Cornhill from Washington Street, Boston

Looking up Cornhill from Washington Street, on April 14, 1897. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

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The scene in 2016:

This narrow cobblestone street in downtown Boston connected Adams Square with nearby Scollay Square, and it was once a major literary center of the city, with many bookstores and publishers. When the first photo was taken, the early 19th century buildings here had a variety of businesses, with signs advertising for carpets, furniture, wallpaper, signs, trunks, and rubber goods. The first photo also shows a trolley coming down the street from Scollay Square, but this would soon change with the opening of the Tremont Street Subway in less than five months. Part of it was built under Cornhill, and it was the nation’s first subway, allowing trolleys to avoid the congested streets between Boston Common and North Station.

Nearly all of the buildings in the first photo were demolished in the early 1960s to build the Government Center complex. City Hall is just out of view on the right side of the 2016 photo, and the only building left standing in this scene is the Sears’ Crescent, partially visible in the distance on the left side of the street in both photos. Built in 1816 and renovated around 1860, this building still follows the original curve of Cornhill, serving as a reminder of what the neighborhood looked like before one of Boston’s most controversial urban renewal projects.

Washington and Court Streets, Boston

The northwest corner of Washington and Court Streets in downtown Boston in 1891. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

Boston’s first skyscraper was the Ames Building, which was completed in 1893 and was the tallest building in the city aside from the steeple of the Central Congregational Church. The first photo was taken shortly before these buildings were demolished to make way for the Ames Building. One of them in the distance to the left appears to already be in the process of demolition, and several of the others feature reminders of their impending doom, including a sign on the corner that reads “Our entire stock to be sold at a sacrifice. Summer and winter underwear selling at half price.” Further down Washington Street to the right, another sign reads, “Building coming down. Carpets & furniture at your own price. No offer refused.”

The Ames Building was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, and its design reflects the older Romanesque Revival style, which was popular in the 1870s and 1880s, but had largely fallen out of fashion by the turn of the century. In other ways, though, the building represented a transition between the old and the new. Two major limits to early skyscrapers were stairs and structural support; buildings beyond a certain height were impractical because of the amount of climbing to reach the top and the thickness of the walls that would be necessary to support the weight of the upper floors. To solve the first problem, the 13-story Ames Building included modern elevator technology. However, while the 1880s saw the introduction of skyscrapers with a steel skeleton, the Ames Building was instead built with load-bearing masonry walls, which explains the thickness of the granite base. Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it still stands as the second tallest load-bearing masonry building in the world, after Chicago’s Monadnock Building.

Boylston Market, Boston

Boylston Market, at the corner of Boylston and Washington Streets in Boston, around 1870. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

Boylston Market was built here in 1810, and it was designed by noted architect Charles Bulfinch. It functioned as a market on the first floor, and a meeting space and performance hall on the third floor, known as Boylston Hall. Both the building and the street were named for Ward Nicholas Boylston, a Boston philanthropist who gave substantial donations to Harvard in the early 19th century. Prior to its construction, the city’s primary marketplace was Faneuil Hall, which was a considerable distance away from here. At the time, this area was in the southern end of the city, and some of its residents, including future president John Quincy Adams, formed the Boylston Market Association to built the market here

Aside from its use as a marketplace, the building was also used by organizations such as the Handel and Hadyn Society, which held concerts in the third floor hall, and the New England Anti-Slavery Society, which held conventions in the same hall. In 1859, it was expanded, and in 1870 it was moved 11 feet south away from Boylston Street. This is presumably why the building to the left in the first photo, home of the White Bear Billiard Room, has a sign that reads “Building to be Torn Down.”

Although moving the large brick building was a significant undertaking, Boylston Market was demolished just 17 years later, in 1887. It was replaced by the Boylston Building, which served much the same function as its predecessor, with retail space on the first floor and warehouse and office space on the upper floors. As seen in the 2015 photo, it is still standing today, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There is at least one surviving element from the original building, though. The cupola was saved, and it now forms the steeple of the Calvary Methodist Church in the nearby town of Arlington.

Washington Street, Boston

Looking north on Washington Street from School Street in Boston, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Washington Street in 2015:

In the days before radio, television, and internet, the only major news source for most people was newspapers.  At the turn of the 20th century, large cities had many newspapers, which were often published twice daily.  However, for timelier updates, newspapers often posted breaking news, election results, and sports scores on bulletin boards outside of their offices.  In some cities, such as New York and here in Boston, many newspapers had offices in the same area, known as Newspaper Row.

