Memoirs of Boston's Great Fire of 1872


Boston Morning Journal – Volume XL – Number 13, 509









Twelve months ago this morning sixty-five acres of the granite warehouses of Boston had fallen in the flames. The shock reverberated with no electric thrill throughout the whole country and caused a tremor in the nerves of the commerce of the world. It needs no words to recall the intensified anxiety of the preceding night, when merchants saw the palaces of trade reared by their industry and enterprise melt away so rapidly into hopeless ruin. The first signal of the incipient conflagration was given on the fire alarm bells at twenty-four minutes past seven o’clock on the evening of Saturday, Nov. 9-ten minutes after an undue illumination had been discovered in the basement of the granite store on the corner of Kensington and Summer street. Owing to the narrow streets; the great light of the buildings, which were capped with wooden construction at a height that could not be reached effectively by the fire apparatus, and the delay in reaching the fire consequent upon the prevalence of the horse (distereper), the flames speedily gained a headway which seemed to mock all human efforts. Full twenty-four hours it raged before the end could be seen. About 650 buildings were destroyed. Of those two were churches belonging to the Episcopal denomination, sixty-eight were dwelling and logging houses, and the remainder were devoted solely to business.  Nearly a thousand business firms were numbered among the sufferers. The estimate of the value of the buildings destroyed was places at thirteen millions and a half and the loss of merchandise at sixty millions, a total of about one-tenth of the valuation of the city. Heavy as this appears, the prosperity of the city immediately antecedent to the fire is shown by the fact that the increase in valuation the preceding year just about balances the lose, and the fact that notwithstanding the fire the gain in real estate valuation the present year has been about twenty-seven millions, shows that the calamity did not prostrate the energies of trade. The area of smoldering ruins which was so faithfully patrolled and guarded by the police and military until the flow of business was resumed, may be described as an irregular pentagon bounded by Summer, Broad, Oliver, Water, and Washington streets, through the boundary was overlapped in the valuable area to the north of Water street in the vicinity of Lindall street. Embraced within this district was the entire wholesale trade-in clothing, dry goods, boots and shoes, leather and wool, and a large share of the trade in fancy goods, hardware and crockery. The total amount of insurance in the burnt district was fifty-five millions; of which thirty-five millions was in this State; fifteen millions in other United Stated companies, and five millions in companies on the other side of the Atlantic. Only two of the joint stock companies in the city survived the shock, and the policy holders in the mutual companies of this State were assessed two millions and a half in order to sustain the loss. Its is estimated that the sufferers realized about sixty percent of the amount for which they were insured. Such in the merest outline was the actual loss to Boston, but it was met with energy, and courage on every hand. The fortitude and business capacity of Boston merchants was fully able to cope with the emergency. For a time trade was dispersed into strange localities, tenements were transformed into salesrooms, every vacant inch of store room within a mile radius was made available, and a temporary colony of corrugated iron buildings sprang up like mushrooms on the Fort Hill territory for the accommodation of the boot, shoe, leather, and iron trade. The signs of revived industry were set on the smoking ruins of the great edifice, and the work of reconstruction by the erection of buildings more magnificent and costly than those swept away was so speedily begun that photographers made haste to catch the shadows of the picturesque ruins ere the new walls rose in symmetrical form.


Before permits were gained for the erections of prominent buildings, the city authorities had the wisdom to straighten and widen the principal thoroughfares

In that section, thus affording better facilities for travel, greater security against the spread of fire, and providing more liberal opportunity for architectural display. Seventeen streets have been widened, four extended and a large square laid out. The expense to the city for, the land taken and damaged incurred in these improvements was over five millions of dollars. The water mains in the main streets of the district have also been liberally increased in size, and thirty-two of the Lowry hydrants, from each of which six effective streams can be thrown, have been placed in the district and adjacent streets.


