In 1911, photographer Burton Welles published Fifth Avenue, New York, from Start to Finish. The block-by-block tour up Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to East 93rd Street in Manhattan captured horse-drawn carriages mingling with early cars, Gilded Age mansions, and newly built institutions like the New York Public Library (NYPL). Bert Spaan of NYPL Labs recently launched Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue. The online interactive compares Welles’s street views of New York City to today, as seen through Google Street View.
There are radical changes like the disappearance of the grand Vanderbilt mansion, which was replaced with the Bergdorf Goodman department store, pictured in 1911 with a double-decker car tooling by. However there are still many buildings from this era that stand over a century later, including NYPL’s main branch itself, although it doesn’t yet have its guardian lions Patience and Fortitude. Earlier this year, NYPL released over 180,000 public domain images and has encouraged engagement with the resource through its Remix Residencies. Along with Street View, Then & Now, projects like Emigrant City, where users can transcribe 19th- and early 20th-century real estate records from the Emigrant Savings Bank, and the Stereogranimator which augments stereographs into 3D GIFs, demonstrate the possibilities of public domain experimentation.
Back in 1911, Welles was part of a surge of photography projects that methodically chronicled cityscapes, such as Rudolph M. De Leeuw’s Both Sides of Broadway published in 1910 (you can flip through the whole book online at the Internet Archive). NYPL notes that in 1907, the Fifth Avenue Association started in response to encroaching factories on the fashionable street, and it may have inspired Welles’s wide-angled photography approach. What at first might seem like a documentary exercise is actually a romantic view of the early 20th-century city. Christopher Gray, in an introduction to the 1995 reissue of the book by Dover Publications, wrote that Welles “was unsatisfied with Fifth Avenue as it really was, and the streets are heavily painted out.” In particular, he covered up the horse manure.
The perspective is also a bit skewed with the panoramic camera, giving odd angles on sites like the demolished Windsor Arcade (today the site of a Guess store), and Andrew Carnegie’s residence that’s now the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Yet with the strolling pedestrians, opulent homes of Millionaire Row, and glimpses of the corset shops, clubs, and advertisements is a real sense of what walking on Fifth Avenue might have felt like at that time. Below are a few comparisons from Street View, Then & Now, and you can find all of the images from the 1911 publication digitized at NYPL Digital Collections.
Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue is online through NYPL Labs.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.