Fifth Avenue from 33rd Street, New York City

Looking north on Fifth Avenue from 33rd Street, around 1905-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Fifth Avenue in 2016:

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Notice the extremely wide sidewalks in the first photo. Fifth Avenue was originally designed to have a 40-foot roadway with 30-foot sidewalks on either side, but this changed in 1908, shortly after the first photo was taken. To accommodate the growing automobile traffic on the street, it was widened to 55 feet, and the wide sidewalks were trimmed down. Despite over a century of change, though, there are a remarkable number of buildings that have survived from the first photo, especially on the left side. When the first photo was taken, this section of Fifth Avenue had just recently become a major commercial area, and as a result most of the buildings were new at the time.

Perhaps most surprising from the first photo is that the Knickerbocker Trust Company Building – the short building with columns in the center of the photo – is technically still standing, although it has long since been altered way beyond recognition. It was built in 1904 at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street as the headquarters of one of the nation’s largest banks, but soon after the bank inadvertently played a major role in causing the Panic of 1907. This banking crisis occurred around the time that the first photo was taken, after the Knickerbocker president, Charles T. Barney, attempted to corner the market in copper using the bank’s money. The plan failed, and in the days before FDIC-insured deposits, account holders rushed to the bank to withdraw their money as other banks announced that they would no longer accept checks from Knickerbocker accounts. Ultimately, the bank survived, although Barney was forced to resign and he committed suicide soon after. As for the building, it was significantly changed in 1921 with the addition of ten stories on top of it, and in 1958 the facade was altered to its current appearance, removing any exterior elements from the original structure.

Despite the number of surviving buildings from the first photo, there are several notable ones that have since been demolished. In the distance, at the corner of 37th Street, is the steeple of Brick Presbyterian Church, which was built in 1858 when this area was still largely residential, and it stood there until 1937. Probably the most famous building from the first photo, though, is the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, on the left side in between 33rd and 34th Streets. This massive hotel is only partially visible in this view, and it stood here until 1929, when it was demolished to build the Empire State Building, which now stands on the site.

Trinity Episcopal Church, Lenox, Mass

The Trinity Episcopal Church in Lenox, as seen from the Walker Street side of the building around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The church in 2015:

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When this church was completed in 1888, the town of Lenox was the summer home for many wealthy families in the northeast, who built massive estates known as Berkshire Cottages. Many of these summer residents provided the funding to build this church, at the corner of Kemble and Walker Streets, just to the southeast of the center of town. It was designed by Charles Follen McKim, the noted architect from the firm McKim, Mead & White. Just a few years earlier, McKim had designed St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in nearby Stockbridge, and both churches reflect the popular Romanesque style of the late 1800s.

This church replaced the town’s original Episcopalian church, which was built in 1818 on Church Street. It is still standing today, although it was converted into apartments and a store after the new building was completed. Construction on this church began in 1885, with former president Chester Alan Arthur attending the laying of the cornerstone. Arthur died the following year, so he never lived to see its completion, but a Tiffany stained glass window was added in memory of him in 1888.

The building to the far left is the parish house, which was built separately in 1896, as a gift from John E. Parsons, a New York lawyer who spent his summers at his “Stoneover” estate in Lenox. Three years later, the church itself was expanded to include a choir room and sacristy, but since the first photo was taken there have not been many changes. In 1996, the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Stockbridge, Mass

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, at the corner of Main and Pine Streets in Stockbridge, around 1905-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The church in 2015:

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Not much has changed for this historic church in downtown Stockbridge. It was built in 1884 in memory of Susan Ridley Sedgwick Butler, a native of Stockbridge. After her death, her husband Charles E. Butler provided the funds to build the church, and hired architect Charles Follen McKim to design it. It was McKim’s first church, and it reflects the style of Henry Hobson Richardson, who he had once worked for in the early 1870s. Several years after this church, he designed one of his most significant works, the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building at Copley Square. Today, the church is still an active congregation, and it is part of the Main Street Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Symphony Hall, Boston

Symphony Hall, at the corner of Huntington Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

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Boston’s Symphony Hall is one of many prominent concert halls in this section of Boston, and it has been the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops ever since it opened in 1900.  It was designed by McKim, Mead and White, the same architectural firm that built the Boston Public Library at Copley Square a few years earlier.  Like the library, it is an excellent example of Renaissance Revival architecture, but Symphony Hall is perhaps best known not for its visual appeal, but rather its acoustic properties.  Harvard professor and physicist Wallace Clement Sabine used his knowledge of acoustics to design the auditorium, making it the world’s first concert hall to be scientifically designed in such a way.  Because of this, it is still regarded as one of the best concert halls in the world.

