Westminster Street from State Street, Springfield, Mass

Looking north on Westminster Street from State Street in Springfield, probably around 1900-1920. Image courtesy of Jim Boone.

The scene in 2017:

About 50 years before the first photo was taken, this section of State Street was only sparsely settled, with very little development to the east of the Armory. This site here, on the north side of State Street, was the approximate location of a farmhouse that was owned by Josiah W. Flagg, who owned 22 acres of land behind the house. Located about a mile and a half from Main Street, and separated from it by a steep hill, this part of the city was hardly desirable real estate, but this began to change in 1870, when the Springfield Street Railway began operation, with a horse-drawn trolley line extending as far as Oak Street.

That same year, dry goods merchant John McKnight entered the real estate business, and purchased the Flagg farm. Along with his brother William, he subdivided the property and laid out four streets between State and Bay Streets, including Westminster Street, as seen here. Thanks in part to the economic recession following the Panic of 1873, development was slow for the first decade or so, but it construction of new homes picked up in earnest by the early 1880s. Most of the houses on this block of Westminster Street were built between 1880 and 1891, with Queen Anne style architecture that appealed to popular tastes of the era.

In contrast to the modest, middle class homes on the side streets, the houses on State Street were much larger, and were built for some of the city’s most prominent residents. The house on the far left of this photo was built for William McKnight in the early 1870s, although he later moved to a different house on Worthington Street. On the opposite side of the photo, this house was built in 1871 for insurance agent Henry K. Simons. However, the house was later remodeled in 1894 for Noyes W. Fisk, an industrialist who worked as the clerk and treasurer of the season Manufacturing Company, and later established the Fisk Rubber Company. The house’s large gambrel roof was probably added during this renovation, and it disguises the fact that the house is actually several decades older than it appears.

About a century after the first photo was taken, much of the McKnight neighborhood remains remarkably well-preserved. However, this section of Westminster Street has lost a number of houses over the years, particularly on the left side of the street. The old William McKnight house on the far left was demolished around the early 1920s to build and an automobile service station that is still standing today. Just beyond it, two highly ornate Queen Anne-style homes have also been demolished, and were replaced with plain multi-family homes.

Further down the street, there are other vacant lots where houses once stood on both sides of the street, but many of the historic homes are still standing, including most notably the house on the far right. Now a funeral home, it is one of the last of the 19th century mansions on State Street, and despite the 1890s alterations it is also one of the oldest homes in the McKnight neighborhood. Today, this neighborhood consists of some 800 historic homes from the late 19th and early 20th century, and they now form the McKnight Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Olivet Church, Springfield, Mass

The Olivet Congregational Church on State Street in Springfield, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2015:

For the first two centuries of Springfield’s history, most of the development was confined to the downtown area along Main Street, and it was not until the first half of the 19th century that other parts of the town began to see significant growth. Here on the “Hill” section of town, expansion of the Armory had spurred development along this part of State Street, and by the 1830s there was sufficient demand for a church.

The Fourth Congregational Church was established in 1833, and a year later they built this church here on State Street, directly opposite the Armory.  The building was extensively remodeled in 1854-1855, giving it the appearance as shown in the first photo, and it was renamed Olivet Congregational Church. By 1884, King’s Handbook of Springfield records that the church membership was up to 340, with plans to further expand the building. I don’t know whether the additions were ever carried out, but the church remained here for about 30 more years, until it was demolished to build Commerce High School around 1915.

Today, the 101 year old Commerce High School building is still used as a school.  The only building still standing from the first photo is the three story brick one on the left. It is visible just beyond the church in the first photo, with a three-story porch on the side.

First Baptist Church, Springfield, Mass

First Baptist Church at the corner of State and Spring Streets in Springfield, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

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The scene in 2015:

For several centuries, Congregationalism was the dominant religion in Massachusetts, including here in Springfield. It was the official state religion until 1780, and well into the 19th century the Congregational church was still publicly funded (this did not violate the First Amendment, which at the time only restricted Congress from establishing a religion, not the individual states). Minority churches such as Methodists and Baptists were permitted, but were generally small, as was the case in Springfield.

The First Baptist Church was officially organized in 1811 with 19 members, and for the first ten years of its existence the congregation met in homes or schoolhouses. Their first permanent meeting house was built on Central Street in 1821, and later in the decade they moved to a larger building at the corner of Maple and Mulberry Streets. At the time, these locations were on the outskirts of the town, which reflected their still somewhat marginalized status in a town still dominated by Congregationalism. This changed in 1847, though, when the growing church opened a new building right in the middle of downtown, at the corner of Main Street and Harrison Avenue. This building, which was in use until around 1888, can be seen in the distance of the photo in this earlier post.

