Four Eras In One Photo

by Don Friedman on September 8, 2016

I recently used this circa 1900 photo in a lecture and I think it’s worth some discussion (click to enlarge):


The view is looking east down Vesey Street from the corner of Washington Street. These days, that section of Washington has been demapped for the World Trade Center. But that’s not totally foreign to this picture, since the two tall buildings in the distance – The Park Row Building on the left and the St. Paul Building on the right – were among the earliest steel-skeleton skyscrapers in New York. At the time this picture was taken, the Park Row Building was the tallest in the world, and would be for another eight years.

If we go back in time twenty to thirty years, we get the Washington Market on the right, foreground, and the loft building with the painted ad for “Martin Daab China, Glass, and Earthenware.” Fairly standard 1870s construction, with some pretense to architectural style and enough engineering for some long spans at the market and some heavy floor loads at the loft building. About the same age is the elevated railroad over Greenwich Street (the first intersection past Washington), using then-modern steel and wrought-iron technology.

If we go back another thirty to fifty years, we get to the houses in the left foreground, converted by 1900 to commercial use. They’re bog-standard New York rowhouses, using construction technology that would be instantly recognizable to the people who built Rome more than two thousand years earlier.

And finally, if we go back 150 years before this picture, we get to St. Paul’s Chapel, just visible as the spire to the right of the St. Paul Building. It was, for the mid-1700s, a reasonably daring building in New York, with a tall and slender wood spire, and a (then) long-span truss roof over the sanctuary. It featured in a popular photo composition from the 1970s and 80s that became a cliché among tourist postcards: the view looking west from Broadway and Vesey Street:


I guess that makes two photos, but in the second one everything I discussed other than the Park Row Building and St. Paul’s Chapel has been demolished.

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