Archive for October, 2013

As a genealogist and historian, I am always interested in going from theory to practice: Here is a record; how can I utilize it to get me further in my research? The State Library of Massachusetts has quite recently scanned most of their real estate atlases and put them online at a section of their site which they call the Massachusetts Real Estate Atlas Digitization Project. I had no idea how many links my family had with the area where I now live until I began doing family history research. As a case study, I chose to use the atlases to track down the locations where my ancestor’s niece, Florence M. Battles, had lived in the Boston area, with the hopes of eventually being able to visit all the relevant locations in person. Her 1920 address turned out to be the easiest for me to physically visit, so that is the one I chose to visit in person first and which I detail in this post.

Florence M. Battles was a music teacher who appears to never have had any children nor married. By 1880 she was living in the Boston area, and seems to have spent the rest of her life there, dying in Boston in 1929. Via researching Florence’s life, I discovered that Boston’s school system was a pioneer in introducing music education to what we call public schools here in the States (not the same meaning as the term has in British English), and that music education had been introduced to public schools in this area long before Florence moved here. I have not yet determined whether she was a teacher at schools, a private teacher for individual students, or a combination of the two over the course of her life. As someone who is without descendants myself, I always find it especially satisfying to document others who have lived and died without leaving living descendants to carry on their memory.

On the 1920 census, Florence was living in Boston at 114 Huntington Avenue. She was part of a two-person household, and there were a total of four households at her address. The temporally-closest Boston atlas at the State Library of Massachusetts site was published in 1917, so I chose that atlas to locate Florence’s address. The 1917 atlas indexed the streets by plate, and further by street numbers if the street ran through multiple plates, so it was pretty easy to locate Florence’s 1920 address on a map. (Click on any of these maps to view a larger version.)

Florence's 1920 Boston address as shown in a 1917 Boston atlas

The leftmost street shown here is Huntington; this excerpt is oriented to show the bulk of the area of the neighborhood that we walked around and I photographed. Florence’s address, 114 Huntington Ave., is almost at the bottom of this excerpt. From Plate 23 of Atlas of the city of Boston : city proper and Back Bay (published by G.W. Bromley & Co., 1917); scan courtesy of the State Library of Massachusetts website.

Zoomed map of Florence's 1920 Boston address from 1917 Boston atlas

Here is a zoomed view of Florence’s 1920 address, 114 Huntington Ave., as seen in the 1917 Boston atlas that is digitized on the State Library of Massachusetts site. Her address is again near the bottom-center of the map. Four households were living at 114 Huntington on the 1920 census; the “4” written on 114 Huntington Ave. here indicates that the building was 4 stories, and the lack of a “B” suffix indicates that it had no basement. Every building shown in pink here is constructed of brick. The double line running through most of the streets around this area indicate that they were on the sewer system, and the single line indicates they were on a water main. The circled x’s indicate fire hydrants; there are three hydrants in this excerpt.

I then searched for 114 Huntington Ave. on Google Maps. I saw on the modern map that Garrison St. was still there and still with the same name, so I was able to quickly determine that the numbering on Huntington had changed in the nearly 100 years since the atlas was published. Google Maps now estimated 114 Huntington as being a little over a block before where the 1917 map showed it. Garrison St. still intersecting Huntington Ave. also allowed a way for me to try to estimate the distance to the former 114 Huntington Ave. location. This area of Huntington Ave. was now mostly commercial, so I wrote down the names of a number of the businesses in the area so that I would be able to orient myself “on the ground.” I packed my camera, and a friend and I headed out to locate the former site of 114 Huntington Ave., with me pretty sure that the entire block of buildings had been demolished in the intervening decades.

I turned out to be correct. The block on which Florence lived is now a hotel and an apartment high-rise.

Colonnade Hotel, formerly Florence's block

Most of Florence’s block is now taken up by the Colonnade Hotel, shown here. Based on the 1917 Boston atlas, I believe that Florence’s 1920 home was approximately where the Colonnade meets the building next door (the slight divide is shown here on the far left, with an entrance to a parking garage on street level). Huntington Ave. is in the foreground. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

The rest of Florence's former block, now an apartment building

This is the rest of Florence’s former block, a much less wide but much taller apartment building at the corner of Garrison and Huntington. This building’s street address is 118 Huntington Ave., confirming that the numbering has changed since Florence lived in the neighborhood. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

We noticed right away that the buildings in the neighborhood behind these modern buildings seemed to mostly be period buildings, and walked over to look at them.

