Women wearing wide-brimmed hats and long dresses recline in front of today’s Como Park Lakeside Pavilion. A trolley emerges from an underground tunnel by the Cathedral of St. Paul. Men who designed the State Capitol rest on its steps, the 2017 version of the building behind them.
Ben Greilanger has a cameo in every photo he takes of St. Paul. His fingers pinch a Minnesota Historical Society photo from decades past, holding it up against the backdrop of today. His “Then in Now” project captures a city that has changed dramatically but has retained street corners and buildings that clearly resemble St. Paul a century ago.
Occasionally, Greilanger gets goose bumps re-creating a scene, thinking that another photographer stood in the same place 100 years before, the photo subjects sitting right in front of him.
“It’s kind of bringing them back to life for a second,” Greilanger said.
He’s taken more than 60 pictures, many of which have hung in St. Paul City Hall for a couple of months. History buffs will be able to examine the images at two showings next month, on Dec. 2 at the East Side Freedom Library and Dec. 16 at Flat Earth Brewing.
Greilanger sifts through photos — dating from the 1880s to the 1950s — and scours Google maps online to find scenes that fit in today’s city landscape. He brings the images to the location and carefully aligns the corners of a porch, edges of a building or church steeples.
“They kind of give you a direct physical, or visual, connection between past and present,” said Carol Carey, executive director of nonprofit Historic St. Paul.
Carey enjoys the pictures with people, like one from 1905 of a couple sitting on their front porch — with today’s yard behind them.
“It gives you that sense of other people utilizing those spaces and that we are just caretakers and stewards at any point in time,” Carey said. “This isn’t just about bricks and mortar, it’s a connection to memories and the cultural history.”
Greilanger, a real estate agent and handyman, didn’t set out to advocate for historic preservation through photographs. He was helping with some brickwork at Flat Earth, in the former Hamm’s brewery building on the East Side, and began to wonder, “What was this place like when it was in its prime?”
He dug into the Minnesota Historical Society archives and brought images to the brewery, where he wandered around re-creating the angles.
“Oh, this is pretty cool,” Greilanger said he realized. “And then the rabbit hole continued into ‘what else is around St. Paul?’ ”
When he comes across beautiful old buildings that have been torn down, he feels deflated. But others found new life, like a cigar manufacturer that’s now the Goat Coffeehouse or a fire station repurposed as the Happy Gnome bar.
Greilanger said he found “almost endless” photo possibilities, enough to fill a coffee-table book — an idea he’s been exploring. He has been connecting with local historians who could help him tell the stories behind the images.
While many of the photos capture a St. Paul few recall, some spark memories for people like Trude Harmon. When she saw the “Then in Now” photo of the Selby streetcar tunnel next to the cathedral, it brought back a scene from her childhood of riding the trolley through the tunnel.
Greilanger, a Minneapolis native who lives in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood, said he doesn’t plan to stop at photos of St. Paul.
Minneapolis is up next.