ABOUT THE HISTORICAL PHOTOGRAPHS In the old view of Boston, made in 1860, the streets seem to the etched deeply into a solid mass of buildings, much as letters might be chiseled into a block of granite by a stonecutter, or gullies might be carved into a bank of clay by a retreating flood. In the new view those street shape are much less crisply defined, but they do survive, whereas all the buildings have disappeared - with the sole exception of tiny Old South Meetinghouse, with a small spire barely visible at the left. The old photo is a famous one. It is the first successful aerial photograph made int he United States. The photographer, J. W. Black, took it from a hot-air balloon tethered 1,200 feet above the streets - more than 400 feet higher than the top of today's Hancock Tower. The newer photo was made from the same spot in 1981 by Alex MacLean. Much of the transformation shown in the these pictures can be explained by two inventions, the passenger elevator and the steel building frame - forces that changed all American cities by making tall buildings possible. Equally important, though, was a purely Boston event that occurred 12 years after the date of the balloon photo. The Great Fire of 1872 destroyed 776 buildings, including almost everything in this view, even out to the docks and boats in the harbor. After the Great Fire came a period of explosive redevelopment, during which virtually the whole Boston downtown was rebuilt to a new maximum height (established by law) of 10 to 12 stories. Enough of these "post-fire" buildings remain to give Boston's downtown much of its scale and character today. -Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker, "CITYSCAPES - High Society", Boston Globe, 1990


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