About four hundred and fifty new buildings have been erected, and a careful estimate of the amount of money expended in their construction is fifteen millions. The material used in the construction is much more diversified than that of the buildings which were destroyed. In the old, granite largely preponderated, and a good share of the material came from the Quincy queries. In the new, Quincy granite has been almost entirely discarded, both on account of the labor required in the working and the idea that it was more easily destructible by fire than other materials. Not over an eighth of the new structures are of granite, and most of these are built of the light Concord variety. It is estimated that another eighth of the new buildings have marble fronts; about three-eighths are of the different varieties and shades of Ohio, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick freestone. One-sixteenth of the whole is estimated as the amount of iron construction and the other five-sixteenths of brick variously diversified with marble and freestone trimmings. One peculiarity of the details of the architecture is the construction of the fronts of the lower story with iron columns, so as to give the freest admission to the light, and in the most instances the solidity and symmetry of the façade is maintained by the corner posts of liberal size, either of stone, brick or iron. There is a marked difference in the construction of the roofs between the old and the new. Instead of the prevailing “lumber yard” Mansards, which so readily caught and spread the contamons fire, the great majority of the roofs of the new business district are flat and also constructed of fire-proof material. Where the Mansard form has been used, it has been constructed of fire-proof material -stone, brick or iron- in order to secu the requirements of the building law. The side and parti-walls are of much more solid construction than before the fire, and the division walls, in order to answer the rigid requirements of the law, are carried above the roof, so as to present an effectual barrier to the spread of the flames. The interior construction of the new buildings is in the most thorough and substantial manner, and ornamentation, tasteful and elaborate, has not been onilfted . Solidity and durability, without any straining for architectural display are, however, the distinguishing features of both the interior and the exterior construction. Strength and safety have always been kept in view, though beauty, both in design and construction, has not been overlooked. The architecture of the district as a whole is of somewhat cosmopolitan character, a fact which is unavoidable in the city street where there is as a matter of course, much clashing of individual tastes. It may, however, be said in general terms that no parts are used which are not necessary for convenience, construction and propriety, and remarkably few are the instances where in the wild struggle after novelty, the fantastic is mistaken for the graceful, the complicated for the imposing, superiority of ornament for beauty, or its total absence for simplicity. In the diversity of style as well as material, the old streets present a very different appearance from the former time, and generally considered, in an artistic point of view, the new confirms the sentiment of Cowper that-


                        “Art thrives most

  Where commerce has enriched the busy coast

  He est  all improvements in their flight,

  Spreads foreign wonders in his country’s sights.

  Imports what others have invented well,

  And stirs his own to match them, or excel.”




The marvelous changes that have wrought in this twelve months by the thousands of workmen with bod, hammer an trowel can only be appreciated by a tour through the principal streets, but in the succeeding columns the attempt has been made to picture the architecture which presents itself to the eye.


With regard to the tenancy of the new buildings it may be said that about one-third of the stores are thus far occupied, and the general indications are that the different branches of trade will re-occupy the same localities which they covered before the fire. Many of the firms engaged their temporary quarters until the first of April, 1874, and are not in a hurry to make leases until their tenancy expires. The rentals are somewhat higher than before the fire, in proportion to the increased expense of the new buildings. The average rates are eight percent on the cost of the buildings, seven percent being the allowance for interest on the investment and one percent for necessary repairs. Without further preface we will invite the attention of our readers to the following detailed and complete account of the new structures which have already been completed and are in process of erection:


Summer Street


The grade of Summer Street through its entire length remains the same as before the fire. The street have however, been widened to a uniform width of (fifty?) feet by cutting off the estates on the north side from Washington to Devonshire, and from the junction of High and Summer to Federal street. The angles of the estates on both corners of Summer and Devonshire streets have been rounded, and that on the corner of Chauncy and Summer street has been cut off to a right angle triangle. In the erection of the marble block on this corner the contemplated widening of Chauncy street to fifty feet has been anticipated. The water pipes in Summer street have been increased in size from six to twelve inches. Lowry hydrants have been placed at the junction of Summer and Devonshire, Otis, Arch, Hawley and Washington street and at Church Green.


Southerly Side

The line of the south side of Summer street remains the same as before the fire, the widening having been made on the opposite side of the street. A large number of the estates, which have, been covered with new buildings are already the scene of the same busy trade that marked this section before the fire.


John C. Gray

One of the most conspicuous locations in the whole district is that on the southeasterly corner of Washington and Summer street known in the old chronicles as “Bethune’s Corner,” and on which stood the firm granite block which was destroyed by the gas explosion the night after the great fire. In consequence of the widening of Washington street below Summer, the site of this building gives it command of an entire view of Washington to School streets. The new building has been constructed of Ohio freestone, diversified by light and dark shades. The front on Washington street is 49.33 feet; there is a front of nine feet on the angle of the two streets, and it extends down Summer street 118.5 feet. The lower story front on Washington street will be almost entirely of plate glass, securing abundant light and furnishing opportunity for the display of the rich and costly goods which the lessees, Messrs, Shreve, Crump & Low, jewelers, display. Both in location and construction this must be considered one of the finest stories on Washington street. The upper stories, which are not less attractive, commanding as they do a panoramic view of the busy throngs on Washington street, have not yet been leased.


