Burnside Building
339 Main Street in Worcester

This downtown commercial building was home to seven different corsetiere businesses from 1904 – 1927

The Burnside Building circa 1900. From the collection at Worcester Historical Museum, Worcester Massachusetts.
Front entry to 339 Main Street in Worcester, the Burnside Building built in 1886-1887. Photo by the author, copyright 2021.

The Burnside Building sits in the heart of Worcester’s downtown, two blocks from City Hall.  In 1904, when the first corsetiere (Mary Costello) in the building set up shop, her fellow tenants included the following:  

  • 7 skirt and dress makers
  • 5 real estate firms
  • 4 insurance agencies
  • 3 each:  hairdressers, dentists
  • 2 each:  milliners, chiropodists, music teachers, pension businesses
  • 1 each:  barber, typewriter company, collector, dental lab, oxygen treatment, patent lawyer, architect
Period light fixture in the Burnside Building lobby. Photo by the author, copyright 2021.
Detail of the Burnside Building entryway. Photo by the author, copyright 2021.

A Worcester lady of the era might enter the Burnside Building where she could, after knocking on the doors of three of its tenants, collect her dresses, hats and undergarments for the next year.  If she had extra time and money after engaging in all that commerce, she could also visit the hairdresser.  The variety of commerce available in the building that year gives us a vibrant example of what Main Street used to mean to North America.  Main Street was where you went for your goods and services before cars, highways, malls, suburbs, box stores, internet, ecommerce.  

The Massachusetts Historical Commission describes the Burnside Building as a good example of late Victorian commercial architecture.  Heirs to 19th century Worcester lawyer Samuel Burnside spent some of their inheritance on architectural plans for the building from the Boston firm Bradlee, Winslow, and Wetherell.  When it first opened in 1887 its street-level storefronts featured “plate-glass display windows set in a cast-iron surround” and its façade was covered with carved stonework.  The Main Street exterior looks today very much as it did when the building first opened.  

In the current public spaces (hallways, staircase, etc.) inside the building, not much historic detail remains.  It has been transformed over the years by multiple owners to reflect the taste and needs of changing times.  What was probably a wood trim interior with hardwood floors is now five stories of dropped ceilings, fluorescent bulb light boxes, wall-to-wall carpeting, and plastic mini-blinds.  A majestic glass ceiling light fixture from the early days still hangs in the building lobby, which gets an upscale feeling from deep green marble tiles that fill the area.

          … from Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, published in 1900:  “The huge plates of window glass, now so common, were then rapidly coming into use, and gave to the ground-floor offices a distinguished and prosperous look.  The casual wanderer could see, as he passed, a polished array of office fixtures, much frosted glass, clerks hard at work and gentlemanly business men in ‘nobby’ suits and clean linen lounging about or sitting in groups.”