The photo is from Spring 1979, so I know there are many of you out there who still remember when the downtown looked like this. Some of it still does – with one major exception.
Unlike many of the pictures that I publish in this newsletter, this one is relatively recent – winter/spring 1979. So I know that there are many of you who remember when the downtown looked like this.
Even for the rest of us, the scene is pretty familiar. Apart from the store names, it does not look all that different from the view you would see today. Except, of course, for the large mass of the Kingsbury Building.
The Kingsbury Building was built in 1886, the third large retail block built in the downtown. It stood beside the Moseley Block (the downtown’s first large retail block) and together they defined the business district of downtown Needham in the late 19th century.
The Moseley Block was torn down in 1928 and replaced by the current one-story building (trivia factoid: it is officially the Barkin & Gorfinkle Block, but no one ever calls it that). The businesses shown in this picture were stores that many of you reading this article once shopped at – West’s, which was where men and boys bought their casual and dress clothes, including that all-important milestone the First Suit. Carroll’s Cosmetics and Perfumes, for when you wanted something nicer than Woolworth’s. The store in between seems to be missing a part of its sign, though it sold Gifts and Stationery (it may have been part of Carroll’s? Let me know, if you remember); in its shiny windows you can also see the reflection of the sign for The Bookshelf, across the street. Allen’s Hardware was a long-time occupant of that location, opening in 1935 and closing in 1996.
Also across the street, on the corner, is The Crest (do I hear a collective sigh?) The Crest was one of those stores that every town needs – selling candy, sodas, ice cream, tobacco, magazines and newspapers, comic books, greeting cards, sundries, and (as I hear) some behind-the-counter items as well. The Crest occupied that spot for 70 years – the destination of several Needham generations – from 1926 until 1996.
We also have a picture of nearly the same downtown view, that was taken in 1948. Apart from the cars, there is not much difference. Allen’s, Carroll’s, and The Crest are all there; instead of West’s, though, there is a grocer called Evergood Fine Foods.
Bridging the little gap between the B&G Block and the Kingsbury Building is Victor Gatto’s Real Estate and Insurance office. This agency later relocated to Chapel Street and was taken over by Vic’s son, Rich.
The Kingsbury building was just under a century old in this picture – the oldest and largest building in downtown Needham, and the last of the great Victorian retail blocks.
When it was built in 1886, it was rather grand. It was built by Dr. Albert Dexter Kingsbury, a physician in town and former commander of the Galen Orr Post GAR, the Civil War veterans’ organization. The first floor housed retail businesses, including E.B. Fowler’s grocery store, Sullivan’s Pharmacy, W.R. Foster’s Dry Goods, and P.E. Riley’s tobacco store. The upper floors had offices (“Dr. E.C. Leach, Dentist”) and a meeting hall that was used for meetings by the Masons, other social and fraternal organizations, and for public functions.
By the time that this picture was taken, however, the Kingsbury Building was in poor shape, and largely empty. There were several stores at street level – The Curiosity Shop (“A Collection of Boutiques”), the Burgess Warne Pharmacy, Kerivan-Lane Plumbing and Heating, and Stevens Fruit Store. A close look at the picture shows that the façade is shabby and deteriorating, with peeling paint and missing clapboards. The roof is missing shingles.
This is one of the last pictures of the Kingsbury Building. Just over a year later, on the night of July 5, 1980, the venerable Kingsbury Block burned down. The fire was discovered around 2:15 am, and rapidly escalated to four alarms as the flames raced through the old wooden structure. Through the night, more than 66 additional firefighters from 15 neighboring towns were brought in to help Needham’s own 48-man crew put out the blaze. Nine suffered injuries, but fortunately, none were life-threatening. The fire was finally brought under control about ten hours later. Investigation revealed that the probable cause of the fire was the careless disposal of cigarette ashes.
After the fire, the building was deemed a total loss and was condemned by the town. It was not insured; Louis Stevens, who owned both the Stevens Fruit Store and the building itself, had let the insurance lapse a few years before because of the high cost of premiums. Nevertheless, the property consisted of three-quarters of an acre in the downtown business district, so Stevens was able to find a buyer to take it off his hands.
The 1980 fire was not the first to occur in the Kingsbury Building – there had been several others over its years, though none were nearly as devastating. In view of that, it is perhaps surprising that the Kingsbury Block lasted as long as it did. The big open wooden pile, balloon-framed (as was common in those days) without any barriers in the walls to prevent fire from traveling up the frame, was vulnerable. But it was also built at a time when public buildings were a source of civic pride and identity, and even a functional retail block was meant to show off the town’s prosperity. In the years since, building codes have evolved to limit risk, and the economics of building often discourage decorative detail. So, the featureless square brick block on the site now, also called the Kingsbury Building, is certainly safer and more efficient. But it is not nearly as grand.
Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum