Vintage Photography: ‘Then & Now’ Images of Highways, Businesses, Mansions, and Other Lost Wonders

Admiral Wilson Boulevard (Route 30) and Baird Boulevard, Camden NJ


While putting together my recent post (How The 21st Century Is Replacing the 20th), I found a number of other photos that I was thinking of including, but they didn’t seem to fit.  So I decided to create this second post, which shows many interesting old scenes that I have collected over the years.  And thanks to that wondrous bit of technology known as Google Street Views, we can now see how things have (and haven’t) changed over the decades.

When I was growing up, highway scenes like the one above were quite common, and widely regarded as ugly, tasteless, tacky–a blight on the landscape.  Muckraker books like God’s Own Junkyard were written telling us how bad all this was.  Well, there’s an eternal saying, “This too shall pass”, and passed it has, much of it.  Almost to the point where someone might miss seeing this 1950s-60s “grubble” (as New York mayor Ed Koch used to refer to this kind of haphazard roadside development, with its accompanying vivid neon signage).  It definitely had a character all its own, which may be appreciated now more than it was then.

People are now creating artworks based on this image.


Same view today.  The buildings were cleared by eminent domain in 2000, and the entire area is now a park.


View of Admiral Wilson Boulevard taken from the Baird Boulevard overpass. That “St. Louis Arch” behind Admiral Liquors is visible in the distance.


Recent view from the overpass. White Tower (with “curb service”), Sunoco–all green space now.


Finding these “after” views is not as easy as you think.  It’s amazing how much things have changed over the decades.  Many photos of this type have no specific location or address listed, so you have to look for little clues and use your own knowledge and memories to guide you.  I’m focusing on the New Jersey/New York area because I grew up here and it’s easier for me to orient myself to locations I’m somewhat familiar with.  But I’ve also included some notable pictures from other areas of the country.  You can join the fun by finding an old photo online or in a book and then looking up the street view on Google.

More “roadside squalor” as the caption describes it, this time on Route 46 in Saddle Brook NJ.

After “a clamor for legislation to save the landscape”, do things look any better after 60 years?  The signage is more boring and plain, but that’s about it.

Route 22 in Union NJ was considered the ultimate “slob road”–a never-ending forest of signs, lights, traffic, and visual clutter.

Jean Shepherd claimed that driving down Route 22 was “a surreal experience”, and it kind of was–especially if you’re a little kid like me sitting in the back seat of a ’62 Mercury Comet.  I remember going by this very spot at night, taking in the endless panorama of animated, colorful neon signs.  Some flashed, others sparkled–gas stations, discount stores, fast food places, and everything else.  It seemed to go on and on and on, into the night.

Same view today (daytime). Maxon Pontiac is now Maxon Buick/GMC.  The neon signage has been significantly toned down, although the globe at the Honda dealership is somewhat keeping up the old tradition.


And talk about surreal–right across from Maxon, Dean, Force Tools, was THE FLAGSHIP!  Yes, a building that looked just like an ocean liner!

The S.S. Flagship is still there, but it has lost a lot of its “ship-like” qualities, and looks more like a normal building.

Farther down was TWO GUYS . . .

. . . and then VALLEY FAIR:

Couldn’t do an “after” on these two.  Things have changed so much I can’t be sure of the exact locations.

However, the last vintage VALLEY FAIR sign was still in place on Chancellor Avenue in Irvington NJ until 2016 . . .

The framework of the old sign remains, but it has been covered over with new lettering.

Main St. looking west from Bridge St., Somerville NJ


Still recognizable, but I think a lot has been lost.


81st St. between Kennedy Blvd. & Grand Ave., North Bergen, NJ. (Photo from flickr by Lenny)


Same view in 2016. (Lenny)


Palmer House, Main St. & S. Maple Avenue, East Orange NJ


Demolished when Interstate 280 and its exit ramps were rammed through the center of East Orange.



So many photos I could include here, but here are a few favorites:

771 Broadway at E. 9th St. GOLDBERG! Wm. GOLDBERG! SUITS! TOPCOATS! 2 FOR 1! Wm. GOLDBERG invites you upstairs! HATS! Did you hear me say GOLDBERG? Wm. GOLDBERG!  (Berenice Abbott photo)


Today, the original is building gone; no one would know Wm. Goldberg was ever here.


