BU Today

Arts & Entertainment

The Secret Life of Old Photographs

Grad student finds the familiar in century-old pictures

Click here to listen to Timothy Orwig narrate a slide show of historic Boston photographs.

Wander through many Boston neighborhoods — downtown, Back Bay, even the Boston University campus — and you can see the past peeking through the façade of the present. Timothy Orwig compares the city to a Middle Ages palimpsest, reused parchment on which earlier writing has been imperfectly erased.   

For the past five summers, Orwig (GRS’01,’08) has taught a course at Metropolitan College and the College of Arts and Sciences on Boston’s architectural history, and when he leads his students on walking tours, he encourages them to think of the city landscape as just that: a palimpsest.

“The tour we begin the class with is of the BU campus,” says Orwig. “I get them to think about the stores on Comm. Ave., about the automobile showrooms, the factories, and the printing plants that were here, and about BU’s coming and transforming it all.”

That sense of the past amid the present is very much the center of Orwig’s new book, Historic Photos of Boston (Turner), published this spring. The publisher had been looking for an author to write a coffee table book featuring photographs of old Boston, and a friend recommended Orwig. The photos had already been chosen from the rich archives of the Boston Public Library; Orwig had to research the history of the buildings and their locations. He delved into the BPL’s archives of long-dead local newspapers, peeling back the layers of history to explain each photo.

The subjects of the photos, most from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are surprisingly easy to identify: Louisburg Square on Beacon Hill looks much the same; Washington Street downtown also seems familiar; and except for the horse-drawn sleighs in the snow, Beacon Street appears unchanged. Some, though, are long gone, like Scollay Square, in what is today Government Center, and the West End, demolished in the name of progress.

Many scenes become recognizable upon closer inspection. Take an 1884 photo of the Cyclorama in the South End, whose domed roof and towers now peer out through the contemporary Boston Center for the Arts on Tremont Street. Back when the photo was taken, the Cyclorama was an attraction much like movie theaters today: the large circular building housed a 400-foot painting of the battle of Gettysburg.

“It was supposed to give people the feeling that they were at the battle,” says Orwig, who is finishing up work on a Ph.D. in architectural history. “It was a very popular entertainment at the time — in the photo, you can see the crowds waiting to get in. There were a number of them around the country, at least two in the South End at the time.”

Not all the photos are of famous places. One of Orwig’s favorites shows street sweepers in 1909. “There’s a little boy in suspenders watching them,” he says. “You’ve got this magnificent horse pulling the cart. It’s the North End, and you know that if it hasn’t been obliterated, it’s certainly changed.” With the sunlight coming down on the horse, “it’s like an old master’s painting in some ways,” Orwig says. “There’s so much going on in the pictures once you really start studying them.”        

Taylor McNeil can be reached at tmcneil@bu.edu. Paul Heerlein can be reached at heerlein@bu.edu.