Mount Vernon Street, Boston

Looking west on Mount Vernon Street from near the corner of Walnut Street in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, around 1860. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The scene in 2021:

For more than two centuries, Beacon Hill has been one of the most desirable residential neighborhoods in Boston. During the colonial period, this area was primarily hilly pastureland on the outskirts of town, but in 1798 it became the site of the Massachusetts State House, which still stands at the southeastern corner of the neighborhood. Residential development soon followed, consisting largely of brick, Federal-style row houses. Over the years, many prominent people have lived here on Beacon Hill, and it remains a remarkably well-preserved early 19th century neighborhood.

These two photos show the view looking west on Mount Vernon Street from the corner of Walnut Street, near the crest of the hill. Nearly all of the buildings from the first photo are still standing more than 160 years later, with the exception of the one on the far right, which was demolished around 1905-1910 in order to build the current Tudor Revival-style building. Aside from this one, the other houses on the right side of the street in this scene all date back to the first half of the 19th century. The two closest to the foreground, just past the Tudor-style building, were both built in the 1830s, and the both feature a bowed front façade, which is a distinctive feature on many Beacon Hill homes.

On the left side of the street, the most distinctive houses are the two brownstone homes in the foreground at 40 and 42 Mount Vernon Street. These were among the first houses in the neighborhood to be built of brownstone rather than brick, and they were both designed by architect George Minot Dexter. Both were built for prosperous merchant Augustus Hemenway, who lived in the house at the corner, at 40 Mount Vernon Street. He was still living here when the first photo was taken around 1860, and both houses remained in his family until the early 20th century.

Just past these houses are three comparatively modest brick rowhouses, which were built around 1825, and further in the distance are three single-story buildings. These are probably the oldest buildings in this scene, dating back to 1804 when they were built as carriage houses for homes on nearby Chestnut Street. Despite their small size and humble origins, all three have survived to the present day, and have since been converted into residences.

Overall, with the exception of the present-day cars and paved roads, very little has changed in this scene since the first photo was taken. This is generally true throughout much of the neighborhood, and because of this level of preservation, Beacon Hill was designated as a National Historic Landmark district in 1962.

Bigelow Chapel, Watertown, Mass (2)

The Bigelow Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The chapel in 2021:

These two photos show a closer view of the Bigelow Chapel, which was featured in the previous post. The Gothic Revival-style chapel was originally built in 1846, and it was designed by noted architect Gridley J. F. Bryant, along with one of the founders of Mount Auburn Cemetery, Dr. Jacob Bigelow. However, while the design was sound, the construction work was shoddy, including the use of poor-quality stone. As a result, the chapel was in danger of collapse within less than a decade, and had to be deconstructed and rebuilt.

This work was completed in 1856, and the first photo was taken around a decade or two later. The building would continue to be used as the cemetery’s chapel until 1898, when a larger one was built near the entrance to the cemetery. The old chapel then became the first crematorium in the state, and over the years the interior was renovated several times, although the exterior has remained well-preserved in its original appearance.

In 1936, the old chapel was named in honor of Dr. Bigelow, and in 1970 it was expanded with a new wing, which now houses the crematorium. The newer chapel, now named the Story Chapel, remains the primary chapel here at Mount Auburn, although the Bigelow Chapel is still used as a meeting space for a variety of events.

Bigelow Chapel, Watertown, Mass

The Bigelow Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2021:

As explained in an earlier post, Mount Auburn Cemetery was established in 1831 as an alternative to the small, overcrowded colonial-era burial grounds in the center of Boston. By contrast, Mount Auburn cemetery was to feature winding paths, careful landscaping, and other features that made it not only a quiet final resting place for the dead, but also a pleasant place for the living to visit.

One of the leading figures in creating and subsequently managing the cemetery was Dr. Jacob Bigelow, a physician from Boston. He was involved in the cemetery throughout its early history, including the process of designing and building a chapel here in the cemetery. Working with noted architect Gridley J. F. Bryant, Dr. Bigelow helped to design the chapel. It featured a Gothic Revival design, which was particularly popular for churches and public buildings during this period, and it was completed in 1846.

