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.

3 Comments

  1. Jennifer Creevy
    September 30, 2016 at 9:35 am

    This was fantastic! I would love to come upon Rapunzel’s tower in the middle of town. I look forward to other blog posts in this series!

  2. michael harris
    September 30, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Just wonderful. I have been working on my family history from the begin of Harris(Harrys) from France being driven out by Romans around 400 BC and settling in England and being Land Barons, Lords, and Knights there prior to coming to the “New World” in 1400’s
    And still a plantation house standing on land aquired from the second Earl of Granville. Love history from
    throughout my entire life. Having lived in a home with spring water and a well!

  3. Wayne Roberson
    October 26, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    Very good followup investigation that produced important details valuable to archeology, historical restoration, and potential exhibition.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.