Dating history: A new look at an old picture

The Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation receives a variety of inquiries from colleagues and the public about the Smithsonian’s buildings and their history. Some we can readily answer (and are not terribly thrilling), but others take a bit of time and may yield tantalizing results. Recently Sharon Park, the associate director of AHHR, received an email from Beth Hannold, a preservation specialist with the General Servce Administration’s Center for Historic Buildings. Attached was a copy of a plate glass negative with an undated image of the Smithsonian Castle. The plate glass negative was found originally in 1997 at 437 7th Street, N.W., when a GSA employee came across artifacts in the attic dating to the Civil War. This nondescript building was formerly home to Clara Barton’s Missing Soldier’s Office as well as to Clara herself, the founder of the Red Cross, who lived there from 1861-1868.

Sharon immediately sent the image to Rick Stamm, curator of the Castle Collection, knowing that if anyone would know about the image and its date, it would be Rick. And she was right – Rick was able to date the image to 1857-1858 by comparing it with an 1860 image in his collection showing saplings that were not visible in the photo from the Clara Barton Collection.  He also compared the image to another from the Clara Barton Collection of the United States Capitol Dome under construction, sent to the Architect of the Capitol’s office by Ms. Hannold. They concluded that the Capitol Dome  photo was also taken between 1857 and 1858 by examining the street architecture and a similar photograph in William Allen’s authoritative book A History of the United States Capitol.

“The Castle photograph is truly amazing,” says Rick Stamm. “I have never seen this view with the canal in the foreground—it really looks like the fetid swamp it had become.” We think you’ll agree with Rick about this image of the Castle.  Perhaps canal is a misnomer since it conjures up images of VeniceWashington’s canal was nothing more than an open sewer by the late 1850s.

Rick was able to identify many interesting facts about the photograph. By the time this photograph was taken, the Smithsonian’s first Secretary Joseph Henry and his family were living in the East Wing’s second floor in a comfortable apartment specially built for them.

The  Downing Urn, which was installed on the north side of the Mall just west of 9th Street in 1856 is clearly visible at the far right of the image. Today it is located in the Enid A. Haupt Garden behind the Castle. The photo was taken well before the January 1865 fire which destroyed the peaked roof of the lower North Tower (it was not replicated when the building was repaired). The long street in the foreground that runs through the Mall is 7th Street. Ninth Street did not run straight through, but rather merged with the circular carriage path slightly north and east of the Downing Urn.

Enjoy this look into the past! And by the way, be on the lookout for the new second edition of The Castle: An Illustrated History by Rick Stamm– with more photos of the Castle from top to bottom!


Posted: 24 May 2012
About the Author:

Amy Ballard is the senior historic preservation specialist in Architectural History and Historic Preservation. She began her Smithsonian career in 1976 when, among other duties as assigned, she fed a pair of barn owls that lived in the northeast tower of the Castle.

2 Responses to Dating history: A new look at an old picture
      • Amy Ballard
      • Rick Stamm says:
        Since the old Central Market (the one that preceded the 1871 Cluss replacement) was located on the SW corner of 7th and Penn. Ave., the photo was probably not taken from its roof since 7th Street is to the right in the photo. It was most likely taken from a high vantage point at 6th Street.