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Picture This: Double Take: The White House or Not?
Double Take: The White House or Not? By Kristi Finefield
In this latest entry in Double Take, the blog series where we take a closer look at images in our collections, we will talk about the photo below and how an assumption led to an interesting research journey. What do you see when you look at this photo? What building is behind this couple?
Mirza Ali Kuli Khan & wife. Photo by Bain News Service, 1913 May 28.
Most of you probably said the White House in Washington, D.C. I would definitely agree that, at first glance, the building has all the hallmarks of the Executive Mansion – it's white, it has a curved portico, the scale looks about right. Even the context seems on point, with these very elegantly dressed guests in the foreground.
However, an important tenet to keep in mind when studying photographs is to avoid making assumptions. Question each one carefully, as a wrong assumption can significantly alter the meaning of an image. I was asked by a researcher if I had any additional information about this photo, as they did not believe it was the White House in the background after all. While I had no further caption or descriptive information to readily provide, the question did make me really study this photograph. Was this really the White House?
I located additional photos in our collection of the White House from the same timeframe – 1913, as written directly on the negative on the left side. (A photo from the same time period is best since the White House has been altered many times over the years.)
I found this view of the south front of the White House from 1914:
EASTER EGG ROLLING, WHITE HOUSE. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1914. https://ift.tt/2JS9Q44
Detail of Mirza Ali Kuli Khan & wife. Photo by Bain News Service, 1913 May 28. https://ift.tt/2XYKdZn
The similarities are remarkable, but I'm starting to spot differences, too. The portico does not look exactly the same in the area selected in the first photo, at right. There is an extra column and corner at the edge of the portico, which is a significant difference. In addition, I notice differences in the scale of the portico, the width of the building, and the window style. All these details are very similar, but not quite right. The two photos do not show the same building.
Determining this is not the White House is only step one. Now I want to know what building is depicted!
What else do I know about the photo? It is part of the Bain News Service Collection, which was based in New York and so most photos focus on that city. However, the collection includes photos in Washington, D.C., as well, so I can't draw a conclusion there. The man in the photo is Mirza Ali Kuli Khan, standing with his wife. Khan was the Chargé d'Affaires for Persia (modern day Iran) so he would have had reason to visit the nation's capital.
I conducted research in newspaper databases to find any mention of Khan's visit to anywhere in the United States on or near the date noted on the negative, but could not confirm any details.
What next? My instincts told me this was Washington, D.C., but no matching building immediately came to mind. At this point, I decided to try out what I call "guided serendipity." Take what you do know and let it point you to a chance to make a discovery! A building of this stature was likely a public building, and therefore could appear in a collection we have of souvenir viewbooks. Souvenir viewbooks were sold as souvenirs of towns, cities and other notable locations. Many in our collection date to the time period of the photos above, so I started going through the viewbooks of Washington, D.C., most of which are undigitized.
The Memorial Continental Hall from untitled viewbook in LOT 12043-1 (F). Photo by Kristi Finefield, 2019. Group description: https://ift.tt/2LZoBVi
The Memorial Continental Hall, depicted above, is a match! It matches the first photo in all the places the photo of the White House did not. Memorial Continental Hall still stands today as the oldest of the complex of buildings serving as the headquarters for the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.). It is less than a mile from the White House, in fact.
Now that I had a building name, I turned back to our online catalog and found a better view of the side of the building in question, which provides further visual evidence.
DAR Hall. Photo, National Photo Company Collection, between 1909 and 1919. https://ift.tt/2JE5Cho
At this point, my curiosity is fully piqued, so I studied the original photo again. Khan and his wife are quite far from the building. Are they actually visiting it? Using the visual clues in the photo, modern online maps and a few more searches in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, I determined the couple is in the front drive of the Pan American Union building, which houses the Organization of American States. In the 1910s aerial photograph, the Pan American Union is at center with three arched openings and Memorial Continental Hall is to the right. The Khans are standing next to their carriage in the starred location:
WASHINGTON MONUMENT. VIEW OF PAN AMERICAN UNION AND N.W. FROM MONUMENT. Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1913 and 1918. https://ift.tt/2M4Yf4f
A simple assumption and a curious researcher provided the perfect opportunity to test out research skills and ultimately develop a much more accurate, useful description of the photo in question, which could benefit future researchers as well!
Every Photo is a Story is a series of videos and exercises which discuss strategies for researching photographs. Have a look at the "Every Photo is a Story" Web site, which links to all the videos, the exercises, and resources for further exploration. (Note: The videos are also accessible through YouTube.)
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