What 22 Iconic Places Looked Like When History Was Being Made There — And What They Look Like Today
By Kaleena Fraga | Edited By Jaclyn Anglis
Published November 29, 2022
Updated June 21, 2023
From Times Square to the trenches of World War I, these then-and-now photos will make you see the world's most historic places in a completely different light.
History lives all around us. Places like Hiroshima and Verdun bear scars from past world wars, just as landmarks like the Great Sphinx of Giza and the Great Wall of China contain echoes of long-lost days.
Though some iconic places have undergone more subtle changes — like occasional restorations to polish them up — most of them would be utterly unrecognizable if people from the past could see them today.
As the 22 historic places in the gallery below prove, famous locations can undergo dramatic transformations over the passage of time.
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The original Penn Station in New York City in 1911. Its architect described the station as the "entrance to one of the great metropolitan cities of the world."Geo. P. Hall & Son/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images
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Despite the popularity of the old Penn Station, it was torn down in the early 1960s as cars became a more popular means of transportation than trains. And to make room for the new sports complex Madison Square Garden, the actual train station was moved largely underground, much to the disappointment of many New Yorkers. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
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The Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II flattened the city and killed an estimated 25,000 people, many of them civilians. Yet some landmarks, like this statue of religious reformer Martin Luther in front of the destroyed
Frauenkirche, remained standing.Probst/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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Today, the city of Dresden has been rebuilt — and the statue of Martin Luther still stands tall.Arno Burgi/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Before it was "Hollywood," the famous region in Los Angeles, California was known for its Hollywoodland Sign. Here, men who are builders or surveyors working on the Hollywoodland development pose next to the sign, which was first erected in 1923.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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Today, the Hollywood Sign (shortened from Hollywoodland) is a landmark that represents both Los Angeles and the film industry in general.AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images
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There's perhaps no British landmark quite as iconic as Big Ben, seen here in London, England in 1911.The Print Collector/Getty Images
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Though the city changed greatly during the 20th century and beyond, Big Ben continues to cast a watchful eye over Londoners.Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images via Getty Images
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The Barmaley Fountain in the Russian city of Stalingrad (today called Volgograd) was based on a fairytale and installed in 1939. But just a few years later, it offered a harrowing juxtaposition between the statues of joyful children and the devastation of the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II.Wikimedia Commons
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Though the statue was demolished after the war, it was rebuilt in 2013. Here, World War II veterans attend the opening of the new fountain during a city-wide ceremony commemorating the 40,000 civilians who died during the Nazi bombings. Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
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On the eve of the Civil War in the United States, the Capitol Building was not quite complete. Here, it's seen without its iconic dome in 1859.
William England/London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Today, the Capitol Building is one of the most recognizable buildings in Washington, D.C., largely because of its famous dome.MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
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In this undated photo, the Great Sphinx of Giza is seen still mostly buried by sand in Egypt. Built an estimated 4,500 years ago, it slowly disappeared beneath the dunes as the centuries passed by.Bettmann/Getty Images
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It wasn't until the late 1930s that the Sphinx was finally revealed in full by Egyptian archaeologist Selim Hassan, leading The New York Times to quip: "The Sphinx has thus emerged into the landscape out of shadows of what seemed to be an impenetrable oblivion."Sean Gallup/Getty Images
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In 1953, this stretch of Bennelong Point in Sydney, Australia didn't look like much.Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images
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But six years later in 1959, construction began on the Sydney Opera House, one of Australia's most well-known landmarks, seen here in 2006.Tim Graham/Getty Images
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Near the end of World War II, the city of Hiroshima, Japan was bombed by the United States, which used the world's first deployed atomic bomb in the attack. Here, a man stares at the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall after the explosion in the city on August 6, 1945, which had instantly killed an estimated 80,000 people.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Today, that building still stands as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial — and as a reminder of what happened in the city during World War II.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
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French soldiers stand in a trench in Verdun, France, during World War I. The bloody, 10-month Battle of Verdun between France and Germany saw between 714,231 and 976,000 total casualties.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Today, however, many of the trenches in Verdun have been all but swallowed up by the woods. Here, the remnants of a World War I trench are seen in 2014, nearly a century after the conflict.FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP via Getty Images
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The first sections of the Great Wall of China are an estimated 3,000 years old, and the structure was originally built as a protective measure.Three Lions/Getty Images
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Today, the Great Wall is one of the most well-known tourist attractions in China.Giovanni Mereghetti/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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In the 1970s and 1980s, Times Square in New York City was a far cry from the family-friendly tourist attraction it is today. Then, the area was better known for its peep shows and porn shops.Walter Leporati/Getty Images
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Today, however, Times Square has a decidedly different reputation, attracting families and other travelers from all over the world.George Rose/Getty Images
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Checkpoint Charlie marked the division between West and East Berlin after World War II. It represented the fractured nature of the German capital after the war, and the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, as both countries occupied different parts of the city. Bettmann/Getty Images
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Today, however, Checkpoint Charlie is a tourist attraction and a faint reminder of Berlin's complicated history.Maja Hitij/Getty Images
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Two men gaze at the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1994. The buildings were opened in the 1970s but destroyed in 2001 during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images
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Today, the One World Trade Center (which is also known as Freedom Tower) has replaced the Twin Towers on the Manhattan skyline. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images
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U.S. troops storm the beaches of Normandy during D-Day in June 1944. The ambitious amphibious invasion of Nazi-occupied France led by the Allies helped turn the tide of World War II.Keystone/Getty Images
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Here, World War II veteran Joe Cattini, who stormed Gold Beach on D-Day, stands on a beach in Arromanches, France, on June 6, 2018, the 74th anniversary of the operation.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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Workers standing on one edge of the future Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. 1935.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Today, the bridge is one of San Francisco's most beloved landmarks. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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Adding the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota took 14 years, from 1927 to 1941. Here, construction on the monument is seen in 1930.
