Usually when a photo warrants a double take it’s because of something visible in the photo. In this particular case, it was what was not yet visible that made me stop and think. While searching for a building on 15th Street, N.W. in Washington, D.C., I came upon this photo, with the caption: Site of Dutch Legation, 15th St., NW, [Washington, D.C.]. Which is the site for the future building – the lot in the foreground or that ragged dirt hill in the center?
Often, related photographs offer quick answers, so I searched for Dutch Legation in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, and came up with this photo, likely taken at the same time, as the original National Photo Company negative numbers are just one digit apart. The caption reads: View from site of Dutch Legation, [Washington, D.C.].
Interesting! So, now I have one photo of the site and one taken from the site. Based on the change in elevation in the second photo, the photographer is now standing on that dirt hill visible in the first photo, suggesting the hill is the future site of the legation. (A legation was, at the time, a diplomatic office of lower rank than an embassy. The term was dropped after World War II.)
Let’s turn back to the first photo and see what else it can reveal. When trying to sort out a question of place, I will often start by pretending I am the photographer taking the photo in question, and the first thing I need to know is: where am I? According to the caption, I’m looking at 15th Street, N.W., but which part of it? I see a street lamp in the photo and recall from previous research that street lamps of that style in Washington, D.C. also sometimes served as street signs. A quick zoom and I have the detail at right, which pinpoints my location near the intersection of 15th and Euclid Street, N.W.
Searching a modern map reveals that, as the photographer, I am standing on the grounds of Meridian Hill Park, which is bordered by 15th and Euclid on two sides. When I turn to the second photo, the open land now makes a lot of sense, as we are looking across the park in its early days before the construction of walls, paths, monuments, fountains, and fully mature trees that now mark that site. Based on the street system of Washington, D.C., the buildings on the far side of the park are one block over: 16th Street N.W.
Prior knowledge often plays a role in interpreting photographs and making educated leaps. I know that 16th Street, N.W. is an important north-south axis in D.C., aligned with the center of the White House and the Jefferson Memorial, as well as other key sites. I’m also aware it was once lined with foreign embassies. I looked more closely at the building at the center of the second photo and drew on my background in architectural history. The building’s overall shape, the roof line, the dormers, and the ornate decoration denote French influence, and the grandeur of the building could easily suggest an embassy. I follow my hunch and search for French embassy Washington in the National Photo Company Collection. My hunch is rewarded with several photos identifying that building as the French Embassy at the time, as seen below:
Of course, not all the buildings in Washington, D.C. influenced by French architecture have any direct connection to the country of France, so this was a lucky find. Real estate developer and “Empress of 16th Street” Mary Foote Henderson funded the building of numerous embassies in the area, which she then sold to various countries for their use. She built this one with the French in mind, and leased it to them. Searches for 16th Street would have also led me to identify the building as the French embassy, as the caption for the photo above right indicates. There are often multiple viable research paths to take!
But wait, what about the building – or the potential building – that started my research quest? I expand my search for Dutch Legation to the entire Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, but find no images of a building of that name. However, one of the search results refers to the Netherlands Legation, suggesting a new search term to try. A search for Netherlands Legation turns up this likely candidate:
How can I confirm this is the building placed on that site? I bring the question full circle and load the high resolution digital file to zoom in on that distinctive street lamp in the left foreground. And happily, the lamp lights the way once more, as I can see we are at the corner of Euclid and 15th Street, N.W., this time looking south at what was once a rough dirt hill and now is a grand building, housing the legation for the Netherlands. The building still stands today, now as the Embassy of Ecuador!
- View more photos related to embassies and legations in the National Photo Company Collection of photos dating from early 20th century Washington, D.C.
- Explore images over the years showing the development of Meridian Hill Park.
- Read other entries in the Picture This Double Take series, where we take a second (and sometimes third or fourth) look at images in our collections.