Monday, January 7, 2013

Balloon View of Boston (1860)

Cambridge, January 7, 2013

One last (at least for now) note about looking at the city from above.

Bulfinch's Boston, let's say in the first years of the 19th century, was largely a city of detached buildings, with "downtown" pastures slowly giving way to more urban construction.  Fast forward fifty years and you see a completely different picture: a very dense fabric of 5-story buildings tightly built up to the street line.  Also a rather precise geometry--the exact term would be something like radio-concentric--with curving blocks following the convex arc of the shore and long narrow buildings extending the pattern of the harbor piers.

That is the view that we get from the 1860 (yes, 1860!) aerial photograph of  "Boston , as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It" (the phrase comes form a 1863 enthusiastic write-up by  Oliver Wendell Holmes in the "Atlantic Monthly".)  James Black, a Boston photographer coming out of the daguerreotype studios, teams up the ballooning pioneer Samuel King to produce the first aerial views in the US (only two years earlier Felix Nadar, a frenchman, had taken the very first aerial photographs.)

Up 1,200 feet in the air, Black shows a new breed of American urban buildings, that Walt Withman, visiting Boston that same year, describes from the ground: "Noblest of all State Street Block, east of the Custom House, rough granite.  (...) probably one of the finest pieces of commercial architecture in the world."

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