Building the Future

Working with the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Raymond Holstein Stereograph Collection has revealed to me the apparent contradiction inherent in cityscapes: the built environment of the present is both the same as and yet utterly alien to the built environment of the past. That is, a stereograph from the 1860s and one from the 1890s may show the same street block in Philly, featuring the same building. But the shops within that building will have changed, awnings and advertisements will have gone up or come down, electric streetlights and telephone poles will have replaced the old gas lamps lining the sidewalks. Or entirely new edifices will be built on the graveyard of torn down buildings.

 This realization extends beyond a comparison of stereographs within the collection. Images of City Hall, the Union League building, the Academy of Music, and the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel are strange, archaic twins of the same, three-dimensional buildings I pass every day on my walk from Suburban Station to the Library Company. Yet the settings of these landmarks are drastically different, from the type of traffic crowding Broad Street (horse-drawn carriages switch to cars where the only animal drawing is on the auto logo) to the fashions of the people populating the sidewalks (bustles to mini-skirts). And I am pretty certain that Starbucks and Nicole Miller were not the original tenants of the Bellevue-Stratford. The late nineteenth-century and the early twenty-first century thus collide in a way both comforting and jarring. Change as the only static fact of the urban world has a good deal in common with college life, or so I’ve begun to think.

 Four years at an institution like Haverford is similarly both foundational and fleeting. It may help determine future careers and friends, a new hometown, and philosophical-ethical development. But the days of waking up at noon for a class on magic and medicine in medieval Europe are numbered, and there are only so many uses one can get out of a squirrel-covered sweatshirt after senior year. After graduation, some things will remain forever embedded in the life of the newly minted adult, and some things will be lost to the past. Dramatic ruminations on my impending aging colored my last few weeks of freshman year with existential anxiety.

 Now, as I conclude the summer following what feels like a very brief freshman year, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to gain a little perspective. (More than provided with a non-archivist nine-to-five job, although I have heard they are in general pretty grounding.) Philadelphia has survived the ebb and flow of the century; I can survive the transition from new student to student halfway through college. Haverford itself seems to be doing just fine with the march of time, as one of the last stereographs I housed in the Collection proves:

Courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia, Print Department

“Haverford College,” circa 1870s. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Print Department.

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