When railroad was the king of transportation, Beaux-Arts architects McKim, Mead, and White designed a palace of a terminus in New York City. Acres of glass domes, arches and vaults, intersecting trusses and a colonnade of Doric columns evoked Roman baths. Then, in 1963, Pennsylvania Station was razed, replaced by a smaller, air-conditioned structure. It was a decision made in the name of business, politics, and progress.

Luckily, great architecture has a soul mate in photography. Through photography, we can hold on to this and other architectural gems, preserved for all time.

Although the loss of Penn Station left a deep wound in the architectural landscape of the city, it spurred New York’s historic preservation efforts. Perhaps no other loss of a building would be as tragic again until 2001, when the World Trade Center was attacked and destroyed.

“The Life and Death of Buildings,” on view through Sunday, November 6, at the Princeton University Art Museum, explores the unique relationship uniting architecture, photography, and time.

The museum received a gift of photographs that document the 19th century buildings razed in the 1960s to make way for the World Trade Center. Danny Lyon’s series “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan” is supplemented with work by such notables as William Henry Fox Talbot, Eduard Baldus, Alexander Rodchenko, Alfred Stieglitz, Laura Gilpin, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Zhang Dali.

Rather than memorialize 9/11 in a straightforward documentary way, Joel Smith, curator of photography at the museum and curator of “The Life and Death of Buildings,” wanted to use Lyon’s series to build something bigger. “When Lyon made these images, it was about a lost neighborhood, but now it means something else,” he says.

“The reissue of the series by the artist in 2005, half a decade after the attacks on the Twin Towers, could not help but convey a different message about time, transformation, and loss than it had when first published,” says museum director James Steward in an introduction to the exhibition catalog.

At age 24, Lyon had already photographed biker gangs and the civil rights struggle in the American South, and feeling a need to get away from people, he retreated to an abandoned building in lower Manhattan. Soon he became aware of the wrecking crews working on the barricaded antebellum structures on 60 acres south of Canal Street. A new documentary project had found Lyon.

In Lyon’s black-and-white images from 1967 we see cast-iron arches and columns, magnificent clay brick structures, and Federal style windows with lintels. All fall down.

Smith has paired Lewis Hine’s photograph, “Laying a Great Beam on the Empire State Building, 1930” — two men on a steel girder, so high up they are surrounded only by mist and a crane — with Lyon’s “Dropping a Wall” — a series of men pulling down a brick wall against a backdrop of architecture similar to the Art Deco skyscraper. Both photographs tell the story of the labor of men. Lyon wrote they were “risking their lives for $5.50 an hour, pulling apart brick by brick and beam by beam the work of other American workers who once stood on the same walls and held the same bricks, then new, so long ago.”

Smith has supplemented Lyon’s series with photographic work from the museum’s collection, as well as work in other media that form a neighborhood around the photographs, just as neighborhoods grow up around buildings.

“Splitting: Four Corners” by Gordon Matta-Clark (1974) is a sculpture made from four sawn-off roof corners of a house in Englewood, NJ. Smith had long admired it at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and thought it would be an important addition to “Life and Death of Buildings,” returning to the state in which it had originated. Getting it was a long shot, recounts Smith, especially when the SFMOMA curator told him how in demand it was. But Princeton turned out to be enroute from the sculpture’s return from London, and the timing was perfect.

“Here,” from a 1989 graphic novel by Richard McGuire, takes us back and forth and in and out through the years of all that transpires in a single living room. “It’s so appealing to show how other media works here,” says Smith.

And there are New Yorker covers: the September 24, 2001, edition with the Art Spiegelman rendering of two black towers against a blue-black sky; and the October 3, 2005, Chris Ware cover, showing the Empire State Building being photographed by a cell phone. Smith points out that the cell phone camera first became popular two years after 9/11.

The photographs of buildings in “Life and Death of Buildings” were made by documentarians, artists, journalists, propagandists, hobbyists, itinerant studio operators, dealers in order-by-number souvenir views, and historic preservationists.

Peeling paper; flaking paint; and scarred, weathered, and age-layered surfaces fascinated such photographers as Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, and Minor White, who presented it as abstract art. Decay presented the best conditions for studying the action of chance, wrote White, who is quoted in the catalog: “. . . a timeworn wall is a blackboard upon which happenstance does the writing. The older a building gets the further removed it is from the hand of the architect or builder. As age creeps on and chance takes over, the photographer can find things that were never intended by the originators.”

“Buildings embody time,” Smith writes in the catalog. “When a structure was first fixed to the ground and endured, humanity moved out of nature and into history. We have lived there ever since. History confers language, myth, and customs, and with them a durable past made of stone, wood, and glass. The history we inhabit in buildings is no comprehensive archive; it is a patchwork of survivals, a discontinuous and evolving collage.”

Civilization grows around a building like coral around an island, Smith observes. “Photographs and buildings are at once the products, the vessels, and the cargo of history.”

Memory emerges as a theme. “We create memory,” says Smith. “Each time you tell a story, you’re generating it anew. It’s not the original story, but what you remember from the last time you told it. Take the events on 9/11. When you tell where you were that day, the initial memories are fresh, and then you think back and they are episodic. I was walking to work, I heard the news in the hallway, students were watching TV when a tower fell.

“But the chronology has been lost to time,” he says. “If the story is told today we are patching it together. A photo seems to be an objective record, but it’s just a fragment. How it serves memory is a broader and psychological issue.”

Photographs, as co-authors of history, can be doctored. So, too, can buildings be altered by time and the hand of man, and even erased. “To those accustomed to the old state of things, the new situation — the hutless temple or downtown Manhattan without the Twin Towers — will initially look as ‘false’ and hallucinatory as a doctored photograph,” says Smith.

Buildings, he continues, unify the lives of people and have been altered by the digital age. Now people can work off site, and even in different locations can work on the same projects. Photography, too, has changed now that it can be altered by strokes on a keyboard. “We can no longer look at a photograph and say this is really the way it is. It changes the dynamic of the medium. It’s compelling to think of both in terms of the digital revolution.”

A photograph preserves an outtake from the past. “Photographs, by embodying moments of time in the punctual crossings of space, light, and surface, take us as close as we ever get to time travel,” says Smith.

Traveling in time or out West, photography enhances the experience. At the turn of the 20th century, photographers printed postcards so homesteaders could write to loved ones back home. They would be tucked into shoeboxes, only to become valuable to collectors decades later. Here we see women in long dresses and men in coveralls and jackets, making their homes in sod huts, shacks, even a wooden framework for a shelter to come. There are such signs of domesticity as dogs, chickens, and a woman strumming a guitar.

Berenice Abbott, the American photographer who lived in Paris for many years, working as a studio assistant to Man Ray, discovered Eugene Atget and, after his death, brought his archive to New York to be published. There, she was inspired to do for New York what Atget had done for Paris. Hired in the 1930s by the Federal Art Project, she completed her “Changing New York” series. One of her most iconic images is of the Flatiron Building, at the time one of New York’s tallest buildings.

In the exhibit we see one of her vistas — towering buildings rising over older street level buildings — paired with William Garnett’s bird’s eye view of a sprawling housing development in San Francisco. Smith describes it as a “mob of lordless vassals, a labyrinth of mortgage-payers’ claim shacks smothering the land.”

There are also contemporary photographs, such as Andrew Moore’s “Model T Headquarters, Highland Park (Detroit),” an abandoned executive office whose green carpeted floor is actually overgrown moss and mahogany paneling is really rusted metal; Jeff Brouws’ “Signs Without Signification,” a series of once-neon lit proclamations for stores, diners, and other business establishments, visible to passing motorists, that have lost their letters; and Tim Davis’ “Colosseum Pictures,” a pile of digital cameras lying on a cobblestone ground, all showing the Colosseum in the LCD screen.

Since this exhibit spans the history of photography, from the 1840s to the present, black and white dominates in terms of quantity. However, by yardage, there is more color photography, because the color works are much larger in size.

Smith, born in Fresno, California, spent the first year of his life in Princeton, then grew up in Seattle. His father was a professor of philosophy and his mother, trained as a botanist, worked as a paralegal. Smith graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1988, with a bachelor’s degree in history of art. He earned his doctorate in art and archaeology at Princeton in 2000.

Writes Smith: “Buildings live, or rather age, in our midst, but not as we do: not in the constant, one-way manner of bodies but according to the arrhythmic cycles of history. Yesterday’s workplace becomes today’s vacant eyesore and will be tomorrow’s ‘timeless’ protected landmark.”

“The Life and Death of Buildings,” on view through Sunday, November 6, Princeton University Art Museum. Admission is free. Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. 609-258-3788 or http://artmuseum.princeton.edu.

Also, keynote lecture, Saturday, September 10, 5 p.m., McCosh 10. “Mapping History, Marking Time” presented by Anthony Grafton, professor of history, Princeton University, and Daniel Rosenberg, associate professor of history, University of Oregon. Followed by reception, 6 to 7:30 p.m., at the museum.

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