Boston’s Newspaper Row was located along Washington Street, between Milk and State Streets, and at one point included up to 17 newspapers, including several in this scene.  On the far left of the first photo, partially blocked by the trolley car, is the Boston Post, and further down the street, the tall building to the left had been the home of the Boston Herald.  As the advertisement on the building indicates, the Herald had recently moved to a new location on Tremont Street.  Both the Post and the Herald buildings have since been demolished, and a parking garage now stands there.  The Post, which was established in 1831, was a major daily newspaper in New England until it closed in 1956.  The Herald, however, is still around today, 170 years after it was first published in 1846.

The large building in the distance in the left-center of the first photo was the home of the Boston Globe, the narrow building next to it was the Boston Advertiser, and the tall building in the center of the photo was the Boston Journal.  Of these three, the Globe was by far the newest of these newspapers, having been established in 1872.  The Advertiser, on the other hand, had been published since 1813 as the first daily newspaper in the city, and the Journal since 1833. However, the Globe ended up outliving both of them, as the Journal merged with the Herald in 1917, and the Advertiser was purchased by William Randolph Hearst the same year and was discontinued in 1929.  Both the Globe and the Advertiser buildings here have since been demolished, but the Journal building still stands as the only survivor of the five turn-of-the-century newspaper buildings in this scene.  The building opened in 1901, and was the home of the Journal until its merger with the Herald.  Since then, it has been used for other professional offices.

There are no longer any newspaper offices along this section of Washington Street; the Globe left in 1958, and it has been many years since Newspaper Row was the center of news information in the city.  It is also much less crowded; the first photo shows the narrow street filled with pedestrians, carriages, and trolleys, but within a few years the Washington Street Tunnel would be completed.  This subway tunnel eliminated some of the congestion by taking the trolleys off of the streets, and it formed the precursor to today’s Orange Line, which still runs under this section of Washington Street.

Despite the changes over the years, there have been several constants.  The Old Corner Bookstore, which is just out of view in the first photo but visible on the far left in the second one, is the oldest of them all.  It was built in 1712, and it is still standing as one of the oldest buildings in downtown Boston, and just beyond it is the Andrew Cunningham House, which was built a few years later around 1725.  Aside from these two colonial-era buildings, though, there are several other historic buildings in the scene.  On the far right is the Old South Building, a large office building that was completed shortly before the first photo was taken.  It wraps around the Old South Church between Washington and Milk Streets, and its Milk Street facade can be seen in this post.  The other prominent historic building here is the Winthrop Building, located just beyond the Old South Building at the corner of Washington and Water Streets.  A view of the long side of this building can be seen in the “now” photo of this post, which shows it from the Water Street side.  It was built in 1893 on a long, narrow, irregularly-shaped lot, and it was Boston’s first steel frame skyscraper.  It is still standing today, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Washington Street and Dock Square, Boston

The corner of Washington Street and Dock Square in Boston, on June 17, 1875. Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library.


The scene in 2014:


Taken on the same day as the photo in this post, the first photo is taken from a different angle, but shows the Dock Square area as it once looked, long before the urban renewal projects of the 1960s During this time, the neighborhood was replaced with Boston City Hall, which can be seen on the left-hand side of the 2014 photo.

Washington Street, Boston

Looking north on Washington Street in Boston, toward Stuart Street, in October 1909. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Child Labor Committee Collection.


The scene in 2014:


Like many other photographs by Lewis Wickes Hine of the National Child Labor Committee, the scene in the 1909 photo has almost a Charles Dickens-like appearance to it.  In the photo, a couple young girls struggle to haul wood back to their homes, presumably to use for heat in the upcoming winter months.

Several buildings survive from the 1909 photo, including the three buildings along the right-hand side of Washington Street in the distance.  The closest of the buildings is the former Unique Theatre, which was built in 1888 and opened as a theater in 1907, where it operated as a nickelodeon, an early, no-frills movie theater that cost five cents admission, hence the name,   According to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, it is likely the last surviving nickelodeon in Boston.

The other two surviving buildings are the former Globe Theater, and the office building beyond it. The Globe Theater was built in 1903 and substantially renovated later on, including the addition of several stories,  The other building, which is located at the corner of Washington and Beach Streets, was built around the same time, and is largely unchanged in appearance since the first photo was taken.