Fifty years on Newbury Street

Reading Room Ashburton Place
The Reading Room at 9 Ashburton Place. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, NEHGS

On 14 December 1964, NEHGS opened its doors to members at 99–101 Newbury Street for the very first time. The building on Newbury Street is the Society’s seventh home since it was founded in 1845, and this location has served as our headquarters during the greatest period of growth in our history. In the fifty years since arriving in the Back Bay, our membership has increased from 3,000 to an active constituency of more than 70,000; our library print collections have grown from 30,000 volumes to more than 250,000 volumes; and our endowment has improved from approximately $1 million to more than $25 million.

Take a 360 degree tour of 99-101 Newbury Street

Located in a series of different buildings on and about Beacon Hill between 1846 and 1964, the Society’s final home on Beacon Hill, 9 Ashburton Place, was purchased in 1911 (and opened in 1913) because the space and adjacent buildings were believed to provide enough room for more than a century of future growth for the organization and collections.

Auditorium at Ashburton Place for VB
The auditorium at Ashburton Place. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

In 1958, amidst planning meetings with government officials about a proposed expansion of the headquarters at Ashburton Place, which already included two distinct libraries, multiple reading rooms, office space, a fine art museum, a 325-seat auditorium, and a patriotic wing that housed offices for the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of the American Revolution, the Society of Colonial Wars, and the Society of Mayflower Descendants, NEHGS leaders learned that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts planned to seize the Society’s headquarters by eminent domain in order to build a new state government complex!

1928 Newbury Street Artist Rendering
Architects’ rendering for 99-101 Newbury Street. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

In April 1961, the State formally exercised its right of eminent domain. NEHGS was given several years to find a new home. Four sites were initially considered for the Society’s future headquarters: the Boston Medical Library at 8 The Fenway, the old West Church at 131 Cambridge Street, the old New England College of Pharmacy building at 70–72 Mount Vernon Street, and the former offices of the New England Trust Company at 99–101 Newbury Street. After assessing each of the sites, on 6 February 1963 the Society’s council voted to move to Newbury Street.

1928 Newbury Street Construction
The New England Trust Company branch at 99-101 Newbury Street under construction, 1928. The building at 97 Newbury Street is visible at right. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

The building at 99–101 Newbury Street was designed by Ralph Coolidge Henry and Henry P. Richmond, successors to the famed architect Guy Lowell. The building was completed in 1928 and served for more than thirty years as a branch of New England Trust Company.

The Society purchased the then three-story building in April 1963 for $175,000 and arranged to have five floors added to the building, bringing the total space to just over 31,000 square feet, which was still less than 50% of the square footage of the Ashburton Place complex. Total cost of acquisition, architectural fees, construction, and moving to Newbury Street was approximately $823,000. The move was partially paid for by the $599,000 eminent domain settlement, which fell far short of the $900,000 fair-market appraisal the Society received on its Ashburton building in 1961.

The growth of NEHGS since 1964 has partially been a function of the rise in the interest in family history, partially a function of technological changes, and most certainly as a result of conscious efforts to provide comprehensive genealogical services. Among the most popular and important aspects of the services that have been added since 1964 include genealogical research seminars and tours, such as “Come Home to New England”; long-term study projects like the Great Migration Study Project; a member magazine; a technology center, first with microfilm readers and then computer stations; an expanded publications division; and a staff with expertise reflective of the varied faces of America.

Newbury Street Today
99-101 Newbury Street today

As we celebrate fifty years on Newbury Street and the growth of services to support family historians, we are also poised for our first space expansion since the move from Somerset Street to Ashburton Place in 1913. Our recent acquisition of 97 Newbury Street, a 4,500 square foot brownstone building adjacent to our current headquarters, provides our first opportunity in more than a century to explore, once again, offering an exhibition hall, classrooms, a collaborative space for genealogical and historical partners, and perhaps even an auditorium.

The History of NEHGS Headquarters:

1846–1847:        City Building, Room 9, Court Square
1847–1851:        The Massachusetts Block, First Floor, Court Square
1851–1858:        5 Tremont Street, Third Floor
1858–1871:        13 (later 17) Bromfield Street, Third Floor
1871–1913:        18 Somerset Street
1913–1964:        9 Ashburton Place
1964–present:  99–101 Newbury Street

About Ryan Woods

Engaged in museum and library management for more than a decade, Ryan Woods oversees the day-to-day operations of NEHGS and is responsible for the strategic implementation of technology and content services. Since joining NEHGS in 2007, he has held successive roles developing education programs, supervising the research library, and leading business and technology initiatives, including the creation of the Society’s flagship website, AmericanAncestors.org. Prior to arriving at NEHGS, Ryan served in several key capacities at the Mary Baker Eddy Library and at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, where he was recognized by members of Congress and the Archivist of the United States with a special commendation for outstanding achievement in public service. A licensed educator and author of educational and genealogical articles, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in history, education, and non-profit program management from Boston University. In addition to his work at NEHGS, Ryan serves on several boards of historical and educational institutions and is a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, the Society of Colonial Wars, the Sovereign Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem.

6 thoughts on “Fifty years on Newbury Street

  1. Many thanks for the history of NEHGS Headquarters. I went to college in Boston, 1951-1955, and my parents lived in the city and in Somerville but I did not know of the existence of NEHGS until 2008. I can now place it in my and my family’s experiences in the city.

  2. An interesting history. I’m also in interested in the linguistic move from the use of the term “membership” to that of “constituency.” How exactly does the NEHGS define this new constituency? Perhaps this could be the subject of another Vita Brevis.

    1. Hi, Bruce:

      Great question! The evolution of terminology from membership to constituency reflects the varied ways in which people can now access our family history services.

      As recently as five years ago, about the only way to engage with our services was to purchase an annual membership (still the best way!) Today, one has myriad options: sign-up for a free guest user account on AmericanAncestors.org, subscribe to The Weekly Genealogist electronic newsletter, subscribe to this blog, take part in our monthly free webinars, become a Facebook friend, follow us on Twitter, visit the library, have a consultation with an expert staff member, or hire Research Services to break down a brick wall.

      For reporting purposes, we calculate constituency as those discrete individuals who are either members, current guest website users, newsletter subscribers, blog subscribers, or actively using a service such Research-for-hire on a recurring basis.

  3. Enjoyed reading this history. I worked at NEHGS 1973-74…..wondering if there is anyone on staff now who would have been there then. We were a very small staff and there were very few visitors…of course this was also pre-Internet days….and activity was very mild. I was surprised to learn that NEHGS had only been on Newbury Street ten years when I was there as the library was beautifully arranged and very complete. Archives were extensive. Unforgettable were the beautifully appointed rooms on the first two floors.

  4. How fascinating to “walk through” NEHGS” on the 360 degree tour, both inside and out. The only thing missing inside the building is the people! The photographs must have been taken at 9:30 am on a day the building was closed to the public. I think it would have given a better picture of how the building’s used to have some people using the facility, but not so many that we couldn’t see the beautiful building. Anyway, thanks for the views. I watched them many times over, and now have a much better idea of what can be done there, with what kind of equipment. Since I live on the other coast, it’s unlikely I’ll ever get there for myself, so I doubly appreciate your making this available.

Leave a Reply