Period homes with the modern apartment building in the background

This is the corner of Garrison St. and St. Botolph St., showing period homes in the foreground with the Huntington-Ave.-facing modern apartment building in the background. Based on the plans in the 1917 atlas, it is very likely that these homes were here when Florence was living in this neighborhood, less than a block from here. In modern Boston these types of buildings are called “brownstones” and were extremely common in this area. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Period brownstones on St. Botolph St., near Florence's former home

Here are more period brownstones, these on St. Botolph St., about a block from Florence’s former home; more modern buildings on Huntington Ave. rise in the background. This neighborhood was rather unusual in extensively using a wider variety of colors of bricks for its residential buildings than most of the other area neighborhoods with brownstones. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

A building that caught my eye from a distance had a number of composers’ names inscribed below the roof line. I wondered if it had formerly been an opera house. We walked up for a closer look. The Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society, shown on the map in the 1917 Boston atlas, was still there!

Musicians Mutual Relief Society building

The Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society building, at the corner of Garrison St. and St. Botolph St. The surnames of many composers are inscribed around the building below the roof line. The Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society’s building was a location for musician societies to meet, along with many other music-related purposes. As a resident of the neighborhood who lived about a block away, Florence would have seen this building every day, and as a music teacher, she likely regularly visited it. The building appears to have been converted into apartments. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Musicians Mutual Relief Society still visible over main door

The inscription “Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society” is still visible over the building’s main door on St. Botolph St. Also note the stained glass between the doors and the inscription; this neighborhood was home to numerous stained glass artisans at the time and still houses a stained glass studio today. The numbers in the stained glass reflect the street numbering at the time Florence lived in the neighborhood, and this building appears to have the same address today. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Convention Hall inscription still visible at the Musicians Mutual Relief Society building

The inscription “Convention Hall” is also still visible at the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society building, over another door on St. Botolph St. According to my research, the Convention Hall was added to the building between the time it was built and the time Florence moved to the neighborhood. It had room for over 1000 people and regularly hosted events; it is quite possible that Florence attended some of them. Perhaps she and/or some of her students even performed here, but I don’t know for sure. This building still meets the building next door (the division is visible on the upper left); I am not sure whether that building is period, but if so, it was identified as Turkish Bathhouses on the 1917 Boston atlas map. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Musicians Mutual Relief Society building #2

Another wide shot of the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society building, showing the side that faces St. Botolph St. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Across St. Botolph St. from the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society is another building from the 1917 Boston atlas, Garrison Hall.

Garrison Hall

Garrison Hall, shown on the map in the 1917 Boston atlas, is still there, at the corner of Garrison St. and St. Botolph St., across St. Botolph from the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society building today just as it was in 1917. The building appears to be apartments now. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Garrison Hall #2

Another shot of Garrison Hall. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Garrison Hall #3

A third shot of Garrison Hall, this one taken from St. Botolph St. of the side of the Hall; a modern building on Huntington Ave. is visible in the background (on the far right). Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Building on land MIT used to own

This building may look period but I don’t believe it is. It is a large building at the end of the short Garrison St., where the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is listed as owning buildings in the 1917 Boston atlas, principally a Gymnasium and a second large building. If the map is accurate (and it generally appears to be extremely accurate), there was no building exactly at the end of Garrison on that land at the time. I suspect this building was built later but designed to look period to fit into the neighborhood. MIT moved to its current Cambridge location in 1923. Although the atlas isn’t more specific, according to my research, MIT used to run an “offshoot” school known as the Lowell School, an institute for “promoting industrial design,” that was on Garrison St.: “Its sophisticated weaving looms were capable of producing commercial-sized fabrics, and the school was regularly supplied with textile novelties from Paris” (Boston Landmarks Commission, St. Botolph Study Report, p. 13). Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Florence's 1920 neighborhood as shown in the 1917 Boston atlas

This wider view of Florence’s 1920 neighborhood as depicted in the 1917 Boston atlas shows that Florence lived about halfway between Symphony Hall and the Boston Public Library, which are at opposite ends of Huntington Ave. on this excerpt. A large rail yard was across Huntington from Florence’s home, and two rail lines ran near her location, so it was probably a noisy neighborhood. Due to the rail yard being in the way, Florence would have had to walk up to Exeter St. to get to Boylston St. and board the subway at the station by the Boston Public Library. We were able to walk up a street that didn’t exist in 1917; as we walked down the sidewalk on Ring St. after exploring the neighborhood, we were walking on what used to be the rail yard. Map courtesy of the State Library of Massachusetts site.

Where the rail yard was on Huntington

Looking from approximately where Florence lived across Huntington Ave. (foreground) to where the edge of the huge rail yard used to be. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Wider shot showing more of the former rail yard

A wider shot showing even more of the former rail yard; Huntington Ave. is in the foreground. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

Map of Florence's 1920 home and Mechanics Hall, from 1917 Boston atlas

The massive building that was called Mechanic Hall or Mechanics Hall, run by the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association, was directly across from Florence’s 1920 home at 114 Huntington Ave., shown here near the top-center. One end of the huge Hall was just above where this map excerpt cuts off. As can be seen here, the huge rail yard was behind the Hall; the rail yard also ran directly along Huntington Ave. above where the Hall was located. Map courtesy of the State Library of Massachusetts site.

Where the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association Hall was on Huntington

Looking from approximately where Florence lived across Huntington Ave. to where the Mechanics Hall, run by the Massachusetts Mechanics Charitable Association, was. The Mechanics Hall was a huge building that had been built in 1880 and “served to house yearly MCMA exhibits as well as classes, traveling exhibits, and conferences,” according to the Massachusetts Historical Society, which now houses their archives; they also note that the Hall was sold in the 1950’s. Photo taken by author in October 2013.

In researching the area after returning home, I found that the Boston Landmarks Commission had carried out an assessment of the area for the City of Boston starting in 1979. Through the digitized PDF I learned that Florence’s block was built in the “latter” part of the 1880’s, and that Florence’s building and the others in this area of Huntington Ave. were demolished from the late 1960’s to early 1970’s, as well as many similar buildings on another large street nearby, Massachusetts Ave. Most importantly for my purposes, the study asserts (p. 11), “From the period of its development, between 1881 and 1908, through to the present day, the St. Botolph neighborhood has been a living and working environment for artists, writers, and musicians and craftspeople. In addition, a number of schools teaching arts and crafts have flourished in the area during its century-long existence.” Is it any wonder that a music teacher – who must have also been a musician, to be capable of teaching music – was drawn to living in this neighborhood?

The PDF also has a map and some photos of the area at the time the study was commissioned. Based on the study, the Boston Landmarks Commission decided to create an historic district which they named St. Botolph Architectural Conservation District. Here is the link to the PDF of the study of the neighborhood. There are many more studies digitized (regardless of outcome) on the Boston Landmarks Commission site at this link.

What Can You Do from Home?

I chose to use this as a case study because I knew I would be likely to be able to visit at least one of Florence’s former home sites in person. However, I am also using the atlases to locate relatives’ homes that I am much less likely to visit in person, and I imagine many readers similarly utilize maps of locations which they are unlikely to be able to visit in the forseeable future. So what can a researcher do if they can’t visit in person and can’t find someone else willing and able to visit in their place?

While it was most satisfying to me to do the research partially by visiting in person, most of what I did could have been done without visiting. I could have used a street-view site and web searches to try to verify that buildings such as the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society and Garrison Hall were still there, or to research them even if they weren’t still extant. I could have also done more research from home to confirm that the modern numbering on Huntington Ave. is different than the numbering on the map; for example, looking up the street addresses of the businesses shown on Google Maps would have likely shown that the numbering was slightly off what it used to be.

I discovered the Boston Landmarks Commission report on the neighborhood by doing a web search for information on the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society, so if I had been researching the buildings shown near Florence’s home on the map, I would have found the report regardless of whether I had visited the location. I found additional information on the neighborhood at the Massachusetts Historical Society’s site by doing a web search for the Massachusetts Mechanics Charitable Association, another building listed on the map. The Boston Landmarks Commission report was the most helpful single source because they had done such extensive research on the neighborhood since they had a vested interest in their research being accurate. If someone else has already done good research on a subject of interest, there’s no sense in duplicating their work.

A Few Final Cautions

  1. Keep in mind that street numbers may have changed, possibly only slightly.
  2. Remember that, as they themselves warn, all addresses are approximate on virtual “on the ground” sites like Google Street View. Unless you can actually visibly see a street number, don’t assume that the building shown is the exact street address you are seeking.
  3. Remember that a building that looks period may have been built later but designed to fit in with older buildings in the area or designed with a retro architectural style. Always try to verify that a building is as old as it looks or as its design suggests. Similarly, an old building may have had cosmetic changes that may make it look newer than it really is; just because a building looks newer than the period you are researching, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not the building you seek.



I have created another blog where I am transcribing a journal I inherited of a year one of my American ancestors spent in Victorian Paris; it is called Addie’s Sojourn.

Yes, I am still going to finish the rest of my posts on IAJGS 2013 and post them. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to do so. They take so much time to write that I decided it was finally time to go ahead and post a couple of other blog posts while I am still working on the IAJGS 2013 drafts.

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