By the late 1880s, Springfield had nearly quadrupled in size from its population when the old Baptist church was built, and Main Street had by then become primarily commercial. However, State Street was becoming the city’s cultural center, with a number of churches including Christ Church Cathedral, St. Michael’s Cathedral, Church of the Unity, and the State Street Methodist Episcopal Church. All of these churches were located within a quarter mile of each other, and around 1888 the First Baptist Church joined them by relocating to a new building at the corner of State and Spring Streets, as seen in the first photo. Built in the Romanesque style that was popular at the time, its architecture featured gratuitous use of arches and turrets, and later photos of the building show ivy covering the walls, giving the building an almost medieval appearance. Part of the church can be seen in the photo in this post, which was taken about 20 years later from the opposite direction.

Despite the grand architecture of their new building, First Baptist Church  remained here for only about 20 years. Around 1907 they merged with Highland Baptist Church, and this building was sold to St. Paul’s Universalist Church. It was still standing in the late 1930s, but at some point after that it was demolished and replaced by a two-story parking garage that stands on the site now. Interestingly, though, a part of one of the walls appears to have been incorporated into the parking garage; from Spring Street, a part of the rear wall (the side opposite State Street) is made of stone that matches the church’s rough-hewn stone exterior.

Alexander House, Springfield, Mass

The Alexander House on State Street in Springfield, around 1905. Image from Springfield, Present and Prospective (1905).

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The site in 2015:

The Alexander House was one of many elegant homes that once lined this section of State Street between Chestnut Street and the Armory.  Most of them have long since been replaced, but the Alexander House is still standing, just in a different location.  Its history is explained in more detail in this post, which shows is current appearance around the corner from here, but it was built in 1811 and is one of the oldest existing buildings in the city.

Former owners of the house included portrait artist Chester Harding as well as former Springfield mayor Henry Alexander, Jr., for whom the house is named.  However, its future was threatened in the early 2000s, when a new federal courthouse was proposed for this location.  So, the house was moved about 100 yards away, behind the courthouse on Elliot Street.  The large trees that once stood in front of the house couldn’t be moved, though, so architect Moshe Safdie literally built around them, designing the courthouse so that the trees could be saved as a central element.

State Street, Springfield, Mass

The view looking west on State Street from Myrtle Street in Springfield, around 1913. Image from Progressive Springfield, Massachusetts (1913).

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State Street in 2015:

The first photo shows roughly the same section of State Street as the one in this post, just taken from the opposite direction.  In the early 1900s, the elm-lined State Street was primarily residential, with a number of single-family homes on either side.  Also in the photo, on the right, is the ivy-covered facade of the First Baptist Church, which was built in the late 1880s.  The congregation merged with another Baptist church around the time the photo was taken, and the building later became St. Paul’s Universalist Church.  It was later demolished, and today there is a parking lot on the site.

By the early 1900s, the street was still unpaved, but automobiles were still fairly rare anyway.  Instead, the trolleys of the Springfield Street Railway carried much of the city’s traffic, and at least three appear to be visible here on the busy State Street corridor.  Their days were numbered, though, because within a couple decades most trolley networks around the country had been replaced with buses.  In Springfield, these buses eventually came under the control of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, and they still operate many lines along this part of State Street, as seen in the 2015 photo.

State and Main Streets, Springfield Mass

Foot’s Block at the southwest corner of State and Main Streets in Springfield, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

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The location around 1910. Image from View Book of Springfield (1910)

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The building in 2015:

The site now occupied by 1200 Main Street has had its share of historic buildings over the years. Thomas Bates built a tavern here in 1773, which operated well into the 19th century. On the surface, it was a popular stagecoach tavern that regularly entertained visiting dignitaries like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. However, it also operated clandestinely a stop on the Underground Railroad. It stood here until 1847, when it was moved a few lots west on State Street, as seen in this post, which gives more details about its history.

After the old tavern was moved in 1847, businessman Homer Foot built Foot’s Block, the building seen in the 1892 photo here.  It didn’t take long for Foot to find tenants for the commercial and office space in the building; in 1851,the newly-incorporated Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company rented office number 8 in the building as their original company office.  The company would later move to their own building a few blocks up Main Street, but by the first decade of the 20th century they had moved back to the corner of Main and State.  However, instead of renting a single suite as they had some 50 years earlier, they demolished Foot’s Block and replaced it with the 12-story tower that stands there today.

The building was completed in 1908, and at 125 feet it is the same height as the steeple of Old First Church.  In response to the construction of this building. and because of fears that the city would be overtaken by modern skyscrapers, the Massachusetts legislature set 125 feet as the height limit for any building in Springfield, a law that stood until 1970.  As a result, despite being over a century old it is still tied for 7th tallest building in the city.  MassMutual didn’t stay here for too long, however.  In 1927 with a continually-expanding company and little room in downtown, MassMutual moved to their present-day home a few miles up State Street in the Pine Point neighborhood.  Menawhile, the historic office building here at the corner of State and Main is now owned by MGM Springfield, who plan to preserve the building for MGM’s offices once the casino is built adjacent to it.