The Washington street front is carried up in two pavilions, which terminate at the corners in conspicuous triangular pediments. On the Summer street side the first story supports are a substantial pillars with ornamental capitals, and a serrated band of stone work encircles the division between the first and second stories. There is a broad central pavilion in addition to those at the corners, and the central pyramidal pediment contains the letter “G” enclosed by chiseled leafwork. The window openings are capped with segments composed of alternate blocks of light and dark stones, with a projected keystone on which the artists chisel has produced a pleasing effect. The front on the angel of the two streets has some very neat ornamental work, especially around the window in the second story, and it bears on the front of the cornice the date “1873”. Looked at in whatever aspect the building is one of mark and an important addition to the mercantile architecture of Boston.


Miles & Winthrop


Edward W. Miles owns the estate adjacent to the Gray estate on the east, which is numbered 11 and 13 And Hon. Robert C. Winthrop owns the adjacent Nos.15 and 17. These four numbers are placed on a fine marble front block, which is supported by marble columns at either corner and the central division line. The other supports for the first and second stories are of iron. The distinctive features of the two fronts is a nicely chiseled pediment over the broad middle window of the second story. Smaller pediments surmount the windows of the third story; the square window caps of the fourth story terminate in scroll work, and the windows of the fifth story are arched. Messrs. Emerson & Fehmer are the architects, and the building is constructed of marble from the quarries at Sanderland Falls, Vt. It is five stories in height, and the plain cornice is surmounted by an iron creating No. 11 is occupies by Miles, Burr & Co. straw goods, and No. 13 by Springer Brothers, cloaks and mantillas, No. 15 by Jacob Cohen, importer and manufacturers’ agent, and No. 17 by Moore, Plegering & Co., millinery goods.


The four next estates were the only buildings which were not destroyed on this side of the street, though some of these were damaged so as to require quite extensive repairs. The fine granite structure of Messrs. Hovey & Co., which stands on the site of the old-time mansion of the Vassalls, is the largest of the structures left intact. These buildings are numbered from 19 to 37 inclusive.


James Leeds


The estate Nos. 39 and 41 is the property of James Leeds, and he has covered it with a four-story block constructed of brick with Nova Scotia freestone trimmings. The window caps of the second story are of ornamental design, with a lozenge-shaped embellishment in the center. The cornice, of somewhat elaborate workmanship, is surmounted by a battlement of fanciful design, in the center of which appears the initials of the owner. C.K. Kirby is the architect, and the store is occupied by M. Walko & Co., dealers in furs, hats, etc., who for the past seven years have transacted business on the same site. This block has a frontage of about fifty feet and three times this depth.


Albert C. Hersey


The Vermont marble façade, which covers the estate Nos.43 and 45, is the property of Mr. Albert C. Hersey, and its architecture is a model of modest ornamentation. It is four stories in height with flat roof. The elliptical window caps in the second story are one of the most distinctive features of the building, and the third story window caps are embellished with nicely chiseled rosettes. An ornamental battlement above the cornice bears the initial letters of the owner. Mr. C. K. Kirby is the architect and many of the architectural features are similar to Mr. Leed’s brick block adjacent. The lower floor is occupied by Rogers, Schutz & Co., dealers in trimmings, and the upper floors by Wheclock, Jones & Co., dealers in tailors’ trimmings.


George Newell


When the fire occurred, the lot between Mr. Hersey’s block and the corner of Chauncy street was one, controlled by George H. Kuhn, trustee. Now it is divided into two. No.47 has been sold to Mr. George Newell, who has constructed thereon a store with a front by no means the least attractive on the street. The lower story is fronted with iron columns which support the wall above. The façade is of white marble, relieved and ornamented with bands of red sandstone from Potsdam, N.Y. The windows are “square headed” with subtle ornamentation, and the four stories are surrounded by a flat roof, which is edged with a handsome cornice. This site derives a historic interest from the -------- that together with considerable of the adjacent --------- it was conveyed to the First Church in 1680. The --------- stood on this corner, and it was once ---------- by the father of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is known to many as “Capen’s Post Office,” as when Na---- Capen was Postmaster of Boston in 1859, the Post Office was located at this point.


Continental Bank


The extreme westerly corner of Chauncy street has been purchased by the Continental Bank, ---- work is to be at once commenced in an elegant building, the plans for which have been perfected. It will have a high basement suitable for store purposes, and the main structure will be ----- stories with a French roof. The building has a (front?) of 22 feet and nine inches on Summer street, and extends 95 feet on Chauncy street. The material to be used in the construction is freestone of two shades, so (disposed?) as to add much to the beauty of the façade. The first and fourth story openings are square-headed to give free admission to the light, and in the second and third stories they are of segmented form with ornamental key-stones. There is a triangular pediment over the central windows in the third story and a semi-circular pediment at the roof crowns the façade. The Chauncy street façade is of similar construction, and has ornamental chimneys carried upon the outside wall. The bank will occupy the first story with the directors’ room at the front, and the large safe which runs up through the basement and first and second stories is detached from the wall, and constructed in the most thorough manner. The main entrance will be on Summer street, the basement will be entered from both streets, and the entrance to the chambers, by a broad staircase, will be on Chauncy street, on which street the elevators are placed.


The Sears Estate


One of the finest structures on Summer street as reconstructed is the Southern gothic marble structure on the Sears estate, at the easterly corner of Chauncy street. In addition to the former site the trustees purchased all that was left of the corner estate after widening Chauncy street, and have erected a large building somewhat resembling the familiar structure on the Sears estate corner of Court and Washington streets. It has a frontage of 60 feet on Summer street, 112.88 feet on the corner, this corner and the opposite corner of Arch street having been cut in order to facilitate the flow of travel. Thus, in reality, the new structure has three distinct fronts, the main entrance to the lower story being at the diagonal front, the material used in the construction is white Thickshoe? marble  from Westchester county, N.Y., which is trimmed with a dark blue marble, affording a conspicuous and agreeable contrast. This ornamentation is used for horizontal bands at the several stories. And for alternate blocks in the window clips and door lintels, all of which are arches except in the upper story. The effects of the building depends more upon its massive and imposing character than on any attempt -- --------inferior ornamentation. A -----trade of stone work encircles the building above the first story, and the iron mansard roof, which shows two ------ in each front --------- surmounts the four-story structure. The entrance to the chambers is on Summer street and the door of the elevator on Chauncy street. Jackson, M-rudell & Daniell, dry goods, occupy the first story and -------- & Miller. Read & Hackett, wholesale clothiers, the upper stories. This spot was foremerly occupied by the residence of Ebeu—zer –Breble, a brother of the Commodore, at one ----a partner of William Gray and a leading merchant in the early mercantile history of the city.


Henry H. Peters


The granite front covering number 65 and 69? ---- having an area on each of its five ------- of 6500 square feet, is owned by Mr. H.H. Peters. The lower story is fronted with heavy granite columns. ------ have highly ornamented capitals. The front is divided into three vertical sections, the central section supporting a pediment in which ----- the figures “1873.” The cornice is also of granite and the general architectural effect of the building is solid and substantial. It has a flat roof, with a central monitor roof of slate and iron n order to afford additional room for storage purposes. The main entrance is in the center of the lower story banked on either side by a broad windows, and the entrances to the chambers and the elevator are at the corner of the building. The building has a rear frontage and entrance on Kensington street. Mr. Alexander II Esty is the architect. The lower story and basement have been leased by Messers. Taylor, Thomas & Co., dry goods jobbers, and Messrs. Jordan, Clark & Co., wholesale dealers in clothing, have leased the chambers.


Jacob Sleeper


The property numbered 71 and 73 is owned by Jacob Sleeper’s, but the iron front building thereon has been erected by Messrs. A. H. Rhodes and E. L. Ripley, who has leased the property for a long term of years. The façade is of a very neat and tasty design, without running to the excess of ornamentation which is one of the temptations in iron construction. The supporting columns in the lower story are tinted and have Corinthian capitals. The upper stories have columns with a corresponding face, and the window openings are rounded slightly at the upper corners. The whole structure has been painted white, giving it a neat and light appearance. It is five stories in height and has a flat roof. In the interior construction, every precaution has been taken against the possible destruction of the building by fire, and the elevator is encased in brick. Mr. George W. Pope is the architect and builder. The lower story and basement are occupied by Sibley, Cumner & Co., dealers in tailors trimmings, and the chambers by Morse, Johnson & Co., dealers in clothing.