Looking as if it was built in heaven, Berenice Abbott beautifully photographs the cast iron facade of the Wanamaker Store in Manhattan.

Wanamaker’s Store was replaced by a high-rise apartment building in the late 1950s.


The original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  This is what was torn down to build the Empire State Building.  The Hotel, built to last the ages, stood for less than 30 years.

The original Grand Central Station as it appeared c. 1870.  It was remodeled in the 1890s, and replaced by the present Grand Central in 1913.



Gas station on Tremont Ave. and Dock St. (Berenice Abbott, 1936)


This may be the same gas station on Tremont, even though Dock St. no longer intersects at this point.



222 Columbia Heights at Pierrepont Pl., 1936 (B.A.)


All the Victorian charm of the original house has been lost.  Its neighbor retains the authentic look.



This, believe it or not, was Philadelphia’s Central High School. It looks as though it was built to outlast the pyramids!


In the 1950s the school was replaced with this faceless nothing.



Grant Row, E. Capitol St. between 2nd & 3rd Sts. SE.  Capitol dome visible in the background.


These houses were torn down to make way for the Folger Shakespeare Library.



I’m having a little trouble with this one.  It’s State Street in Chicago;  the marquee looks to be the same, but in the older photo there’s no theatre building behind it.  Is this the same view?

Al Capone’s Headquarters, 2222 S. Dearborn St.


Dearborn St. now ends mid-block; urban renewal has leveled the entire neighborhood. Capone would never recognize the place!


This is 29th & S. Wabash Avenue . . .


Same intersection today. Almost all of the charming Victorian buildings of the old South Side have been wiped out.


One block down Wabash, St. James Church was recently demolished. (photo from flickr by Katherine of Chicago)


Rush Street, with lots of neon.


Welcome to the future!


At 675 Rush St. was the Cyrus McCormick mansion (of McCormick reaper fame), built 1879.




675 Rush St. today.


The Thompson/Allerton House, 1936 Prairie Avenue, the finest house in Chicago when it was erected in 1870.  The only known photo of it I can find.  The house was demolished in 1915 and replaced with a dull-looking one-story factory for the Hump Hairpin Company.


Hump Hairpin Factory in the 1970s.


Present-day view of Prairie Avenue and 20th (now Cullerton) Street, northwest corner.  Hump is gone.  This view matches with the photo of the Thompson/Allerton House above.


Almon T. Ellis house, 3615 Ellis Park, built in 1877.


In the course of an urban renewal project, the park was expanded outward, and the houses were demolished in the 1950s.


We can’t leave Chicago without including this color slide of Palmer Castle at its creepiest, most Gothic best!  (Are those the same two girls from Ellis Park?  I guess they like walking past these haunted-looking places!)


Yes, the castle’s gone, replaced by a high-rise apartment house.  So typical.




On page 87 of the July 1960 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, there was this article on the new 1960 Plymouths.  I thought I’d do an internet search to see if I could find the location of the Kenyon Brothers cattle barn.

Boy, was I surprised to see the Kenyon Brothers barn and cattle operations fully intact and virtually unchanged!  Things don’t look quite as clean and sharp as they did in 1960, but still!

In the same article was this photo, with the Plymouth shown in front of a majestic Victorian mansion.  I assume this was taken in the same area of Illinois as the Kenyon Brothers picture, but I haven’t been able to find this location.  Does anyone have any clues?

Washington DC: Center Market, now Convention Hall.


What can we say about all these changes over time?  I think it’s safe to say that if we were to travel 100 years into the future, we would see a lot of strange shapes and very little that we would recognize as familiar.  Of course, a few places might be “frozen in time” and might look very much the way they do now, but these would likely be sparsely scattered exceptions.

Assuming that civilization does not destroy itself or lapse into a long period of stagnation and decay, future aesthetics created with the use of advanced technology could be quite remarkable and astounding to people of our time, just as skyscrapers and automobiles would definitely shock someone living in the Middle Ages.  Time will never stop moving forward.  The Earth will still be here, humans will still be here, and new generations will continue to make advancements and create new things as inspiration comes to them.  Cultural improvement will result in aesthetic improvement.

Greetings from the year 3000: