Fast quiz:  Which of these two houses is the Ruggles House at Columbia Falls, Maine?

A.

B.

 The answer of course, is that ‘B’ is the Ruggles House, one of the most exquisite Federal era structures in Maine.   Photo ‘A’ is of the James P. White house in Belfast, Maine, designed by Calvin Ryder, and one of the finest Greek Revival houses in the state.  Both photos are from the estimable online catalog of the Historic American Buildings Survey, the staggering catalog of American architecture, humble and grand, started as a works project during the Depression, and which continues its important work today.  Many buildings long lost are thus preserved for our collective memory.  Many of the earliest photographs in the catalog are evocative in a way that modern pictures cannot be, as below:




 That’s the good news.  The bad news is that both photographs appear in the catalog entry for Ruggles House with this caption:

10. SOUTH FRONT FROM THE SOUTHEAST
HABS ME,15-COLUF,1-10
In my frequent wanderings through the HABS catalog, I have found many such errors, enough sadly, that they make suspect the accuracy and reliability of the catalog as a whole.  I confess, as if the regular reader hadn’t noticed, a passion for the facts—accurate, hard facts.  I enjoy the hunt, separating urban legend from what really happened, reconstructing a scenario from sometimes conflicting accounts, bringing logic to the proceedings.  It’s why I prefer the New York Times to Fox News, any political leanings aside.  When I’m wrong, as I often am (don’t tell my friends that I admit it), I am glad of being corrected and set on the path to truth and righteousness.   And so it is always disheartening to discover that a major and authoritative source has strayed.
One assumes, of course, that the huge job of scanning and uploading these thousands of images was performed by interns, and in fact hopes, given the evidence, that it wasn’t done by Library of Congress staff. Or, in fairness, perhaps the pictures have been mislabeled from the beginning, Either way, most of the errors are easily enough spotted by merely looking at picture and caption and stopping for a moment to assess the information given.   Internships are important—-they give a student experience in a chosen field, they give needed assistance to organizations and institutions whose resources are stretched.  But interns need the ability to think critically, and to ask questions—and staff need to supervise, else you wind up with examples like below, also from HABS, this time of Chateau Sur Mer, the grand Wetmore cottage at Newport designed by Seth Bradford, and variously altered by Richard Morris Hunt, John Russell Pope, and Frederic Rhinelander King.
It starts out well enough, with this photo of Chateau Sur Mer, captioned as a view from the northwest, as indeed it is:  
 But things start to deteriorate a few photographs later, with this view of the opposite corner, described as from the northeast.  

Um, no, that would be from the southeast.  Looking northwest.  One looking at this photograph cold, neither knowing the geography of Newport, or this house, would have no reason to doubt the caption, all the more reason that it should be accurate.



From there, things go rapidly downhill—-For example:

14. MOON GATE FROM THE SOUTHWEST HABS RI, 3-NEWP, 59A-1
HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-14

Obviously, regardless of the caption, this is a photograph of the stair hall, looking North-northeast, if anyone cares, but one imagines the hapless surfer of the photographs scratching his head to try to figure out what in hell constitutes a moon gate in the picture.



But that’s as nothing—let’s continue on our tour of Chateau Sur Mer via HABS.  The alert reader will immediately note that not all is what it claims to be:

15. SOUTH GATEWAY ON BELLEVUE AVENUE FROM THE SOUTHWEST HABS RI, 3-NEWP, 59B-1
HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-15

16. PORTER’S LODGE AND ENTRANCE ARCHWAY FROM THE WEST HABS RI, 3-NEWP, 59C-1
HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-16

18. VIEW OF STABLES FROM THE SOUTHWEST HABS RI, 3-NEWP, 59E-1
HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-18

19. FRONT OF STABLE FROM THE SOUTHWEST (CLOSE VIEW) HABS RI, 3-NEWP, 59E-2
HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-19

24. LIGHTING FIXTURE IN BILLIARD ROOM
HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-24

26. SOUTH WALL OF LIBRARY WITH DESK CLOSED
HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-26

 The photo above, of the library, is my particular favorite, because anyone can see that the desk is open.  

But, back to serious.  Each photograph is numbered on the negative, as one sees.  The numbers are tied to a photo caption list, from which the captions seen here are generated.  Hence, the level at which whoever did this was not paying attention had to be off the charts, and likewise the lack of supervisory checking.  For example, the photo accompanying caption # 18, claiming to be the stable, with # 24 written on the negative, indeed does match the caption for # 24.  And # 24, numbered 30 at the top of the negative, appears again later, as itself with this correct caption:
30. GREEN PARLOR, LOOKING WEST FROM THE BALLROOM HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-30
I’m sure I appear didactic, but it is worrisome that the organizations charged with research and accuracy sometimes fall down beyond the point of acceptable human error.  Recently, while seeking material for a recent project, of importance to the money-making career enhancing portion of my life, not merely blogging fun, I wandered to the Bangor Public Library.  I needed something very specific from a vintage issue of Country Life in America,  and knew that the Bangor Library had a complete run of the magazine.  And here’s where the trouble began.  The Bangor Library, a magnificent structure designed by Peabody & Stearns, expanded a few years ago, more than doubling its faciility with an addition by Robert A.M. Stern Associates.  More recently, they purchased another buiding across town for use as a ‘last copy’ storage center, and moved their bound periodicals there.  Inconvenient though it is for the general public—it is not staffed, hence materials have to be requested and brought a few at a time to the main library building, a delay of sometimes days.  But at least they are not throwing out the primary materials, as are so many. I went to a reference librarian, who looked up Country Life in her periodicals catalog, and determined that there were no issues in the collection from the 1930s.   As they had all dates both before and after, and the library had had a complete run, this seemed unlikely—that they would for some reason dispose of just those years and keep the rest.  I gently pushed, and hit a complete stone wall—basically ‘catalog says NO’.  I went back again a few days later, and this time at least got her to find that the magazine had gone through several subtle name changes, accounting for the different blocks of cataloging.  But, the issue I needed still did not appear in her list, and there the request died.  A plea to at least check the shelves resulted, surprisingly, in refusal.  But never underestimate a Dilettante in need of information.  Finding a different person at the reference desk I asked a third time, laying out my case, and he quickly agreed that it was likely there, lost in the cataloging crack, would check himself, and within 48 hours had provided the needed issue.  One still can’t beat first hand knowledge and engagement in the task.

As for HABS, for all its flaws, where else would interested parties be able to find such wonders as a set of cross section drawings of Chateau Sur Mer?  Or from the floor plans that a windowless room on the fourth floor mezzanine of one of the towers, accessible only by many far flung flights of stairs, and through a warren of attics and trunk rooms and service passages, was called the liquor room? And why?  Is it where the Wetmore sisters stored their booze during prohibition?  Where a dipsomaniac uncle retired to drink in secrecy? 

Unfortunately, for many of the recorded buildings, the earlier the material, in particular, data pages are missing.

End of rant.  In a couple of days, you’ll be able to read the post whose research started all this.


In the meantime, for more about the Ruggles House, click HERE for a post on that most delightful structure.

For the full catalog entry in HABS about Chateau Sur Mer, click HERE
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