Documenting the White House Library Tiles: an interview with Sally Sims Stokes

Rendering of the Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse by William D. Hartgroves, 1930. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 121-BD-1241
Rendering of the Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse by William D. Hartgroves, 1930. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 121-BD-1241

 

Prominent art librarian and scholar Sally Sims Stokes spent the better part of a decade on the research adventure of a lifetime. The serendipitous discovery of a microfilm frame in 2004 during what should have been a brief project for the City of Las Vegas led Stokes into the fascinating history of decorative tiles in the White House. Following hours spent interviewing primary sources, tracking down hidden collections, and calling on the support of fellow ARLISians, Stokes recently celebrated the culmination of her research with an article entitled “Documenting the History of the White House Library Fireplace Tiles 1944-1962″ in the Spring 2017 issue of Art Documentation (vol. 36, no. 1).

A unique addition to Stokes Art Documentation article is a supplement with rich color photographs and text detailing not only the tiles, but also ephemera important to the research. For example, the supplement examines the crate in which the tiles were at one point shipped to Eleanor Roosevelt.

We caught up with Stokes to ask her a few questions about the discoveries made and lessons learned as she traced the mystery behind the White House library tiles and their importance to presidential history.

How did you first become interested in the White House tiles?

Thank you for asking! You will find a partial answer to this question in the article, but I’ll offer some additional details.

As I explain in the article, I was in the process of conducting research for the City of Las Vegas, Nevada, for a historic structure report on the ca. 1932 federal courthouse and post office (LVPO). This was in 2004. The building would eventually undergo adaptive reuse, and would open in 2012 as the Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement.

At the National Archives in College Park, Maryland (NARA II), I had discovered a microfilm frame taken from a glass plate negative of a conjectural rendering of the LVPO. I was able to make out a signature, “Hartgroves ’30,” which I soon learned stood for “William J. Hartgroves, 1930.”

The City hoped that I might be able to find the name of at least one individual involved in designing the LVPO for the federal government. No records I examined at NARA II led me to a specific architect’s name, and nor did they persuade me that this renderer, William J. Hartgroves, who was a trained architect, had any design role in the LVPO project. I did decide to try to track down any children he might have had, and did find his son, William D. “Bill” Hartgroves, through a Google search. The City asked me to follow up with Bill Hartgroves. From Silver Spring, Maryland, where I live, I went out to Charlestown, West Virginia to interview him.

Bill Hartgroves, who is now deceased, had a great deal of memorabilia, and other examples of his late father’s work, in his home in Charlestown, and he was happy to show me his collection and share his knowledge. He didn’t have any information on the LVPO or his father’s part in that project. It was from Bill, however, that I learned that his father had designed tiles for the White House Library.

At the time, I was immersed in White House history, because I was also working on a grant-funded project to document the experiences of White House workers – cooks, butlers, maids, florists, calligraphers, groundskeepers. I had been in the White House library, but had never come across a reference to the tiles, which of course were no longer there by the time of my first tour of the building in the early 2000s.

So it was a combination of factors that made the topic of the tiles especially appealing to me: The mystery; the human connection with the Hartgroves family; my interest in historic buildings and their preservation, documentation, and adaptive reuse; and especially the fact that I was attuned to White House history at that particular stage of my career.

You encountered many twists and turns and even solved a few mysteries in the course of your decade-long research. What was the most memorable part of this process?  

There were so many! The most memorable parts of my research projects revolve around two key points: the personal relationships I develop with colleagues and informants, even when those occur through written and phone correspondence, rather than through in-person meetings; and the eye-popping Eureka! moments that occur throughout, and that keep the excitement going.

But I will name a few memorable parts:

  1. The discovery of the Hartgroves rendering.
  2. The meeting with Bill Hartgroves that spurred my interest in the tiles, and that ultimately helped me forge a bond with the Hartgroves family.
  3. The period in which I immersed myself in library materials concerning the history of screen printing on ceramic tile, and the gratifying input from ARLISians who suggested sources and facilitated ILLs of material not ordinarily available for loan.
  4. Working with Michelle Frauenberger at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum to understand (1) the tiles as elements of decorative arts history and presidential history and (2) curatorial and registrarial considerations around the acquisition, storage, and documentation (in the sense of descriptive metadata) of the tiles.
  5. The expansion of the project to explore the role of Edwin Bateman Morris, and the resulting friendship formed with his grandchildren.
  6. The realization that the results of this research could be useful to people in the decorative arts, presidential history, and art information fields, among others.

What implications do you think your experience tracing the history of the White House tiles could have for research in the decorative arts field?

A key implication is that the interdisciplinary nature of this research can potentially be applied in other investigations into the decorative arts. For example, as suggested in my response to your previous question, I also had to consider political history, architectural history, and the history of tile manufacture in order to develop the full picture of what these decorative objects, the tiles, mean as cultural products.

Another implication is the crossover between the fine and decorative arts, given that the medium William Hartgroves employed to create the tiles was drawing, and that silk screen was used as a means to apply the images to the tiles.

The significance of turning up and exploring “hidden collections” also has implications for research in the decorative arts field. Those of us who have worked with linked data and controlled vocabularies know that the long-range goal of someday achieving reliably consistent linked metadata across collections is an exciting prospect to consider, but that research such as this still relies on detective skills. The researcher has to ask the right questions of real human beings while at the same time constantly honing his or her electronic search skills. Information professionals have to keep pushing forward with digitization projects that enhance discoverability.

The inclusion of a supplement like the one found in your article is not particularly common for Art Documentation. What made you want to share this information as a supplement?

It was Art Documentation editor Judy Dyki’s idea, and I was really happy that she suggested making this additional information available to the ARLIS/NA membership. Judy placed no particular restriction on format or content, and I appreciated her trusting me to come up with an appropriate contribution. It was great fun to pull this material together.

Creating the supplement allowed me to share images of all the tiles; to compare descriptive metadata of a tile in the Ohio History Connection and the corresponding tile in the FDR Library and Museum; and, as you indicate, to include ephemera such as the photo of the shipping crate in the process of being pried open. My intention was to enrich the reader’s experience, and I hope I succeeded.

What do you hope readers take away from this work?

I hope they will take away, first, that ARLIS, its members, its publications, its SIGs, and its listserv are invaluable tools for information professionals and researchers in the decorative arts.

Second, to revisit Question 3, I hope readers will bear in mind that searching for hidden collections remains a challenge – but one that many of us really thrive on meeting. It is hard to imagine a day when, even though the effort to achieve this state has produced a remarkable ability to locate material never before available, we will have a system of linked open data that will lead us to the storage closet in the basement of an informant’s apartment building in the exurbs of Washington, D.C. to solve a mystery concerning decorative objects installed in the White House in the 1940s. We’ll probably be relying on persistence, and joy in the task, for a long time to come!

Third, I hope readers will never underestimate where one piece of evidence can lead. Remain alert and open to the possibility that such evidence could lead you in unexpected directions. The microfilm frame capturing the Hartgroves rendering of the LVPO was the surprising key to a long and rewarding research journey into a study of decorative tiles in the White House.

For information on accessing Stokes’ article and supplemental materials, please visit the Art Documentation homepage on the ARLIS/NA website.

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