Dartmouth Street and Huntington Avenue, Boston

The northwest corner of Dartmouth Street and Huntington Avenue in Boston, in 1873. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

Today, Copley Square is a major focal point of the Back Bay neighborhood, but in 1873 it was still very much a work in progress. Although the Boston Public Library’s McKim Building would come to be a defining feature of the square, its completion was still more than 20 years away. The house in the first photo was the western extent of the Back Bay development at the time; beyond it in the distance are empty lots and marshland soon to be filled in for the project. Aside from this house, the only other building visible in the scene is the New Old South Church, which was under construction to the right.

The church is still standing today, but the house would not last very long here. By the late 1880s, it was demolished to build the main branch of Boston Public Library. This architecturally prominent building would serve as a predecessor to many other grand urban libraries in the country, and today it is as much a museum as it is a library, with significant collections of rare books, manuscripts, artwork, and photographs, including the 1873 photo featured here.

Hotel Westminster, Boston

The Hotel Westminster, at the southeast corner of Copley Square, around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The site in 2015:

As innocuous as it looks, the building in the first photo was the source of much controversy in Boston at the turn of the 20th century.  During this time period, city skylines were starting to change thanks to the use of steel frames, which allowed buildings to rise higher than traditional masonry buildings could.  To many in Boston, though, this was a cause for concern, and in 1892 the city set height limits of 125 feet in the downtown area and 90 feet around Copley Square.

At least one developer, Westminster Chambers, decided to challenge the height restrictions, and a few years later he built the Hotel Westminster, which included an ornately decorated terra-cotta cornice that rose 96 feet above the square.  The dispute ended up in court, where both the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the United States Supreme Court ruled that the city had the power to set height restrictions in the city, and in 1903 he was forced to take down the offending cornice.  This is why the top of the building appears to be unfinished in the first photo, even though it was the building’s permanent appearance.

Boston’s fear of tall buildings carried well into the 20th century.  The 1930s photo in this post shows a skyline almost devoid of tall buildings, except for the Custom House Tower and the Post Office, both of which were, as federal buildings, immune to the city’s height restrictions.  The ban was eventually lifted, though, and in an ironic twist the building that had to be trimmed down in 1903 because it was too tall was demolished in the late 1960s to build the John Hancock Tower, which at 790 feet is the tallest building in New England and over eight times the original height of the old Westminster Hotel.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The old Museum of Fine Arts building at Copley Square in Boston, probably sometime in the 1880s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The building around 1890-1901. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The location in 2015:

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts was established in 1870, and six years later it moved into this Gothic Revival building on the south side of Copley Square.  Because of the museum’s presence here, it was originally named Art Square, but in the 1880s it was renamed in honor of colonial Boston painter John Singleton Copley.  The museum has a substantial collection of his works, including portraits of prominent figures such as John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere.

In 1909, the museum relocated further down Huntington Avenue in the Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood, on a larger plot of land that allowed for more expansion as the museum grew.  Today’s museum is many times larger than the original Copley Square building, and it is among the most visited art museums in the world, attracting over a million visitors each year.  The old art museum was demolished soon after the museum moved, and in 1912 the Copley Plaza Hotel, which is still standing today, was built on the site.

Copley Plaza Hotel, Boston

The Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, sometime between 1912 and 1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The hotel in 2015:

These photos were taken from about the same spot as the ones in the previous post, just facing to the left of Huntington Avenue.  This view shows the Copley Plaza Hotel, which has had few exterior changes in the past century, and remains a prominent Boston hotel today.  This site was once home to the Museum of Fine Arts, before they relocated to their present site further down Huntington Avenue.  The hotel was completed in 1912, and since then has hosted a number of distinguished guests, including most U.S. presidents as well as many foreign dignitaries and heads of state.

Boston mayor John F. Fitzgerald presided over the opening ceremonies, five years before his grandson, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was born.  The hotel also has another, more tragic connection to the grandfather of a prominent national politician; in 1921, the grandfather of present Secretary of State John Kerry committed suicide in a bathroom here.  Less than 20 years later, another notable suicide occurred here when Cincinnati Reds catcher Willard Hershberger became the only Major League Baseball player to commit suicide during the baseball season, on August 3, 1940.  Normally the team’s backup catcher, he had to play full-time in the middle of a pennant race after the starting catcher was injured, but became distraught after blaming himself for several poor games, including a 4-3 loss to the Boston Bees the day before.  The Red would ultimately go on to win the World Series that year, in part out of a desire to honor Hershberger’s memory.

By the mid-1900s, the hotel had begun to decline, and it was rebranded as the Sheraton Plaza hotel, complete with a tacky neon sign on the roof.  For some time it was more of a budget hotel than the grand hotel that it had once been, but in 1972 it was purchased by John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company, the same company that was building the John Hancock Tower next door.  They restored the historic building, and today it is operated by Fairmont Hotels and Resorts as the Fairmont Copley Plaza.  More than a century after it opened, it is still one of the city’s premiere hotels, and probably its most recent notable visitor was President Obama, who gave a Labor Day speech here earlier this month.