Saturday, December 18, 2010

Nostalgia

There are few things I enjoy more than historical photos of cities. Call me guilty of being nostalgic, sure, but I'm not ashamed of it. Apart from offering a view into the past and the development of cities, they can be depressing. Depressing because it is rare to find a city which looks better now than it did 100 years ago. The onslaught of Modernism coupled with the automobile destroyed much of what made many cities such wonderful places in the past. It's a small wonder so many of America's cities experienced white flight after WWII. Urban renewal in the 1960's/70's further sealed the fate for many downtown areas. I will detail these changes in future posts. 

Earlier this week the Museum of the City of New York launched an online version of their collection of historical photos. There are literally thousands of photos from as early as 1880 to 1980. It's easy to search by photographer, era, borough, or tag. I've already spent a while going through a multitude of photos. Here are some of the highlights so far, from between 1895 and 1936:

Wurts Bros.
65th Street at the N.E. corner of 5th Avenue. John Jacob Astor residence, general exterior.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York
Byron Company
857 Fifth Ave. at 67th Street. [The George Gould Residence.]
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York
Byron Company
Cornelius Vanderbilt Residence, West 57th St., Building from N.E.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York
Jacob August Riis
Fifth Street looking west.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York
Berenice Abbot
Broadway and Thomas Street
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York
Byron Company
Street Scene looking South Down Fifth Ave. from 63rd Street, showing Heckscher.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York
Byron Company
Street Scene Looking South down Broad St. from Wall St.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York
Wurts Bros.
Wall Street, looking toward Broadway.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York
Sorry about some of the repetitive text, a requirement of the Museum, but I think you'll agree that these photos offer a fascinating insight into a bygone era. The roads seem almost quaint in comparison to the hussle and bussle of NYC today. Major thoroughfares still have dirt roads into the 1920's. But what these photos illustrate most is the harmony once present in NYC. Street furniture is elegant, beautiful, and sparse. Ads are at a minimum. There is a respectful relationship between the sidewalk and road, their uses often blurred. Perhaps most evident is the civic pride. Buildings are not cheap boxes as is so often the case today. The mansions of the elite, such as the Vanderbilt mansion in the third image, is no stronger architecturally than the surrounding apartment buildings. Every building had something to say. Be sure to zoom in on the photos on the MCNY site to take in the detail. 

For quick comparison, here's the existing site of the Vanderbilt mansion, now the site of upscale department store Bergdorf Goodman.

Google Street View
Certainly not even an extreme example. Much worse buildings have sprung up on the site of a one time masterpiece. 

I highly recommend checking these photos out. I could easily spend hours, even days, going through them. I'll probably post some more highlights as I find them. Thank you MCNY. 

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