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Now, the faces of those four American presidents adorn the mountain. KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images
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In the early 20th century, "The Strip" in Las Vegas, Nevada was nothing more than a handful of hotels, restaurants, and illicit casinos. GE Kidder Smith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
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Today, Vegas is widely considered the "entertainment capital of the world."HECTOR MATA/AFP via Getty Images
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This photo of dead soldiers following the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War shocked Americans across the country, and brought the ugliness of war straight into their homes. July 1863.Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
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Today, the former battlefield remains a somber place, with a cemetery and numerous monuments.Patrick Smith/Getty Images
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The construction of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, began in 1887 for the 1889 World's Fair. Here, the base of the structure is seen in 1888. Roger Viollet via Getty Images
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Though some French critics claimed that the tower would be a "useless and monstrous" blight on the city, the Eiffel Tower today is an enduring symbol of both Paris and France as a whole.ZAKARIA ABDELKAFI/AFP via Getty Images
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Tower blocks in the abandoned Ukrainian town of Pripyat, evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, are seen nine years later in 1995.
Martin Godwin/Getty Images
What 22 Iconic Places Looked Like When History Was Being Made There — And What They Look Like Today
How These Historic Places Have Transformed
Some of the photos in the gallery show landmarks that changed due to development. New York's Penn Station, for example, looks quite different today than it did in the 1910s. Originally designed as the "entrance to one of the great metropolitan cities of the world" — according to its architect, Charles Follen McKim — Penn Station struck some as obsolete in the 1960s when cars became a more popular means of transportation than trains.
According to PBS, Penn Station's owners needed to find a new way of using the space to make income. So, they agreed to dismantle the station, rent its air space, and make room for the sports complex Madison Square Garden.
Geo. P. Hall & Son/The New York Historical Society/Getty ImagesThe original Penn Station in 1911. It was later razed in the early 1960s to make room for Madison Square Garden.
Other places around the world were forced to change due to warfare. For example, World War II bombings in Hiroshima, Japan, and Dresden, Germany, leveled both cities. But though the bombs destroyed buildings and lives, they also left certain landmarks standing — a statue of religious reformer Martin Luther in Dresden and the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall in Hiroshima.
In the decades that followed, these landmarks remained as their cities were rebuilt around them. Today, they're poignant reminders of Dresden and Hiroshima's wartime past and the resilience of both cities.
Similarly, former battlefields like the forests of Verdun or the beaches of Normandy — both in France — played important roles in wars. Verdun set the stage for the bloody Battle of Verdun, which saw hundreds of thousands of casualties during World War I. And the beaches of Normandy bore witness to the ambitious D-Day invasion during World War II.
Sean Gallup/Getty ImagesThe forest in Verdun, France, has swallowed up many of the World War I trenches, but reminders of the 10-month Battle of Verdun, which saw a total casualty count between 714,231 and 976,000, remain.
Today, trenches in Verdun have mostly been swallowed by the woods. And along the Normandy coast, little can be heard but the roar of water against the sand. Time has largely covered up the past violence in both places.
And yet, for other famous locations, it's time that gives them new life. Take Egypt's Great Sphinx of Giza. The iconic statue was probably built around 4,500 years ago in 2500 B.C.E., though some have speculated that the Sphinx is much older. Over the ages, sand accumulated around the statue, eventually burying everything except its head.
It wasn't until the 19th and 20th centuries that the Sphinx was revealed. The first modern attempt to free the Sphinx came in 1817, when a group of Italian adventurers tried, and failed, to push back the sand. More than 100 years later, Egyptian archaeologist Selim Hassan finally succeeded in revealing the ancient statue to the world.
As you'll see in the gallery above, no place escapes the passage of time. Nature reclaims battlefields, societies rebuild after bombs, and ancient secrets are rediscovered after being lost for centuries. It's all but certain that the places we recognize today will undergo dramatic changes in the future.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.