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.

Fire Department Headquarters, Springfield, Mass

Springfield Fire Department Headquarters on Court Street, around 1900-1913. Photo from Progressive Springfield, Massachusetts (1913).


The scene just over 100 years later, in 2014:


This fire station was built on about the same spot that Parsons Tavern used to occupy for most of the 1800s.  It must have been completed shortly before the first photo was taken, because the caption in Progressive Springfield, Massachusetts describes it as the “new” headquarters, and describes how:

“No city has a more up-to-date fire department and headquarters station than Springfield. The new station on Court Street cost $110,000. Its apparatus is all motor-driven and has modern conveniences for the force. The top floor houses the new fire alarm system installed at an expense of $30,000.  The flying squadron shown above consists of autos for Chief and Assistant Chief, the Electric Aerial Ladder Truck, Combination Electric Wagon and Hose and Water Tower with Gasoline Tractor.  The city expends about $240,000 a year on this department.”

Today, the location of this fire station is now an on-ramp for Interstate 91; the 2014 photo was taken from the parking garage directly underneath the highway.  The city’s two tallest buildings, Monarch Place and Tower Square, can both be seen in the photo, along with Symphony Hall, on the right-hand side.  It’s probably the only building visible that existed when the first photo was taken.  The Springfield Fire Department now has its headquarters on Worthington Street, although I don’t know that they still have any “Combination Electric Wagons” on the force.

Parsons Tavern, Springfield, Mass

Parsons Tavern on Court Street in Springfield, sometime in the late 1800s. Photo from Our County and Its People: A History of Hampden County, Massachusetts (1902).


The scene in 2023:

When Springfield was settled by European colonists in 1636, it was at a strategic location along several different transportation routes.  As the years went by, the modes of transportation changed, but Springfield remained an important crossroads.  By the late 1700s, there were three major routes from New York to Boston, the northernmost of which went through Boston.  Although a less direct route than the other two, the Springfield route reportedly offered the best taverns, and in Springfield the best was Parsons Tavern.

The tavern was originally built on what is today the southeastern corner of Court Square, and was operated by Zenas Parsons.  During its time in operation, it hosted at least two presidents, the first of whom was George Washington in October, 1789.  Washington was on his way to Boston, and made a stop in Springfield to inspect the Armory.  He stayed overnight at Parsons Tavern, and wrote in his diary that “A Colo. Worthington, Colo. Williams (Adjutant General of the State of Massachusetts), Genl. Shepherd, Mr. Lyman and many other Gentleman sat an hour or two with me in the evening at Parson’s Tavern where I lodged and which is a good House.”  Years later, in 1817, President James Monroe also visited the tavern, not long before it was moved in order to make way for Court Square.

The tavern was relocated to Court Street around 1820, and it was eventually divided into a four-family apartment building. The top photo shows it in that location, probably sometime in the late 19th century. It stood here until 1897, when it was demolished. Today, the site of the building is a parking lot adjacent to the G.A.R. Hall, across East Columbus Avenue from Symphony Hall.

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.