Court Street, Springfield, Mass

Court Street in Springfield, sometime before 1905. Photo from author’s collection.


Court Street in 2014:


I came across the first photo in a 3-for-$1 bin at an antique store, and despite the odd coloring it provides an interesting view along Court Street from around the turn of the last century.  It is an albumen print, mounted on thick paper, and evidently colorized after processing.  There are no identifying marks on the photo, and the only way I was able to figure out the location was because I recognized the old police station and City Hall as being in Springfield.  My guess is that it was probably taken sometime in the 1890s, but it could’ve been anytime before 1905, when the old City Hall burned down.

To the left of City Hall, in the foreground of the first photo, is the old police department headquarters, which was later demolished to make way for the Springfield Municipal Group.  The new City Hall, which was completed in 1913, is still there, on roughly the same spot that its predecessor stood in the first photo.  The site of the former police station is now the area between City Hall and Symphony Hall, where the campanile tower is.  In the background, One Financial Plaza building looms over City Hall, between City Hall Plaza and Main Street.  The only building in the present-day scene that would’ve even existed when the first photo was taken is the former Springfield Five Cents Savings Bank building at the corner of Main and Court Streets, although its Main Street facade has been altered beyond recognition.

Springfield Municipal Group, Springfield, Mass

The Springfield Municipal Group from across Court Square, probably around 1913.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The Municipal Group in 2014:


The first photo was taken shortly before the Springfield Municipal Group was completed, perhaps even on the same day as the first photo in this post.  In this photo, the buildings are still surrounded by a fence, and a sign for A.E. Stephens Co, the contractors, can be seen on a temporary shed on the right-hand side of the photo. In the ensuing 100 or so years in between the two photos, not much has changed in this scene.  City Hall, Symphony Hall, and Campanile tower are all still there, as is the Civil War monument and the Miles Morgan statue, which is barely visible in the distance in front of the bell tower.  One thing that has changed, though, is the way people get to City Hall.  In the first photo, a trolley can be seen on the far left, and no automobiles are visible anywhere in the scene.  Today, there are no trolleys to be found in Springfield, and instead Court Square is surrounded by cars, as seen in the 2014 photo.

Court Square, Springfield, Mass

Court Square in Springfield, around 1882. Photo from Springfield Illustrated (1882).


Court Square in 2014:


The 1882 photo clearly shows Springfield’s old City Hall, which burned down in 1905 and was replaced in 1913 by the present City Hall, Symphony Hall, and Campanile tower.  On the far left of the old photo is the former Hampden County Courthouse, which by 1882 was being used by the Odd Fellows.  Today, the only constant between the two photos is Court Square itself; none of the buildings seen in the 1882 view are still there.  Even the Miles Morgan statue hadn’t yet been brought to Court Square, although it would within a year or so.

Old City Hall, Springfield, Mass

The old City Hall building in Springfield, viewed from across Court Square, between 1865 and 1885. Photo courtesy of New York Public Library.


The scene in 2014:


Court Square hasn’t changed much in the past 130-150 years, but the buildings beyond it have.  The first photo shows the old City Hall building, which as mentioned in this post was built in 1855, shortly after Springfield was incorporated as a city, and burned in 1905, allegedly as a result of a monkey overturning a kerosene lamp.  I don’t know the circumstances surrounding a primate having access to open flames in City Hall, but that’s how the story goes.  The present City Hall was completed in 1913, and has managed to survive for over a century without any problems from arsonist apes.

Springfield Municipal Group, Springfield, Mass

The Springfield Municipal Group in Springfield, Mass., around 1913. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


The scene in 2014:


Springfield’s former City Hall burned down in 1905, allegedly after a monkey overturned a kerosene lamp.  The site remained vacant for a few years, as seen in this c.1908 photo, but by 1909 construction began on the Noe-Renaissance complex, which consisted of not just a new City Hall (located on the left-hand side), but also an auditorium, known as Symphony Hall, and 300 foot bell tower in between.  Construction was still ongoing in the first photo, as evidenced by the fencing around the building.  It was dedicated on December 8, 1913, probably soon after the photo was taken, with former president William Howard Taft presiding over the ceremonies. Taft had previously visited Springfield just a year and a half earlier, to campaign in an ultimately unsuccessful re-election effort.

When they opened 101 years ago, the buildings of the Municipal Group symbolized the prosperity of the city.  Today, its surroundings have changed, as has the rest of the city, but the three buildings are still there.  One of the major changes has been the skyline – the bell tower was the tallest in the city from the time of its construction until 1973.  This was due to a 1908 state law that limited Springfield’s buildings to under 125 feet in height – the height of the steeple of Old First Church.  It wasn’t until 1970 that the law was repealed, which is one of the reasons why Springfield has a comparatively smaller skyline than other major cities in New England.

Another major change is the Court Square extension, which opened not long before the first photo was taken.  It extended from the back of Old First Church all the way to the railroad tracks along the Connecticut River, and appears in the foreground of the first photo.  Today, not much is left of the western extension of the square; I-91 now passes over it, and East Columbus Avenue, seen in the foreground, now cuts diagonally through it.

Old City Hall, Springfield, Mass

Springfield’s old City Hall, sometime before 1905. Photo from Springfield Present and Prospective (1905).

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The view in 2023:


Although settled in 1636, Springfield wasn’t incorporated as a city until 1852. Four years later, the first city hall was built here, on the north side of Court Square. It was dedicated with much fanfare on January 1, 1856, and stood here for nearly 50 years. During this time, the city offices were housed on the first floor, with the police department in the basement and a 2,300-seat auditorium on the upper floor. The auditorium was used for a variety of events, including one that resulted in the destruction of the building. On January 6, 1905, a fire started in the auditorium, allegedly caused when a monkey overturned a kerosene lantern. Regardless of the cause, though, the building was a total loss, and eight years later the present-day Springfield Municipal Group was dedicated, with new City Hall, Symphony Hall, and campanile tower in between. Today, the only remnant of the old building is its bell, which is located on the corner just to the right of the current City Hall.