Charlotte A. Johnson


The property numbered 75 and 77 is owned by Charlotte A. Johnson. The new building is of white marble with trimmings of blue. The wall is supported in the lower story by an iron beam resting on square columns of the same material. The corner supports are of marble. The openings in the second story are square cut, while in the third and fourth stories the caps are elliptical and the cap-stones in each are alternate white and blue marble, while a belt of blue marble marks each story. The central windows are grouped, two in the second story and three in the third. The building is four stories in height. The elevator is encased in brick, and has fire-proof doors. The lower story and basement is occupied by George M. Glazier, dealer in ladies and gents furnishing goods and notions, and the upper stories by H. Herrman & Co., dry goods importers, and Norris, Turner & Co., gents furnishing goods.


The Carney Property


The granite building at the westerly corner of Kensington and Summer streets is owned by Mrs. Pamela Carney. The supports at the first story are light fluted iron columns with Corinthian capitals, and the Summer street front is of Hallowell granite. The building is five stories high with a flat roof, and the openings in the second story are square cap with upper corners slightly rounded, while the are slightly arched in the third and fourth stories, and square in the fifth with fluted columns between. There is very little attempt at ornamentation, notwithstanding the very plainness of the building is attractive. The raised monograms “A.C.” on the belt between the third and fourth stories are the initials of Andrew Carney, the former owner and occupant. The Kingston street façade is of plain brick work with Concord granite trimmings. The lower story and basement in common with those of the adjoining block, are occupied by George M. Glazier, dealer in all kinds of ladies and gents furnishing goods and notions, while the occupants of the chambers are Smith, Richardson, and Corson, dealer in clothing.


Haley & Tebbetts


The elegant marble block on the easterly corner of Kingston and Summer street  has a historic interest, as marking the spot where the great fire had its origin. It is owned by William C. Tebbetts and Mr. Haley. It has a front of 50 feet on Summer street and expands on Kingston street some 102 feet and is numbered 83, 85 and 87 on Summer street. Both of the fronts are of marble, five stories in height, with corner pavilions terminating in pediments enclosing double widows. Centraly also, in each front a pediment is carried up through the second and third stories, adding much to the attractive appearance of the building. The roof is of iron and the elevator is encased in brick walls with iron doors, and covered at the top with stone. As a further protection against fire, stand pipes connected with the streets drains lead to each story. The main entrance is on Summer street through a spacious archway, which is supported in the center by a heavy iron column. The Mansard roof is very high studded, so as to allow for a half-story for a work room beneath. The basement and the first floor are occupied by the large wholesale dry goods business of Messrs A. Hamilton & Co., who were formerly located on the corner of Franklin and Federal streets. All of the upper stories are occupied by Messrs Lake, Cushing & Daniels, wholesale dealers in and manufacturers of clothing, and they have an elegantly fitted counting (room?) in the second story.


Haynes, Rhodes & Ripley


The next estate is owned by John C. Haynes, and the and the one adjoining is owned jointly by Albert H. Rhodes and Ebed L. Ripley, and the three proprietors have erected a fine marble front in common which is numbered from 89 to 95 inclusive. The supports in the lower story are iron-fluted columns, and the beautiful marble used in the construction is handsomely molded in by bands between stories and around the openings. The building is five stories in front, with a flat roof and a heavy main cornice of galvanized iron. There is also a lighter and handsome cornice below the windows of the upper story. The lower story and basement of Mr. Haynes’s building, No. 91, which is 26 ½ feet front by 95 feet deep, is occupied by Leland, Wheelock & Co., dealers in men’s furnishing goods; the second floor an elegant salesroom, finely lighted at either end, furnishes the best opportunity for the display of tasteful silken fabrics, made in every fanciful design for gent’s neckwear, which are offered to the trade by Messrs Bowen, Howard & Co., dealers in gents’ furnishing goods. The other occupants are Pratt, Porter & Co., dry goods commission merchants: Charles Spencer & Co., and the Winthrop Knitting Co. The lower floor Floyd Bros. & Co., dry goods dealers, and the chambers by Messrs. Mellen & Tillson, dealers in shirts, overalls etc…


H.H. Hunnewell


The large irregular block whose fine Concord granite front numbers 97 and 99 is owned by H. H. Hunnewell. While its Summer street frontage is only 30 feet the boundary lines diverge from the front, so that the rear width is 60 feet and it has a depth of 108 feet. The building is five stories in height and has a flat roof. The lower story is fronted by ornamentally designed square iron columns, and the pilasters between the windows are fluted and molded in fanciful patterns. The whole building is a reproduction of the former structure on the same site, with improvements, both in ornamentation and construction. The upper stories are calculated for manufacturing purposes, and they are occupied by Rhodes, Ripley & Co., manufacturers of clothing, and the lower story is occupied by North, Fisk? & Co., dealers in hats, caps etc…


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