the Navy’s Hydrographic Office, along with a variety of railroad and steamship agencies and other businesses.

In 1916, on the 25th anniversary of its establishment, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on the Bourse, in which it praised the effect that it has had on the city’s commerce, noting:

The Philadelphia Bourse is the only institution of its kind in the United States and in some of its features probably is better known outside of Philadelphia than by the people of this city. It is an application to Philadelphia of the European Bourse idea, a building in which merchants may meet to facilitate the transaction of business and which may house various commercial and business organizations, such as the Bourse du Commerce of Paris and the Bourses of Hamburg and Vienna. . . .

From a venture supported by farsighted and progressive business men in twenty-five years the Philadelphia Bourse has developed into an institution of national reputation. It has played a leading part in the development of the port and commercial life of this city and vicinity and within recent years it had taken an influential position in the commercial matters of the entire country.

The Bourse continued to function as a commodities exchange until the 1960s. Since then, it has been used for retail and commercial office space, and it now includes a food court on the ground floor. The building underwent a major $40 million renovation from 2016-2018, and today it remains well-preserved, with few exterior changes since the second photo was taken more than a century ago.

However, the Bourse is the only surviving building from the second photo. The buildings further in the distance were demolished a few years later to make room for the Lafayette Building, which was completed in 1907 and still stands at the corner of South 5th and Chestnut Streets. The building on the far left side in the foreground is also gone, as are all of the buildings on the opposite side of South 5th Street, which were demolished in the mid-20th century to create the Independence Mall.

Bellows Falls Stage House, Bellows Falls, Vermont

The Bellows Falls Stage House, at the northeast corner of Bridge Street and the Square in downtown Bellows Falls, around the 1840s or 1850s. Image courtesy of the Rockingham Free Public Library.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in a previous post, Bellows Falls was the site of the first bridge across the Connecticut River, at a spot just to the east of here, where the river passes through a narrow gorge. The bridge opened in 1785, and by the early 19th century the village occupied an important position along the major trade routes from Boston to Montreal and other points to the north. This led to several different hotels here in the center of the village, in order to serve the stagecoach traffic that passed through here.

Among these hotels was the Bellows Falls Stage House, shown here in the first photo at the corner of Bridge Street and the Square. It was constructed by Colonel Ethan B. Webb and Solomon Snow in 1816, and it was known as Webb’s Hotel. However, they sold it just four years later to John Robertson, and it became Robertson’s Hotel. It would see several more name and ownership changes in the first half of the 19th century, but it was most commonly known as the Stage House, because of its popularity as a stop on the stagecoach routes.

The hotel originally had two stories, but a third story was added in 1834 after Colonel Russell Hyde purchased the property. According to the 1907 book History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont, the first photo was taken around this time, but this is highly improbably, since daguerreotypes were not even invented until 1839. In all likelihood, it was probably taken sometime around the late 1840s or early 1850s. The same book also names the people who are sitting on the front porch in the photo, as identified by Colonel Hyde’s daughter. These identifications probably came many years after the photo was taken, and may or may not be accurate, but according to the book they are, from left to right, “Hon. William Henry, Judge Horace Baxter, William ‘Fred’ Hall, Col. N. T. Sheafe and the boy ‘Jimmie’ Mead.”

The last owner of the Stage House was Charles Towns, who purchased it in July 1859. He did not have it for very long, though, because it was destroyed in a fire on March 14, 1860. It began in a nearby drugstore, and it spread throughout much of the village center, burning a print shop, the post office, a lawyer’s office, and several stores, along with the hotel and its stables. It caused an estimated $40,000 in damage, about $1.1 million today, but there was evidently no loss of life in the fire.

Charles Towns later built a new, much larger hotel on this site. Originally known as the Towns Hotel, and later the Hotel Windham, it opened in 1873. However, it also suffered from a series of fires, burning in 1899, 1912, and 1932. After the last fire, the ruins were completely demolished. A new Hotel Windham was completed here in 1933, and it still stands here today. Although no longer in use as a hotel, it remains an important commercial block in the center of the village, and it is a contributing property in the Bellows Falls Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Main Street from Elliot Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking south on Main Street from Elliot Street in Brattleboro, around 1850-1851. Image from Picturesque Brattleboro (1894).

The scene in 2017:

Brattleboro was founded in 1753, as one of the earliest towns in Vermont. For the first century it saw only modest growth, but by the mid-1800s it had grown into a small but prosperous mill town. This was aided in part by the arrival of the railroad in 1849, and over the next few decades the town saw considerable growth, more than doubling its population between 1840 and 1880 and becoming an important town in the southwestern part of the state. This growth contrasted sharply with that of Vermont as a whole, which saw a population increase of less than 14 percent during this same period.

The first photo is among the earliest photographs of downtown Brattleboro, showing the town as it appeared around 1850 or 1851. Main Street began to acquire its current form around this time, and many of the present-day brick commercial blocks were built during this period. The first photo shows a mix of the older wood-frame buildings, with a few newly-built brick buildings. These included the building on the far right, which was apparently the rear portion of the 1849 Revere House, and the Van Doorn Block on the far left, which was built in 1850 and is still standing today.

Today, more than 160 years later, the Van Doorn block is the only surviving building from the first photo. Some of the buildings in the distance at the bottom of the hill were destroyed in the 1869 Whetstone Brook Flood, while others – including the Revere House – were destroyed in fires. However, almost all of the major changes in this scene occurred more than a hundred years ago, and by the early 20th century this scene had largely taken on its present appearance. Starting on the far left is the yellow brick American Building, which was constructed in 1906. Just beyond it to the right is the 1900 Ullery Block, which hides most of the Van Doorn Block from this angle. The other side of the street includes the 1877 Pentland Block on the far right, the large 1915 Barber Block just beyond it, and the 1936 Art Deco-style Latchis Hotel, which is barely visible near the center of the photo. Today, all of these buildings are now part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Lost New England Goes West: Dupont Street, San Francisco

Looking north on Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) in San Francisco, sometime in the 1850s. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

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Grant Avenue in 2015:

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This street has been at the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood since the first photo was taken over 150 years ago. Originally named Dupont Street, it soon became a red light district, notorious for its opium dens, brothels, and gang violence. In the background of the first photo is Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, which opened in 1854 and, as a warning to would-be patrons of the neighborhood, has an inscription below the clock that reads, “Son, Observe the Time and Fly from Evil.”

The 1906 earthquake destroyed the entire street along with the rest of Chinatown, leaving only the burned-out shell of the church still standing from this scene. The disaster gave the city the opportunity to clean up the seedy establishments in the area, and to reflect this change the street was even renamed, to Grant Avenue. The buildings in the foreground of the 2015 scene were probably built in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and the old church is partially visible in the distance. The street is still a popular destination in San Francisco, though not for the same reasons in the 19th century; instead of brothels and opium dens, Grant Avenue of today is lined with Chinese restaurants and shops that sell gifts, souvenirs, and jewelry.