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Vintage maps at the Library of Congress

October 16, 2009 | 11:48 am

One of the tricky things about websites is they always have to start with a single page. And no matter how many buttons or pop-up menus are crammed into them, it can be hard to get a sense of depth, of how much content lurks behind that original page.

Take the Library of Congress. Its buildings in Washington impart the sense that its holdings are big -- really big. And while its website is perfectly fine -- nice homepage, clean, navigable -- it can't begin to indicate just how much of the massive collection has been put online.

Digging around, as if wandering off into the stacks someplace, I came across this map room. It's packed with historic maps -- of national parks, the Panama Canal, an 1884 hand-drawn map of telegraph lines and roads in Mexico, Civil War battles and much more. It's all rather esoteric, but cartography reveals how we think about place and power -- and it's also beautiful.

The image above came from a 1909 map of the city of Los Angeles. Rendered with amazing precision and detail, it can be appreciated with the somewhat awkward online viewer, or downloaded and gawked at on screen. There, at the corner of 8th and Broadway downtown, you can see a streetcar and palm trees. Buildings are labeled with clarity -- there are more than a few stables.

And those of us who know downtown Los Angeles will be amazed to see just how many big buildings were standing by 1909. We tend to think of this as a young, far-flung city, but 100 years ago, it was a jam-packed metropolis.

Sprawl hadn't yet arrived. The map's key has about 300 listings for apartment buildings and rooming houses, all on this central map. Such a huge portion of the population had chosen to live downtown.

The map barely stretches past Alvarado, to Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park), and off to the west and north lie stretches of open land. Fewer than 30 buildings stand along the long, lonely Sunset Boulevard. On Sixth Street, in what is now the Rampart district, the wealthy Van Nuys family estate sits alone on a large lot, just to the east of "Site of Crown Palace - 500 Rooms - Walter Raymond, Proprietor."

That's a moment of becoming: There are a few other sections of the map labeled with the name -- and in some cases, the contact information -- of the developer. While photographs reveal much about place, a map provides a window into how people lived and what they valued. A century ago, we had two private schools and two bee supply shops, new developments planned along the city's perimeter, all fed by five meat markets, four grocery stores and five breweries.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: Detail of 1909 Los Angeles map, Birdseye View Publishing Co., Grosse Building, Los Angeles.