Saturday, June 21, 2008

Main and Elm: The Corner on Springfield History

'Twould be difficult, indeed, forced to choose a sole vantage point from which to witness the unfolding of Springfield. A challenge to find a bit of land undeserving of a chapter or two extolling its own unique history, a parcel untouched by its own share of changes across the nearly 400 years of the settlement's birth. Take a moment to think about it: If you were to be rooted as a recorder of Springfield history, where would you choose to be planted?

The civic center of the city, Court Square, will certainly be on many folks' short list of choices. And deservedly so. 'Tis ground trod through a rich past and a present in progress. Here were presidents and parishioners, slaves and mechanics, rallies and rebellion - preceding receding wilderness witness to the metamorphoses wrought by human hands. Silent but for the treasures buried 'neath the till and the buildings planted atop: brick and board and granite and glass. Still the catalyst of change brews. The trees patiently grow, the lion fills the fountain's basin, the years pass. And as the circle turns, when those who left their footprints here are also but memories, they too will be bound in the silence: joined with a city's history.

The corner of Main and Elm Streets, bordering the central thoroughfare of the city and the park at Court Square would surely be a prosperous perch for a collector of observations. Likely one of the oddest sights to behold was the overland portage of the side-wheeled steamboat, the 'Vermont'. According to the 1902 book '"Our County and Its People": A History of Hampden County', edited by city resident Alfred M. Copeland, the boat was "built in Springfield in 1829 for a Brattleboro company, and...was drawn from the boat yard through Main and Elm Streets, to the foot of Harvard Street,* where it was launched."

The two photographs below illustrate the corner's own transformation.

Organized in 1836, the Chicopee Bank was a workingman's bank, created as an antidote to the 22-year old Springfield Bank, an institution thought inhospitable to folks of average earnings and employment. In addition to Chicopee Bank, the building in the above photograph was home to the offices of the Mutual Fire Assurance Company of Springfield, established in 1827. The company's sign is above the third door to the right. A tea company occupies the storefront to the building's far left. Springfield photographer E. J. Lazelle captured this undated image, which was scanned from the 1905 book, 'Springfield Present and Prospective,' and probably snapped by Lazelle in the fourth quarter of the 19th century. A gas lamp, first introduced to Springfield in 1849, can be seen standing ready to illuminate the corner of Main and Elm Streets. In the late 1700s, the corner was home to the newspaper offices of the 'Hampshire Chronicle' (renamed the 'Hampshire and Berkshire Chronicle' in 1790), owned by Isaiah Thomas and a Mr. Weld, who at one time had been Thomas's apprentice.

The corner of Main and Elm Streets today. Chicopee Bank gained status in 1865 as a federally chartered bank, changing its name to Chicopee National Bank. As the city grew, so too the institution, expanding its quarters with this magnificently carved sandstone building christened at the dawn of the 20th century. In the days when the copper topped edifice wore its crown like a shiny new penny, construction was booming throughout the city. The Museum of Fine Arts in 1895, Classical High School and the Science Museum in 1898, Forest Park School and the Museum of Natural History in 1899, the expansion of the Court Square Theatre building and construction of the Court Square Hotel in 1900, Chestnut Street Grammar School in 1903... It can be argued that the city's first renaissance occurred during this era. With the pending revitalization of Court Square growing closer to realization, a hint of promise once again electrifies the neighborhood: a cleansing dew sparkles in the first rays of light at the dawn of the new renaissance.

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

*The author undoubtedly meant Howard Street rather than Harvard, Howard ending at the river, and Harvard well in the opposite direction, in the McKnight District of the city.

More on Springfield's Court Square from EWM:

Panoramic Photos: Court Square, Springfield, Mass. (c 1909),
Old First Church: In Search of Salvation,
Postcards: Main Street Springfield, Massachusetts,
A Century Apart: Photographs of a Building and a Statue, Springfield, Massachusetts,
Ashes in an Hour: Springfield's City Hall Fire of January 6, 1905,
'Springfield's Court Square Theatre.

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