In his November 1933 proposal to create the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in partnership with the Library of Congress and the American Institute of Architects, the National Park Service’s Charles E. Peterson sounded this call to action:
“Our architectural heritage of buildings from the last four centuries diminishes daily at an alarming rate. The ravages of fire and the natural elements together with the demolition and alterations caused by real estate ‘improvements’ form an inexorable tide of destruction destined to wipe out the great majority of the buildings which knew the beginning and first flourish of the nation. […] It is the responsibility of the American people that if the great number of our antique buildings must disappear through economic causes, they should not pass into unrecorded oblivion.”
In order to prevent our architectural heritage from passing into “unrecorded oblivion,” the National Park Service (NPS) has administered the recording of the built environment of the United States and territories since the establishment of the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1933. HABS was joined by the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) in 1969 and the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) in 2000. Nearly 45,000 buildings and sites have been documented to date, and those records are preserved and made available to the public through the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. The documentation can include photographs, measured drawings and written histories. New ways of recording, such as three-dimensional laser scans, computer models, and virtual tours are part of new initiatives at the National Park Service.
In the two photos below, HABS teams photograph, measure and draw historic sites. Their work and that of thousands of other architects, students, photographers and historians contributes to the goal of saving our built history.
But why have so many labored to create this documentation, as well as to process, describe, digitize, share and preserve it?
A recent example drove home the need for historic site documentation and records when a building is damaged or destroyed. The devastating fire at Notre Dame in Paris raised awareness of what would be needed to rebuild or restore in the wake of disaster. The National Park Service’s Cultural Resources GIS Program, part of the Heritage Documentation Programs office, administrators of HABS/HAER/HALS, responded with an online exhibit of examples where historic documentation either allowed a structure to be rebuilt or renovated, and failing that, provided a lasting record of a structure permanently lost. The examples feature HABS/HAER/HALS documentation used to aid in the renovation of, for example, the White House and the Washington Monument.
Of course, buildings of national significance are important to record, like Independence Hall in Philadelphia, featured below:
But historic site documentation is not just about the most famous and significant architectural structures and engineering wonders. Peterson also noted: “The list of building types . . . should include public buildings, churches, residences, bridges, forts, barns, mills, shops, rural outbuildings, and any other kind of structure of which there are good specimens extant.”
So, what can we learn by recording these buildings?
We can learn the history of the builder’s art. How have we built in the past and how has it changed? The evolution of construction methods, the choice of materials, the regional differences, the techniques of artisans and tradespeople and more are all in evidence in both HABS and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER). HAER focuses on sites related to engineering and industry. The HABS photo below shows the meticulous craftsmanship in the roof framing of a round Shaker barn and the HAER drawing explores the Taft Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C.
What else can we take from these records? We lived, shopped, worked, visited and worshiped in these buildings, and because of that, they tell the stories of our daily lives over the years. In these photos and drawings are the physical trappings of a day in the life of a shopkeeper, an enslaved person, or a millworker, and by studying them we learn stories that can be conveyed to new generations. Additionally, we can track the evolution of industry, of worship, of urban development, of residential and landscape design, and more. The slave quarters (building on the left) in the first photo below and the original Pennsylvania Station in New York City in the second photo have both been demolished since these photos were taken, so the record of their existence allows their stories to continue.
The list of uses and value in historic site documentation, and the sites they document, goes on and on beyond these examples. And thanks to the staff of the National Park Service, the Library of Congress, and other partners, the work that provides these valuable records of our shared history does too.
- Explore the website of the Heritage Documentation Programs of the National Park Service, the Library of Congress’ partner in creating, preserving and sharing the documentation for the Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record and Historic American Landscapes Survey.
- View Why Document Historic Resources?, an online exhibit on how historic site documentation has provided crucial information when sites are damaged or destroyed. Created by the National Park Service’s Heritage Documention Programs and Cultural Resources Geographic Information Systems (CRGIS) staff.
- Experience American Place, a 2008 symposium hosted at the Library of Congress to mark the 75th anniversary of the Historic American Buildings Survey, through the webcasts linked to this essay and the publication American Place: The Historic American Buildings Survey at Seventy-five Years. [PDF]
- The Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record and Historic American Landscapes Survey have inspired numerous previous Picture This posts, including:
- Exploring Place in African American History. View sites documented in HABS connected to important moments and people in African American history.
- The Visual Legacy of Jack E. Boucher, Architectural Photographer. Many of the photos featured above were taken by the prolific Boucher during his long career as a HABS photographer.
- Search and enjoy the photos, drawings and textual history of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record and Historic American Landscapes Survey in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
- Help us learn more! The documentation in the Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record and Historic American Landscapes Survey is tapped for all kinds of projects. We are aware that the educational community has considered classroom uses, have seen references to HABS surveys in a novel, and even know of scale models built using the measured drawings. We’d be interested in learning about other instances where the documentation has been used—if you’re aware of any, please offer a comment!