First Church in Boston

The First Church in Boston, at the corner of Berkeley and Marlborough Streets in Boston, around 1890-1910. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The church in 2015:

Boston’s First Church is among the oldest religious organizations in the United States, having been established in 1630 when John Winthrop and other early settlers first arrived in Boston. It became an influential congregation in New England, with leaders such as Charles Chauncy, who served as the pastor for 60 years from 1727 until his death in 1787. Theologically liberal, he opposed the Great Awakening revival that was led by one of his contemporaries, Jonathan Edwards of the church in Northampton. In part because of Chauncey’s influence, Unitarian theology began to take root in early 19th century Boston, and most of the city’s churches, including the First Church, shifted to Unitarianism.

The church had previously been located in downtown Boston, but by the 1860s many of Boston’s wealthier residents were moving west into the newly-filled Back Bay, and many of the long-established Protestant churches joined them, including the First Church. They moved into this Gothic style building at the corner of Berkeley and Marlborough Streets in 1868, and remained here for the next 100 years until it was gutted by a fire in 1968. The historic church had to be completely rebuilt, aside from the tower and the Berkeley Street facade, which had survived the fire and were incorporated into the new building.

50 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The house at the southwest corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Berkeley Street in Boston, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

The house in the first photo was built around 1868, and for many years it was the home of dry goods merchant John Hogg. He and his wife Emma lived her from when it was built until around 1892, and the subsequent owners, Frank and Mary Going, operated it as a hotel called The Holland. Like many other hotels of the era, it functioned more as a boarding house than as a place for transient visitors, and it continued in this capacity until 1925, when it and the neighboring 52 Commonwealth were demolished. They were replaced with the current building,which has 40 apartments that were converted into condominiums in 1985.

Although the house from the first photo is no longer standing, the other two buildings beyond it have survived. The church is the Central Congregational Church, which was built in 1867 and is now the Church of the Covenant. Beyond the church is the distinctive facade of the former Museum of Natural History building at the corner of Berkeley and Newbury Streets. Built in 1863, it is among the oldest public buildings in the Back Bay, and after many years as the home of Bonwit Teller, it is now a Restoration Hardware gallery.

For more information on the history of the house at 50 Commonwealth Ave, please see this post on the Back Bay Houses website.

29-33 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The houses at 29-33 Commonwealth Avenue, just west of Berkeley Street, sometime in the 1870s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The view in 2015:

These three townhouses at the northwestern corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Berkeley Street were built around 1863, on land that had been recently filled in the Back Bay. The neighborhood was designed from the start as a wealthy, exclusive area; Boston had feared that its upper class would flee the crowded city for the suburbs, so the Back Bay project was intended to encourage rich Bostonians to remain in the city.

When the first photo was taken, all three of these homes were owned by wealthy families. To the left, 33 Commonwealth Avenue was the home of Charles H. Dalton, a merchant and businessman who served as the president of several different businesses. He also served as the treasurer of MIT, which was just a couple blocks away at the time, and as president of Massachusetts General Hospital. The house in the middle was owned by another businessman, Joseph Sawyer, who owned textile factories. Both men died shortly after the turn of the 20th century, and eventually the two buildings were converted into apartments. It is hard to see both in the 2015 photo, but they are still standing today, and have since been combined to create a 7-unit condominium building.

Unlike its neighbors to the left, the house at 29 Commonwealth Avenue did not even survive to the end of the 19th century. It was originally the home of textile mill owner Joshua Stetson, and after his death the house was sold to Elizabeth Bowditch in 1870. She was the widow of Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch, a lawyer who was the son of noted mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch, and she lived here until her death in 1892. The house was then sold and demolished, and replaced with a 9 story, 26 unit apartment building in 1894. It was completed before there were any height restrictions in the Back Bay, so it is substantially taller than most other 19th century buildings in the area. In the 1920s, its apartments were converted into offices, and it has remained an office building ever since.

The church to the right just behind 29 Commonwealth Avenue is the First Church of Boston. It was built in 1867 at the corner of Marlborough Street, and it was mostly destroyed in a fire in 1968. The steeple and parts of the facade were saved, though, and they were incorporated into the design of the current building.

For more information, visit the Back Bay Houses website, which has more details and photographs of 29 and 31-33 Commonwealth Avenue and the First Church in Boston.

Berkeley Building, Boston

The Berkeley Building at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley Streets in Boston, around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

Not to be confused with the old John Hancock Building a block away, which is also known as the Berkeley Building, this building was completed in 1905 and is an excellent surviving example of Beaux-Arts architecture in Boston.  It was designed by Stephen Codman and Constant-Désiré Despradelle; the latter was a noted architect and professor at MIT, which at the time was located diagonally across from here.  Over a century later, the building is still in good condition, with even the original 1905 storefronts still intact.

Also of note in the first photo is the group of rowhouses just to the right of the Berkeley Building. These were built in 1861 and were among the first houses to be built in the newly-filled Back Bay area.  Over time, Boylston Street became a major commercial center, and most of the original homes were demolished.  These ones survived into the early 20th century, but the first photo shows drastic changes on the ground level to create storefronts.  The one in the middle would be demolished soon after the first photo was taken, but the houses on either end are still standing today, although they are mostly hidden behind 20th century alterations.

Museum of Natural History, Boston

The Museum of Natural History building on Berkeley Street in Boston, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

This historic building on Berkeley Street is one of the oldest buildings in the Back Bay neighborhood.  It was constructed in 1863 on a block that was set aside for the Museum of Natural History and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Eventually, two MIT buildings would be built in this block between Berkeley and Clarendon Streets, the first of which was the 1866 Rogers Building.  The Rogers Building’s architecture matched the Museum of Natural History, and it can be clearly seen in the distance in the first photo.

MIT remained here until 1916, when they relocated to their much larger campus across the Charles River in Cambridge.  The Rogers Building, along with the neighboring Walker Memorial Building, were demolished in 1939 to build the New England Mutual Life Insurance Building, which is still standing in the distance in the 2015 photo.  The museum was located in this building until 1951, when it was renamed the Boston Museum of Science and moved to its present location on the Charles River.  After the museum left, it has been used by several different companies as a retail store, including Bonwit Teller and Louis Boston.  In 2013, the home furnishing company Restoration Hardware opened their Boston gallery in the building, which still remains well-preserved and relatively unchanged after over 150 years and a number of ownership changes.

Central Congregational Church, Boston

Central Congregational Church at the corner of Berkeley and Newbury in Boston, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The same building, now the Church of the Covenant, in 2015:


The church was built in 1867, one of the first in Boston’s then recently filled in Back Bay.  By the time the 1904 photo was taken, the Back Bay looked very much like it does today, albeit with fewer skyscrapers.  Still, though, many of the low-rise residential buildings from 1904 are still there, including a few visible in both of these photos.  At the time of its construction, the church was the tallest building in Boston, and retained its title until the construction of the Custom House Tower in 1915.