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Time Travel Along Fifth Avenue, with Photos from the Early 1900s and Today

Street View, Then & Now: New York City's Fifth Avenue
‘Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue,’ with the New York Public Library in 1911 and 2015 (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic, via NYPL Labs) (click to enlarge)

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.

Street View, Then & Now: New York City's Fifth Avenue
The title page of ‘Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue’ (via NYPL Digital Collections)
Street View, Then & Now: New York City's Fifth Avenue
‘Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue,’ showing the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria (via NYPL Digital Collections) (click to enlarge)
Street View, Then & Now: New York City's Fifth Avenue
‘Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue,’ showing Fifth Avenue at 93rd Street (via NYPL Digital Collections) (click to enlarge)

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
‘Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue,’ showing Fifth Avenue at 20th Street in 1911 and 2015 (click to enlarge)
Street View, Then & Now: New York City's Fifth Avenue
‘Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue,’ showing Fifth Avenue at 37th Street in 1911 and 2015 (click to enlarge)
Street View, Then & Now: New York City's Fifth Avenue
‘Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue,’ with the now-demolished Windsor Arcade in 1911 (click to enlarge)
Street View, Then & Now: New York City's Fifth Avenue
‘Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue,’ with the Vanderbilt mansion in 1911 replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman store, as seen in 2015 (click to enlarge)
Street View, Then & Now: New York City's Fifth Avenue
‘Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue,’ showing the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1911 and 2015 (click to enlarge)
Street View, Then & Now: New York City's Fifth Avenue
‘Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue,’ at the current site of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (click to enlarge)
Street View, Then & Now: New York City's Fifth Avenue
‘Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue,’ showing Andrew Carnegie’s mansion in 1911, which is now the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (click to enlarge)

Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue is online through NYPL Labs. 

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