School Street, Boston

Looking up School Street from Washington Street in Boston, around 1860. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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School Street in 2015:

School Street is only a couple hundred yards long, yet this narrow downtown street has been home to a number of historic sites. The entire street is part of the Freedom Trail, and notable sites along here include King’s Chapel at the Tremont Street end and the Old Corner Bookstore on the right, here at the Washington Street end. In between, opposite Province Street, were two generations of Boston City Hall buildings, built on the former site of the Boston Latin School. The street is named for this school, which was here from 1704 to 1748, and during that time educated future Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Robert Treat Paine. Another School Street landmark, which has long since been demolished, was the original Parker House hotel, which was built in 1855 and is barely visible in the distance on the left side, on the site of the present Omni Parker House. A couple notable guests who visited the hotel not long after the first photo was taken included John Wilkes Booth, who stayed here eight days before assassinating Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Dickens, who lived here for five months in 1867-1868 during his tour of the United States.

The School Street that Charles Dickens would have seen was a narrow, busy street, and today not much has changed in that regard. In fact, the 1860 scene was probably busier than it appears. There are no pedestrians visible, which was probably due to the photographer using a long shutter speed, but in all likelihood there were plenty of people walking around at the time. None of the buildings are still standing from the first photo, though, except for the barely-visible King’s Chapel in the distance and the Old Corner Bookstore on the far right. The original part of the bookstore was built in 1712, and it was expanded up School Street in 1828 with the construction of the two three-story brick buildings on the right.

Old City Hall, Boston

Johnson Hall, which served as a courthouse and later as City Hall, on School Street around 1855-1862. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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Boston’s old City Hall, which replaced Johnson Hall, as seen in 1865. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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Old City Hall in 2015:

This site on School Street has had two different City Hall buildings, as seen in the photos above, but the history here goes back even further.  From 1704 to 1748, Boston Latin School was located here, and during this time many of the Founding Fathers attended the school, including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Robert Treat Paine.  Years later, Charles Bulfinch designed a courthouse that was built here in 1810; this building, which is shown in the first photo, was used as both a county and federal courthouse in the early 19th century.  From 1841 until 1862, it was Boston’s City Hall, before being demolished and replaced with a newer, larger building.

The new City Hall was completed in 1865, and was one of the first examples of Second Empire architecture in the United States.  This French-inspired style would become very popular in the late 1860s and 1870s, especially in government buildings.  Boston’s old post office, which was built a decade later and just a few blocks away, shares many similar features.  On a much larger scale, the Old Executive Building next to the White House in Washington, DC also reflects the influence of Second Empire designs.

During its time as City Hall, this building saw the rapid growth in the city during the late 1800s and early 1900s.  When it was completed, the city had fewer than 200,000 people, but by the 1950s there were over 800,000, and the city government had long since outgrown this building.  The City Hall Annex, located behind this building on Court Street, was built in 1912 to accommodate more offices, but by the 1960s the city was looking to build a new City Hall.  The current building was completed in 1968, and since then the old building has been extensively renovated on the inside for commercial uses, but the exterior is essentially unchanged from 150 years ago.

Niles Building, Boston

The Niles Building at the corner of School Street and City Hall Avenue in Boston, in 1880. Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library.


The same scene in 2014:

When the first photo was taken, School Street was home to Boston’s City Hall, which is barely visible on the far left-hand side.  The building, which opened in 1865, is still there, although it no longer functions as the City Hall.  The buildings in the foreground of the 1880 photo, however, are long gone – the building in the present-day photo was built in 1915, so the older buildings were obviously demolished before then.  At least one other building does exist today from the original photo – the Old Corner Bookstore is seen in the distance on the extreme right of the photo.

School Street, Boston

The Second Universalist Church on School Street in Boston, taken in 1860. Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library.


The scene in 2015:


These two photos show some of the drastic changes on School Street in downtown Boston.  The church was demolished in 1872, and the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank building, which was built in 1858, was replaced with the current building in 1925.  The name of the bank is still visible on the building today, although the bank itself no longer exists – it was acquired by Citizens Bank in 1993.  None of the buildings from the first photo survive today, although there are a few very old buildings in the area today that are just outside the view of these photos, including the Old Corner Bookstore, at the end of School Street and just to the left, and the Old South Meeting House, which is to the right behind the buildings in the foreground.

Old Corner Bookstore, Boston

The Old Corner Bookstore in Boston, around 1865. Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library.


The building in 2014:


Once a meeting place for authors such as Longfellow, Emerson, Dickens, and Hawthorne, the Old Corner Bookstore is now a place to grab a burrito.  Present use aside, the building has remarkably survived over 300 years in downtown Boston.  Built in 1712 as an apothecary shop, it was later used as a bookstore in the 19th century, when the aforementioned authors were known to frequent it.  Today, it is a landmark along Boston’s Freedom Trail, and is one of the oldest buildings in Boston.

King’s Chapel, Boston

King’s Chapel in Boston, as seen between 1900 and 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.


King’s Chapel in March 2013:


Not much about the church itself has changed, although most of its surroundings have.  The King’s Chapel Burying Ground is still to the left, and the top of the old Boston City Hall is visible just above the roof of the church.  The church was built on the site of a previous, wooden church, which had been built in 1688.  When King’s Chapel was built in the early 1750s, it was literally built around it, and when it was completed, the 1688 church was dismantled and removed through the windows.