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SEEING DOUBLE A vintage image from the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Forty strangers walk into a bar, turn off the lights, and put on 3D glasses. It's not the build-up to a bawdy punch line; it's the Tuesday evening scene inside the Roots Cultural Center on Westminster Street.

Visitors sit in rows of chairs facing a projection screen lit up by a blurry, black-and-white image. Through their glasses, the image becomes a sharp, textured, three-dimensional snapshot taken from a spot near Prospect Terrace Park. There are no iron fences or Roger Williams statues in the photo, though, just a tree perched on a sloping hill in the foreground and rows of steeples and pitched roofs stretching for miles beyond it. And as local historian and preservation consultant Ned Connors says from the front of the room, there are plenty of smokestacks.

"Providence had the highest per-capita income in the United States in 1890," he says. The city was booming thanks to a locomotive factory and metal parts manufacturing juggernauts like Nicholson File and Brown & Sharpe. "Smokestacks were everywhere. If you owned a factory and you hired an engraver to come do an illustration of you, you always had an engraver make smoke because smoke was a sign of wealth."

The 3D College Hill vista is one of hundreds of stereo photographs in the Rhode Island Historical Society's collection. They're a relic from an era when photographers roamed Providence's streets with special cameras rigged with two lenses set eye-width apart. Once developed, the photos were printed side-by-side on cards that were inserted into handheld wooden viewing gadgets called "stereopticons." When viewers peered through the stereopticon's goggles, their brains combined the two images, creating an impression of lifelike depth and perspective. It was Gilded Age parlor entertainment.

A quirky neighbor hooked Connors on stereo photography with 3D images of Taj Mahal and other blues musicians from Newport Folk Festivals taken during a revival in stereo photography after World War II. He combined that obsession with his love of local history to present slideshows like this one around town, organized by the Rhode Island Historical Society. ("I don't know anybody who has a time machine, but this is as close as you can get," RIHS executive director Morgan Grefe said before the show.)

Connors's projectionist this evening is his daughter Audrey, a senior graphic design student at Rhode Island College who helped her dad scan the old photographs into Photoshop and brush away coffee stains and other imperfections before sending the images off to Wisconsin to be converted to 35 mm slide film. "I don't know of any other statewide historical societies that are doing what we're doing . . . as far as mining their collection of historical stereo views and projecting them using modern technology," Connors says. "It almost looks like someone punched a hole in the side wall of Roots and that black and white world is outside and we're just kind of looking through the hole in the wall."

And, indeed, the whole bar has turned into one giant stereopticon for tonight's show. Staring at the screen through their goofy glasses, the crowd sees bygone 19th-century structures like the "WHAT CHEER" building (now the site of RISD's Chace Center), municipal water-pumping stations that look like cathedrals, and Thomas Tefft's grandiose, Romanesque train station.

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  Topics: This Just In , Providence, 3D, 19th century
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