However, problems soon emerged with the chapel. The contractors had submitted a bid of $19,623 for the project, but they evidently discovered, partway through construction, that this was too low. As a result, they hired less reputable subcontractors to do some of the work, with predictable results. The most significant problem was with the stonework. They used many poor-quality stones, and many of these were not cut to the proper dimensions, which allowed water to enter between the stones. Repeated freeze-thaw cycles in the winter months soon resulted in cracks in the stones, which threatened the structural integrity of the chapel.

To fix the problem, the building had to be demolished and reconstructed, with new stones to replace the defective ones. The work was completed in 1856, resulting in a building that looked essentially the same as the original one. The first photo was probably taken within a decade or two after this, showing a large gathering in front of the main entrance to the chapel.  It would remain in use as the cemetery’s chapel until 1898, when a larger one, which was later named the Story Chapel, opened at the main entrance to the cemetery.

The older chapel, which was formally named in honor of Jacob Bigelow in 1936, then became a crematorium. It was the first of its kind in the state, and is first cremation was in 1900. Since then, the interior has been significantly renovated several times, and the building was expanded with an addition in 1970. This wing now houses the crematorium, and the old chapel continues to be used as a meeting space for various events. Overall, despite these many changes, the view of the chapel from this angle has remained largely unchanged since the first photo was taken, and it stands as an excellent example of Gothic Revival architecture.

Nathaniel Bowditch Statue, Watertown, Mass

The Nathaniel Bowditch statue in Mount Auburn Cemetery, around the 1860s or 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The scene in 2022:

Mount Auburn Cemetery is the final resting place for many prominent figures from the Boston area during the 19th century. Among them is Nathaniel Bowditch, who is commemorated by this life-sized statue. It does not actually mark his gravesite, as he is buried elsewhere in the cemetery, but it has long been a distinctive landmark here at Mount Auburn.

Nathaniel Bowditch was born in Salem in 1773. His formal education ended early, and as a teenager he apprenticed as a bookkeeper with a ship chandler. However, throughout this time he continued his studies on his own, eventually teaching himself calculus, French, and Latin. By the time he was in his 20s, Bowditch was one of the leading mathematicians and astronomers in the country, with a particular focus on improving maritime navigation. In 1802, he published the American Practical Navigator. This book quickly became an invaluable resource for sailors, and it remains in print today, more than 200 years later.

Bowditch died in 1838, and he was buried in the newly-established Mount Auburn Cemetery. His grave would be marked by a large brownstone monument, but within weeks of his death the prominent individuals of Boston and Salem were already planning their own memorial to Bowditch. As Alexander Young described in an 1838 eulogy for Bowditch,

[T]he public gratitude is raising an appropriate monument to his memory, at Mount Auburn, expressive of the simple grandeur of his genius and fame, which will arrest the attention of every traveler to that sacred and beautiful retreat of the dead, and enkindle his love of excellence, while he pauses to contemplate the profound philosopher, the christian philanthropist, the man of pure and illustrious virtue.

Sculptor Robert Ball Hughes received the commission for this project. Born and educated in Britain, Hughes had subsequently emigrated to America, where he eventually settled in Boston. He completed the model of the statue in 1843, but it was not until 1847 that the bronze statue was cast. This work was done in the foundry of Gooding & Gavett in Boston, and it was said to have been the first life-size bronze statue to be cast in the United States.

The statue was installed here at Mount Auburn on May 22, 1847, with contemporary newspapers providing glowing reviews of the monument. Writing two days later, the Boston Daily Evening Transcript provided the following description:

The bronze statue of Dr. Bowditch, just finished by Ball Hughes, is indeed a chef d’œuvre of art, and we congratulate the Committee and Directors of Mount Auburn for the admirable situation they have chosen for it. It was safely placed on the pedestal previously prepared for it on Saturday afternoon, and as we looked on it and it reflected back the rays of that sun which is to rise and set on it for centuries, were happy in thinking that “Time, the great destroyer,” cannot impair and will but add new beauty to it.

Another description, which was printed a few days later in the Congregational Journal of Concord, New Hampshire, it provided more details about the process of making the statue:

A bronze statue of the late Dr. Nathaniel Bowditch, (whose “Practical Navigator” has bothered so many college students, and saved so many ships and sailors) has just been cast by Messrs. Goodin & Gavett, of this city…. The work commenced about eight months ago, and has been prosecuted at odd hours of the day, and partly during the hours of night, so as not to interfere with the regular business of the manufacturers, whose chief occupation is the making of lamps. But two or three of the workmen in their employ, have been let into the knowledge of the method adopted in casting this statue. The entire execution of the work is worthy of all praise, and reflects the highest honor upon the mechanical skill and taste of all the operatives engaged in it. The weight of the statue is twenty-five hundred pounds. The metal is composed of one part of tin, and seven parts of copper from the mines of Lake Superior, and it somewhat harder than gun metal. It improves by exposure to atmospheric action. It was cast in two pieces and afterwards fused together.

The article then goes on to describe the design of the statue:

The statue is hollow and is in an easy sitting posture, adorned with graceful drapery,—a large book held in the right hand,—a celestial globe, quadrant, compass, and other emblems of the philosopher and the man of mathematical science are admirably arranged, so as to give the while a natural appearance. The effect upon the mind of the beholder is in the highest degree pleasing, and one almost involuntarily gives utterance to his feelings of admiration as he examines this beautiful ,and enduring work of art which is intended as a monument to one of the greatest scholars and one of the best and most useful men that America ever produced.

However, despite the confident assertions by these articles that the statue would be immune to “Time, the great destroyer,” and that it would only improve when exposed to the elements, this proved to not be the case. Just six years later, in 1853, the statue was already deteriorating. Dr. Jacob Bigelow, one of the cemetery trustees, was part of a committee to repair the statue, and an article in the Boston Recorder described his findings

Dr. J. Bigelow…submitted a report in which he says that he has examined the said statue, with the assistance of competent mechanics, that he finds the whole in a bad and almost worthless state, being apparently made of base metal and full of holes, which were concealed by cement in the original casting, but are now open, not only to disfiguring the statue, but admitting the rain, which, by freezing in Winter, has caused several cracks from six to nine inches in length; that the statue is now in process of destruction, and is not worth any more expensive repair than a coat of putty and paint, which may keep it together a few years longer.

As it turned out, the statue would last for a few more decades. But, by the 1880s it had deteriorated to the point where it had to be re-cast. This work was done in Paris, and the new statue was reinstalled here in 1887. The first photo is not dated, but it is from a stereocard that was likely published in the late 1860s or 1870s. If that is the case, then it would show the original statue, before it was re-cast.

Since then, not much has changed in this scene. The statue remains a major landmark in the cemetery, and the cemetery retains the same well-landscaped, park-like setting that its founders had envisioned nearly 200 years ago. The re-cast statue has weathered much better than the original, and in 2011 it underwent a major restoration and cleaning, returning it to its original appearance when it was first installed here.

Slater Mill, Pawtucket, Rhode Island (2)

The view looking upstream on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, around the 1860s or 1870s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2021:

As explained in more detail in the previous post, Slater Mill is often regarded as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America. It was built by Samuel Slater, an English-born textile manufacturer who secretly emigrated to the United States in 1789, bringing Britain’s industrial secrets with him. Upon arrival in New York, he soon made contact with Providence businessman Moses Brown, who was searching for someone to construct British-style water frames for spinning yarn. Slater subsequently came to Pawtucket, where he worked with several local craftsmen to produce a working water-powered spinning machine.