Over the years, this section of the Back Bay has seen some dramatic changes, but Symphony Hall is essentially the same, both on the exterior and interior.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Pops continue to perform here, along with the Handel and Hadyn Society.  With a seating capacity of over 2,000, it has also been used for a number of other civil purposes, ranging from political rallies and inaugurations to business conventions and fashion shows.  In addition, many renowned authors have given lectures here; the building’s National Register of Historic Places registration form identifies many visiting writers from the early 20th century, including Edward Everett Hale, Julia Ward Howe, Booker T. Washington, G.K. Chesterton, Robert Frost, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Boston Public Library Entrance, Boston

The main entrance to the Boston Public Library on Dartmouth Street, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The library in 2015:

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These photos show the detail of the entrance to the Boston Public Library’s main branch at Copley Square.  The history of the library building is explained in more detail in this post, but it was completed in 1895 and served as a precursor to many similar libraries across the country in the early 20th century.  The main entrance reflects the building’s Renaissance Revival architecture, which includes a symmetrical design with arched doorways, as seen here.  Above the central arch is the head of Athena, which was carved by famed sculptors Domingo Mora and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and further up are three relief sculptures that were also carved by Saint-Gaudens.  The central one features the seal of the Boston Public Library, with a banner above it reading “Lux Omnium Civium,” or “The Light of the People.”  To the left is the seal of Massachusetts, and to the right is the seal of the city of Boston.

The building was designed by Charles McKim of the firm McKim, Mead & White, and it is named the McKim Building in honor of him.  Over 120 years after its completion, it has seen few changes, as the two photos show here.  It was expanded in 1972 to accommodate the library’s growing collections, but there were no major alterations to the original section, and it still Boston’s central library as well as a major architectural landmark in the city.

 

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The Boston Public Library’s McKim Building at Copley Square in 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

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This style of Renaissance Revival architecture was common for public libraries in the United States in the early 20th century, but Charles Follen McKim’s design for the Boston Public Library was the first.  It was constructed between 1888 and 1895, and is one of the most architecturally significant library buildings in the country.  It set the stage for similar grand libraries in American cities, including the main branch of the New York Public Library, which opened just over a decade later. Like many of Boston’s other cultural institutions, the library was strategically located in the Back Bay neighborhood, which had gone from polluted tidal marsh to affluent residential neighborhood in less than 50 years. However, one of the challenges in constructing large buildings here was the high water table and the tendency of the filled-in ground to subside.  As a result, the 19th century Back Bay buildings are supported by wooden piles; the library alone has about 4,000  piles that were driven 25 to 31 feet into the ground in the 1880s.

Today, the McKim Building is well-preserved on both the exterior and interior.  The interior includes a grand staircase and the massive Bates Hall reading room, along with a central courtyard, all of which was, as the inscription reads, “dedicated to the advancement of learning.” The main branch of the Boston Public Library has since outgrown the original building, so in 1972 an addition was put on the back, expanding the building to include the entire city block between Dartmouth and Exeter Streets.  Named after its architect, Philip Johnson, this building houses the library’s circulating collections, leaving the original building for the library’s extensive research collections.  Many of these collections are also available online, including a massive collection of historic photographs on Flickr that has been a great resource for this blog.

The greatest change in this scene, however, is the city around the library.  The secion of the Back Bak to the north of Boylston Street has been largely preserved in its original Victorian appearance.  However, to the south of Boylston Street, as seen here, the area has become home to some of the city’s tallest buildings, including the Prudential Tower to the right, the second-tallest in New England after the nearby John Hancock Tower.  Probably the oldest building in the 2015 photo other than the library is the Lenox Hotel, barely visible on the far right beyond the library.  It was built in 1900, so it may have even been under construction when the first photo was taken.