03 June 2013

Vanished/The Ruined Capitol doesn't live up to promise

Sloppy work on blogs deserves to be called out, especially when the author of the work seeks an air of authority on a subject. I'm taking this opportunity to ask Simon Jacobsen to do a better job with the Vanished/The Ruined Capitol blog.

Early last year, his blog called "The Ruined Capitol" (since re-branded "Vanished:Washington," though the URL never changed) was briefly profiled by the Washington City Paper. In this short interview, he gave an interesting quote:
I'm not putting any facts down...
In fact, Mr. Jacobsen puts a lot of facts down with every post. The most important of these facts is the address of the buildings. Unfortunately, he can be sloppy with those facts. Here's an example:

Image from Vanished

Mr. Jacobsen shows this picture and says it's at 6th and College Streets NE. That's a non-existent corner. There is a 6th and College Street NW, though. Here's a piece of the Baist Atlas for that part of the city in 1937 (two years after the date shown on the photo):

Image from Historic Map Works

You can see a line of rowhouses on the west side of 6th Street, north of College Street. I think it's a safe bet that these are the houses in the photo. What's there today? This:

View Larger Map

It's Lewis K. Downing Hall, home to Howard University Engineering.

Jacobsen, though, shows this image of what he believes is at that corner today:

Image from Vanished

That's actually the corner of Georgia Avenue and Howard Place NW. Jacobsen manages to start by saying the original location is in a different quadrant, then believes today's corner has somehow moved a couple blocks away. It's terribly sloppy. Google Maps is how he verifies the location of all present-day buildings. He'd be helped by actually going out to the corners where he believes these old buildings were located and doing some ground-truthing. It would probably make clear some of the more egregious errors and avoid the embarrassment of publishing mistakes.

Here's one more. The page was taken down after I pointed out an error, he refused to acknowledge it, and further information from me made it crystal clear that he had made a simple mistake. I saved the page as a rough PDF:

Jacobsen mistook the numeral "1" (for 1st Street) for the letter "I" (for Eye Street), and insisted Florida Avenue "flattens out" (whatever that means) at Eye Street NE. A simple walk around the neighborhood would show how incorrect that is, but he didn't take the time to go out and look at things in the real world.

It's a shame, it could be an authoritative site, but there are so many holes in it, it's hard to say how many of the before and after pictures he posts are just plain wrong.

A better example of the genre is the "Then and Now" series that Kent Boese did for Greater Greater Washington. Admittedly, this is more thorough than the "drive-by shooting" (a poor choice of words) that Jacobsen claims to offer at his site, but the basic idea is that a little more research goes a long way.


  1. Although I am an avid visitor to Ruined Capitol/Vanished Washington, I too wish it were a little more precise in its facts. (For instance he's awfully quick to claim buildings shown in old photos are Colonial - very unlikely in the City of Washington - or of early Federal heritage, pre-War of 1812, in neighborhoods where that is also unlikely.) However I will say that the few times I've offered a correction in the comments, he's been pretty quick to acknowledge it. My bigger issue with the site is more editorial: every lost building is lamented in a way that makes me wonder how he expected a city to grow and develop without some turnover of its built environment. It's hard to imagine how DC could have become a city of 600+K (or 900+K in the past) people if every 1 1/2 story frame building on F St or K St had been retained. It's interesting to see where we've been, but I can't get agitated much past "oh what a shame" for most of what he shows. I just can't get as worked up for every single structure as he seems to want me to. For all that - I wish he'd post more often!

    1. He was quick to acknowledge the first couple mistakes I noted, but I suppose he got tired of being corrected, so he blocked me. Oh well, some people have thin skin.


You can be curmudgeonly too, but let's try to be civil and constructive here, ok?