Double Take: Fairy Tale Tower?

While browsing through our millions of images in the Prints and Photographs Division, I often do a double take. I stop, look again, and start asking questions. In this new occasional blog series, Double Take, we will take a first and then a second look at those images together. Some images that we’ll feature will simply be visual puns, illusions or oddities, while others will prompt further inquiry. Take the photo below, which recently stopped me in my tracks:

Earl's Court, Narragansett, R.I. Photo published by Detroit Publishing Company, between 1880 and 1899. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/det.4a07147

Earl’s Court, Narragansett, R.I. Photo published by Detroit Publishing Company, between 1880 and 1899. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/det.4a07147

My immediate reaction is one of curiosity, and many questions: What fairy tale world have I stumbled across? Why does this look like Rapunzel’s tower, with a single window for her to let down her hair? Why is there a dragon on the front? What is this building and what purpose does it serve? And most importantly: How do I find the answers to my questions?

A starting point to learn more about an image is simply to look closely, to zoom in on details and to look for any accompanying information. A closer look at the tower reveals it is covered in wooden shingles rather than the expected stone. The houses arrayed on the horizon have tower-like structures, roof lines and other details which suggest Shingle style, an American house style popular in the late 1800s, especially in New England. There is a man with a horse-drawn cart at the base of the tower – another clue about the time period? A look at the information accompanying the photo offers this caption: Earl’s Court, Narragansett, R.I. and the date range of “between 1880 and 1899.” These details support my suppositions about possible time period and place.

Perhaps other images of the same structure will offer more hints? A search in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog comes up empty, though I do find other photos of Narragansett, Rhode Island from the same collection: the Detroit Publishing Company Collection. Within our Souvenir Viewbooks holdings, filed in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room, I find the draft version of a souvenir booklet (note the pencilled changes, probably by the editor of the booklet) for Narragansett Pier, R. I. with a different view of the tower, seen below.

Earl's Court, Earl's Tower, Kentara Green. Photogravure from Narragansett Pier, R.I., copyrighted by A. Wittemann, 1898.

Earl’s Court, Earl’s Tower, Kentara Green. Photogravure from souvenir viewbook Narragansett Pier, R.I., copyrighted by A. Wittemann, 1898.

Detail of Earl's Tower from Earl's Court, Earl's Tower, Kentara Green. Photogravure from souvenir viewbook Narragansett Pier, R.I., copyrighted by A. Wittemann, 1898.

Detail of Earl’s Tower from Earl’s Court, Earl’s Tower, Kentara Green. Photogravure from souvenir viewbook Narragansett Pier, R.I., copyrighted by A. Wittemann, 1898.

This image is not yet digitized, a reminder that offline resources are often key in research. The alternate view offers a new detail (right): metal steps wrapping around the outside of the tower, which evoke a different, more familiar kind of tower altogether.

Could this be a water tower?

Online searches and a book on the history of the town of Narragansett¹ reveal that this novel structure was indeed a water tower. Underneath the ivy is a stone tower, which is all that remains today, since the upper wooden portion was destroyed in the 1938 hurricane that hit New England. What I took for a dragon is usually referred to as a griffin, made of bronze, and unfortunately, lost to history.

The name of the development turns out to be a play on words. Earl’s Court evokes the home of a British lord or earl, but the Earl in this case was a New York lawyer named James Earl. Earl had the tower and a surrounding group of cottages built in the late 1880s, during Narragansett’s boom as a summer resort town.

Learn More:

¹Latimer, Sallie W. Narragansett-by-the-Sea. Dover, New Hampshire: Arcadia Publishing, 1997.

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