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Photographer turns back time with historic SF composite shots

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Time waits for no one, but sometimes you can call it back

The more San Francisco changes, the more it stays the same—and the more likely locals are to be disgruntled by one or the other.

Photographer Niall David (at the behest of travel site Orbitz) took a trip down several memory lanes to create a starkly cool San Francisco Through Time photo series, compositing historic photos of notable SF locales with photos taken in October of this year, calibrated as precisely as possible to match the angle and location of the old images.

The precision paid off, and the results are a window—quite literally—into another age:


Photos by David Niall

San Francisco City Hall

The original City Hall building sat about a block away, roughly at the site of the Main Library building today. After the 1906 earthquake destroyed that one, voters passed a bond in 1912 valued at $8.8 million—about $225 million in today’s currency—to rebuild Civic Center in time for the 1915 World’s Fair.

This image from 1913 captures the Arthur Brown-designed City Hall building as its iconic profile was coming together.

Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral

The oldest cathedral in the entire state of California, Father Henry Ignatius Stark oversaw Old Saint Mary’s construction in 1854 as a mission to spread Catholicism in Chinatown.

The bricks and granite were all imports from China and stood up to the 1906 quake (even while the disaster wiped the rest of Chinatown off the map), and the building appears little different today than it did in this photo from 1900.

Grant Street (Chinatown)

After the great earthquake, racist City Hall honchos saw an opportunity to rid themselves of SF’s Chinese enclave by trying to force surviving Chinatown residents to relocate to “Butchertown”—known today as Bayview.

But Chinatown resisted the attempted ouster, rebranding itself as a tourist destination and creating its now iconic (if kitschy) faux-Orientalist architecture to appeal to visitors. As this 1910 image shows, the look, like the neighborhood, has endured.

Haight Theater

Not everything in SF is so resilient. Seen here in 1948, the Haight Street theater first opened for business first in 1910.

Falling on hard times in the middle of the century thanks to competition from television, the Haight switched over to a then-experimental gay arts theme in 1964, beginning with a screening of Ed Wood’s groundbreaking but transcendentally terrible, semi-autobiographical crossdressing picture Glen or Glenda?

It only last a few months, and the next owners renamed it the Straight Theater, either as a joke or a way to divorce their endeavor from neighborhood outrage at the previous incarnation. The building later went the way of demolition, although sources vary wildly on precisely when. The present building dates to 1988, and the Goodwill moved in in 1991.

Lombard Street

This image from 1922 actually captures Lombard in the midst of construction. The full photo reveals that much of the housing surrounding the now-famous curves didn’t exist yet—and neither did complaints from the famous street’s homeowners.

The street design was intended to make this stretch of Lombard accessible by car for the first time and thus raise property values—it worked, but some nearby homeowners seem to wish it hadn’t.

Flood Building

Here seen under construction in 1904, the Flood Building was the city’s single largest building at the time, featuring 12 stories and 292,360 square feet. Though named after silver baron James C. Flood—one of SF’s four Comstock Lode silver barons—it was actually his son James L. Flood who had it built and named after his by-then late father.

To see more of David’s then-and-now composites, check them out here.