Hotel Westminster, Boston

The Hotel Westminster, at the southeast corner of Copley Square, around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The site in 2015:

As innocuous as it looks, the building in the first photo was the source of much controversy in Boston at the turn of the 20th century.  During this time period, city skylines were starting to change thanks to the use of steel frames, which allowed buildings to rise higher than traditional masonry buildings could.  To many in Boston, though, this was a cause for concern, and in 1892 the city set height limits of 125 feet in the downtown area and 90 feet around Copley Square.

At least one developer, Westminster Chambers, decided to challenge the height restrictions, and a few years later he built the Hotel Westminster, which included an ornately decorated terra-cotta cornice that rose 96 feet above the square.  The dispute ended up in court, where both the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the United States Supreme Court ruled that the city had the power to set height restrictions in the city, and in 1903 he was forced to take down the offending cornice.  This is why the top of the building appears to be unfinished in the first photo, even though it was the building’s permanent appearance.

Boston’s fear of tall buildings carried well into the 20th century.  The 1930s photo in this post shows a skyline almost devoid of tall buildings, except for the Custom House Tower and the Post Office, both of which were, as federal buildings, immune to the city’s height restrictions.  The ban was eventually lifted, though, and in an ironic twist the building that had to be trimmed down in 1903 because it was too tall was demolished in the late 1960s to build the John Hancock Tower, which at 790 feet is the tallest building in New England and over eight times the original height of the old Westminster Hotel.

Hotel Lenox, Boston

The Hotel Lenox at the corner of Exeter and Boylston Streets in Boston, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The hotel in 2015:

By the early 20th century, the Copley Square area was home to a number of high-end hotels, including the Copley Square Hotel, Copley Plaza Hotel, Hotel Westminster, Hotel Vendome, and the Hotel Lenox, as seen here. The Hotel Lenox was built at the southwest corner of Boylston and Exeter Streets in 1900 by Lucius Boomer, the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. At the time, it was the tallest building in Boston, and it was also the last building on the south side of Boylston Street in the Back Bay. Beyond the hotel to the south and west was a large rail yard that was eventually redeveloped as the Prudential Center.

Over the years, the Hotel Lenox attracted a number of notable guests and residents. Famed opera singer Enrico Caruso stayed here during a 1907 visit to Boston, and in the decades that followed Babe Ruth was also a frequent guest. Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach lived here part-time for 13 years starting in 1955, during which time the Celtics won the NBA Finals nine times in ten seasons. Another resident during this time was actress Judy Garland, who lived here for three months in 1965.

The neighborhood around the Hotel Lenox has seen some dramatic changes over the years, but the hotel itself is still standing as one of the few surviving historic buildings on the south side of Boylston Street. It was extensively renovated and restored in the 1960s, and today it is still operated as a boutique hotel.

Simmons College, Boston

The Main College Building at Simmons College in Boston, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Simmons College in 2015:

Simmons College is an all-female college in Boston that was established in 1899, although the idea behind it came much earlier.  It started with John Simmons, a clothing manufacturer who had made his fortune through an innovative way of selling clothing.  At a time when most clothing was tailor-made to the individual person, Simmons began producing suits in standard sizes, which allowed customers to immediately wear their new clothing, instead of waiting days or weeks for it to come back from the tailor.  This simple change made him wealthy, but much of the work in his factories was done by uneducated women who could not find any better work.  So, upon his death in 1870, he left funding for the creation of a college that would provide women with a practical liberal arts education.

Unfortunately for the would-be college, most of the money that John Simmons left for it was in the form of property, which was destroyed in the Great Boston Fire of 1872.  Because of the inability of the insurance companies to cover all of the fire-related claims, it took another 30 years before the school finally held its first classes, in a leased building on St. Botolph Street.  Two years later, their first permanent building was completed here on the Fenway, next to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which had opened a year earlier.

Soon after the first photo was taken, the building was expanded on the far side in 1909, and 20 years later a second wing was added in the foreground, which can now be seen on the far left of the 2015 photo.  The college has since expanded, and there are now four other academic buildings on the campus, but the original section of the Main College Building remains very much the same as it did 110 years ago, although it is hard to tell with the trees blocking most of the view from here.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Fenway Court, which later became the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The museum in 2015:

In the late 1800s, Boston resident Isabella Stewart Gardner began acquiring a substantial art collection. Her husband, Jack Gardner, was a wealthy merchant, and the two began planning a museum to house their rapidly growing collection. He died in 1898, before any real work could be done, but Isabella soon began creating the museum, which she had built in the city’s Fenway neighborhood.  At the time, this area was recently-filled marshland with very little development, and the museum would be the first building in this section of Fenway.

By 1900, the construction was underway, with Willard T. Sears as the architect.  Sears’s most notable work was probably the New Old South Church, although architecturally speaking the museum probably could not have been more different.  While the church is an excellent example of Gothic Revival architecture, the museum was built in the style of a Venetian palace, with a red tile roof, tan brick walls, and a glass-enclosed courtyard in the center of the building.

The museum, which was originally named Fenway Court, opened in 1903, probably not long before the first photo was taken.  Isabella Stewart Gardner died in 1924, and the museum was subsequently named for her.  In her will, she left a $1 million endowment to the museum, along with instructions on how the museum was to be run.  These included significant stipulations about the collection not being substantially altered, but in keeping with her somewhat eccentric personality it also included items such as free admission for anyone named Isabella and discounted admission for anyone wearing Red Sox attire (to this day, Red Sox paraphernalia entitles visitors to a $2 discount off admission).

Today, the Gardner Museum is less than a quarter mile away from the much larger Museum of Fine Arts, which relocated there in 1909, only six years after the Gardner Museum opened.  Both museums have significant collections of prominent works, but but unfortunately the Gardner Museum is perhaps best known for what it doesn’t have in its collection.  In 1990, the museum was the scene of the most expensive art theft in history, when two men entered the building disguised as Boston police officers and stole 13 works, including The Concert by Vermeet and The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt, along with other works by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and Flinck.  Together, the stolen items had an estimated value of $500 million, and despite over 25 years of investigation and a $5 million reward, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been unable to recover the paintings.

Aside from the stolen paintings, though, the most significant change to the museum has been the addition of a new wing, which was completed in 2012.  It is barely visible on the far left beyond the trees, about 50 feet west of the original building, and it was intentionally designed to expand the size of the museum while at the same time preserving its historical integrity.  Otherwise, not much has changed between the two photos, except for the giant inflatable medallion hanging from the chimneys at the front of the building.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2)

Another view of the Museum of Fine Arts, taken around 1909-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The view in 2015:

It’s hard to tell, but the Museum of Fine Arts is still there; it is just mostly hidden by the trees in the median of Huntington Avenue. As mentioned in the previous post, this was the second home of the museum, after it outgrew its first permanent building at Copley Square.  Since it opened in 1909, this building has steadily been expanded, with the most recent addition opening in 2010.  From this angle, though, not much has changed.  Even the trolley tracks in the foreground are still there; most of Boston’s trolley lines were replaced with buses in the mid 1900s, but Huntington Avenue’s line is now the E Branch of the MBTA Green Line

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1)

The Museum of Fine Arts on Huntington Street in Boston, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The museum in 2015:

This view of the Museum of Fine Arts really hasn’t changed much in the past century, although it is hard to tell with all of the trees blocking the view in the second photo.  The Museum of Fine Arts had been established in 1870, and its first permanent home was opened at Copley Square in 1876.  The original building soon became too small for the museum’s growing collections, though, and in 1899 they purchased this plot of land on Huntington Avenue, a little over a mile west of Copley Square.

The new museum was designed by architect Guy Lowell, who deliberately designed it so that it could easily be expanded as the museum grew and as money became available.  Since then, it has grown substantially beyond its original 1909 footprint, and is now over 600,000 square feet in area.  One major addition was the West Wing, now the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, which was designed by noted architect I.M. Pei in 1981, and the most recent was in 2010, when the new Art of the Americas wing was completed.  It is now one of the largest art museums in the United States, with an internationally-significant collection of nearly half a million works from around the world.  Much of their collection has also been digitized, and it can be viewed online through their website.  At least one of their works, an early photograph by J.J. Hawes, is featured in this blog post about Arlington Street Church.