HABS AND ACCURACY: You Still Have to Be Able to Think for Yourself

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

 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:


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:

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:

HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-15

HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-16

HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-18

HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-19

HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-24

HABS RI,3-NEWP,59-26

 The photo of the library is my particular favorite, because as anyone can seethe 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:


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


The Ancient said...

I just made a hurried run-through of various neighborhood houses in the HABS. I noticed several were slightly mis-addressed (a digit had been transposed), but otherwise it was pretty good. The quality of the data provided for each house varied greatly, as did the number and type of photos included. Back in the late Eighties, Catholic University had its architecture students out doing formal renderings for many of the houses on the list. From a consumer standpoint, that's a big addition.

It would be helpful if the LOC had a system whereby additional photos or data (or even corrections!) could be submitted for the houses it's chosen to immortalize.

Donna said...

A very important cautionary post. I have run across several obvious errors in HABS myself and when I notified the Library of Congress, my comments clearly fell into some abyss. I am so worried about the younger generation (and horrified I sound so ancient!) because they think 1) everything is on the internet and; 2) everything on the internet is correct!

Anonymous said...

Aha, so I'm not the only person in America who has spent many lonely nights sifting through pictures and info on the HABS/HAER site. Learning that I'm not alone in this is slightly comforting to me. But only slightly.

That website really is an invaluable source of information and (for me at least) entertainment. But I learned early on that there is (as with many other federally-administered operations) an alarming level of sloppiness when it comes to details. I've often wondered aloud, "would it really kill the federal government to hire someone, perhaps even some unpaid collage interns, to proof and update this site every now and then?" Along with the captioned misinformation and such, I've also been annoyed by the fact that certain buildings which I consider to be both historically and architecturally important are nowhere to be found while many seemingly insignificant buildings are not only included but incredibly well documented.

Going off on a strange tangent here...
Several years ago a small group of federal employees made a reservation to stay a few weeks at our small hotel in the Hudson Valley. At check-in I learned that they all worked for the HABS. There was an architectural historian, a photographer, some sort of engineer, a draftsman, etc., and they were here to do research on some local government buildings. Being the disturbingly fanatical lover of historical architecture that I am, I was thrilled. I looked at those guys the way most people would probably look at movie stars. And most of them were fairly talkative & receptive in the beginning, so of course I peppered them with questions each time I saw them. The honeymoon didn't last long, though. OK, you know how they say that in real life, Hollywood movie stars are often the polar opposites of their public personas? Oddly enough, it turns out this is also true for people working for the HABS...well, if these people had public personas, I mean. Who would have guessed that such relatively low level government employees would be a big bunch of self-important divas? They spoke about their jobs as if they were curing cancer or rescuing kittens from trees. Every one of them seemed to be on some sort of weird power trip, they all talked about each other behind their backs, plus they complained & whined about absolutely everything. Collectively, I think they were the most demanding, unpleasant group of guests I ever dealt with, and I've dealt with some real winners over the years. In fact it got so bad that when, on the fourth day of their stay, they made a veiled threat to move to another hostelry unless we immediately installed a new computer system for their exclusive use, I quickly agreed and suggested they should probably just hit the road. Naturally I didn't tell them that the other local motel they moved into was also owned by us....until the last day of their stay, that is.

Anyway, that was a surreal and disappointing experience and I haven't looked at the HABS/HAER the same way since...now I think I know why things are the way they are there. This was a very weird and random story, I know, but it just HAD to be told:)

"targish" is my security word.
Hmmmm, the darker, stickier sister of Dorothy and Lillian?
Yeah, I went there!

ArchitectDesign™ said...

At the very least, I hope they fix the errors you have pointed out and look into fixing others. Did you forward the article to them?
I'd say that sometimes it just takes a 2nd pair of eyes, but these seems more like gross neglegence.

The Devoted Classicist said...

I was a HABS survey team member in the summer of 1977 and worked in the D.C. headquarters. I cannot tell you how surprised I am to learn of these discrepancies. At that time, all the efforts were held to the highest standards. While I do not know for sure, my limited experience with the Library of Congress would suggest that the fault for incorrect captions lies there. (On the other hand, I totally empathize with the innkeeper's comments!)

As for periodicals, I am afraid that many librarians consider them inferior to books, the stepchildren of literature.

The Ancient said...

Dilettante --

There is obviously a solution to this problem.

If some clever person were to do an edited version of something like the above post and recycle it in some more public venue, well, it might have some impact -- particularly if it was attached to very specific, practical (and not expensive) solutions.

The Ancient said...

The obvious objection to a "corrections program" for HABS is this: They will want to completely control their product. "How do we know the correction offered is, in fact, correct? Or the supplement, or the interior pictures, etc." That's the way bureaucracies think.

So maybe the solution involves an adjunct site, where "readers" can offer supplemental material to listed properties. "Scribble in the margins", if you will. Perhaps there is a better solution. Ideas?

myowntimemachine said...

Dearest All: Delighted to read of your [mostly?] positive words about the HABS/HAER program and have taken note of the inaccuracies that you've highlighted. Will add that the people I know in the program at NPS are delightful -- perhaps they made bad temp employee choices the year the Divas checked into the Hudson Valley. Would like to remind you all that the gov't nearly shut down recently, that funding cuts continue to preservation and documentation budgets and that they are doing what they can do with a shoestring and a prayer. Will alert NPS of the discrepancies you've highlighted and I'm sure making the appropriate corrections will be added to the loads of things we wish we had the funding to take care of.

(My own wish would be to update the 1941 documentation that got the date stone wrong, based on a terra firm view. New information shaves 30 years off that wing of the house)