Every old building has a story. That story is told through what we see now, but sometimes there is a lot more to tell. We can certainly understand a building’s evolution by physical clues, but sometimes the clues are masked in layers or major interventions. Photographs play an important role in defining a building’s history. They are a single moment in time, showing us how people lived and used the building’s they occupied.
The South County History Center, formerly known as the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society, recently acquired 19th century glass negatives depicting life in South County. Stored properly, glass negatives are relatively stable and are big enough to provide incredible detail. While some may marvel over how people were dressed, I love seeing how the building was constructed, and how it was failing.
South County History Center’s first photo was taken from the side of the Old Washington County Jail, built in 1861 replacing the 1792 wooden structure. The late 19th century image is of the jailor and his family, perhaps only a few decades after it was built. The image tells a lot about the building, it’s features, and how it aged. It shows us that not every old building was perfect, but it wor
e pretty well for twenty or thirty years. There is a broken basement windowpane, the shutter paint is peeling, and it looks like a rotted downspout on the front.
We tour museums and see them as complete, without many faults, but nothing is farther from reality. We can manage building’s better today, using superior paints and finishes, refined metals, as well as scientific methods to manage buildings from water and moisture management, heating, to cooling, and other modern amenities. But when you see other images like the mansard building below, you get a better of how people lived and why many buildings are no longer here. The siding is missing, the fence is rotted, and it looks like the gutters don’t work. This building may have lasted another 30 years.
Nationally, one of the most comprehensive documentation efforts was the Historic American Building Survey (HABS). Started in 1933, HABS was the first federal preservation program to document America’s architectural heritage. The program was an extensive effort to document America’s rich architectural heritage. The collection, archived in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, contains detailed measured drawings, archival photographs, and written reports of significant architectural treasures. There are over 5,000 images and surveys of Rhode Island buildings, and nearly 1,000 in Washington County alone.
Resources like HABS provide a critical archive for historians and preservationists, but even HABS can be limited. Sometimes the picture on the wall, or in the family album, or the random box in the attic provides us the greatest insight into people’s life and their buildings. Photographs tell us how buildings functioned, or didn’t , and allow us to use dating tools like automobiles, wires, clothing, and other period objects. We can see features that may long exist., with missing siding and windows, or even additions that were melting into the ground. The meaning and role of shelter was different. Imperfection, shoddy construction, and no utilities like heat, electricity, or plumbing reveals a world we cannot imagine. You may never look at that old photograph on the wall the same way again.