A new project by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies allows you to time travel through downtown Little Rock.

Anyone who’s ever wondered how much Little Rock changed over the past 150 years or so can now see for themselves, thanks to a snappy new mapping project that juxtaposes vintage street scenes with modern views of the same location. 

Historian Brian Robertson, an archivist with The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, masterminded the then-and-now architectural tour of the city as a way to make local history zing. 

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“Sometimes history, depending on how it’s presented, can be a little stale and not very interesting, Robertson said. “I wanted something that would be fun and educational. Infotainment, I guess.” 

A present-day view of Markham Street, looking eastward from Main Street.

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Roughly the same view as above, but from 1890.

The result is definitely fun, with a dizzying bounce effect as you hop among the 132 slides to tour a chunk of downtown that spans roughly from the Arkansas River south to 21st Street and Louisiana Street east to Sherman.

To do it, Robertson and his colleagues mined photos of downtown that date back anywhere between 1863 and 1968, and matched those photos to recent shots using Google Earth technology. The result is a digital tour that includes some past and current matches that look a lot the same, and more that look wildly different.

The new mapping project matches old and new photos to show what’s changed, and what hasn’t.

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“Most of the buildings shown in images from our collection no longer exist. The earliest images in the project date from the Civil War, while the more recent ones document the revitalization and urban renewal that took place in the 1950s and 1960s,” the project description says.

While Robertson and the Butler Center have put together similar projects in the past, this one seems to be getting extra attention, he said.

“I hope people can see how the downtown landscape has changed over the years. I think that you can see, one, what we’ve lost as far as what was once downtown. On the other side of that is, some of the buildings are still here. Most of the ones in that project are no longer here, they were torn down for various reasons, but you can still can see glimpses of what used to be downtown.”

The eyebrow arches of some of the antique buildings closest to the river are still on view today, sitting next to newer, more angular construction. The horses, dirt roads and tangles of overhead power lines from early photos are missing in the modern ones, replaced by Lime scooters, cars and smooth asphalt.

The activity happening in those streetscapes is different, too, depending when the photos were taken.

“Back during the day, downtown was the place to go, it was a prime shopping and entertainment destination for folks,” Robertson said. Downtown areas across the country saw declines in the ’50s and ’60s, as more people had cars and spread out to the suburbs. But in recent decades, downtowns, including Little Rock’s, are destinations once again. 

Robertson started building the downtown mapping project after getting so much good feedback from co-workers when he shared archival images alongside current-day photos of the same places that he snapped with his phone.

The Butler Center, part of the Central Arkansas Library System, aims promote a greater understanding and appreciation of Arkansas history, literature, art and culture. To that end, it offers a number of digital community history projects. The Arkansas Traveler Project, for instance, creates historical narratives about Arkansas history using maps, photographs and video.

The popularity of the new project is inspiring Robertson to take on a new project focusing on the history of Little Rock’s Ninth Street corridor. What started as a settlement of freed slaves during the Civil War grew into a thriving Black community that flourished for nearly 100 years. By the late ’50s and into the ’60s many of the buildings were getting torn down in the name of urban renewal, and the construction of I-630 was a debilitating blow to the once bustling area.

Robertson hopes his next project will give people a feel for Ninth Street’s history.

“We’ve got probably 50 to 60 pictures of houses and commercial buildings along Ninth Street. All but one of the buildings in the photos have been torn down,” he said.