Slater then formed a partnership with Moses Brown’s son Obadiah Brown and son-in-law William Almy. They soon outgrew their original facility, so in 1792 they constructed a wood-frame dam across the Blackstone River, shown here in the center of these two photos. Then, a year later they opened their new mill, which was two stories high and measured 40 feet by 26 feet. It would later be significantly expanded over the years, but the original 1793 section is still there. Viewed from this angle, it is in the central part of the building, directly behind the large tree in on the left side of the present-day photo.

The original mill was small compared to the massive textile factories that would soon appear alongside major rivers throughout New England, and its operations were fairly limited, but it marked an important shift in manufacturing in the United States as the first large-scale cotton mill in the country. And, despite its initial small size, it soon expanded. The first addition came in 1801, with a large wing on the north side of the building, on the left side of this scene. This was followed by a wing on the south side in the late 1810s, and then a stair tower and cupola on the west side around 1830.

In the meantime, Samuel Slater remained a partner here throughout much of the early 19th century, but he also built a number of mills of his own, in part because of conflicts with Moses Brown and William Almy here at the original mill. He finally sold his interest in the company in 1829, when an economic downturn forced him to liquidate some of his assets in order to pay his debts.

This building would continue to be operated as a cotton mill throughout most of the 19th century. It was expanded with more additions during this time, and it also housed a variety of other tenants involved in different industries. The first photo shows the building around the 1860s or 1870s, standing alongside a number of other mills that had been built along the Blackstone River by this point.

Cotton production continued here until 1895, and the mill was subsequently used for other industrial purposes into the early 20th century. It was steadily deteriorating, but in 1923 it was acquired by the Old Slater Mill Association. Over the next few years, this organization restored the building to its 1835 appearance, including the removal of the later additions. Most of the surrounding buildings were also demolished, in order to create a small park around the old mill. Only the 1810 Oziel Wilkinson mill was spared, and it still stands just out of view on the left side of this scene.

Today, both the historic Slater Mill and the original dam across the river are still here. The mill was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966, and it is now a part of the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park. Slater Mill is the centerpiece of this multi-site park, and it is joined here by the Wilkinson mill and also the Sylvanus Brown House, which was moved here from a different location in the mid-20th century.

Catskill Mountain House, Catskill, New York (2)

The Catskill Mountain House, around the 1860s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The hotel around 1902. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

As explained in more detail in the previous post, the Catskill Mountain House was the first major mountaintop hotel in the United States, along with being arguably the country’s first summer resort hotel. It was perched atop a scenic overlook along the Catskill Escarpment, where visitors could enjoy expansive views of the Hudson River Valley and the surrounding landscape. The hotel benefited from its proximity to New York City and other cities in the northeast, and throughout the 19th century it was a popular destination for the upper classes in American society.

The original section of the building, located behind the columns on the left side of the piazza, opened in 1824. However, the hotel was steadily expanded over the years until, by the 1860s, it had several large wings on the north side and a smaller wing on the south side. The first photo was taken sometime around the 1860s, showing this southern wing in the foreground. By the 1870s, though, this wing was significantly expanded to the rear of the building, as shown in the 1902 photo.

The Mountain House was still prosperous when this second photo was taken, but this would soon begin to change. In part, this was because of changing ways in which Americans traveled. The Catskills had benefitted from being located adjacent to a major transportation corridor, but the introduction of the automobile greatly expanded the places that Americans could visit on vacation. Aging hotels like the Mountain House had difficulty competing in this new environment, and the 1920s and 1930s were a period of steady decline. It eventually closed its doors for the last time after the 1942 season, and it stood here vacant and deteriorating for the next two decades.

The iconic piazza here on the east side of the hotel was badly damaged by a hurricane in 1950, and several years later most of the wings were dismantled for architectural salvage, in the hopes of using that income to restore the original portion of the building. However, these rehabilitation plans never materialized, and the property was eventually acquired by the state in 1962. With no interest in restoring the building, and recognizing the danger that the ruins posed to trespassers, the state deliberately burned it on January 25, 1963. Today, the site of the hotel is an open field, but visitors here can still enjoy the same expansive views that drew thousands of visitors up here to the Mountain House throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.