Documenting our American Places

VIEW SOUTHWEST, NORTHEAST ELEVATION (photograph image is reversed) - Cedar Point Lighthouse, Cedar Point at Patuxent River &amp; Chesapeake Bay, Lexington Park, St. Mary's County, MD. Photo by Chesapeake Division, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, 1981. Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/md1021/">HABS MD,19-LEXP.V,1-</a>

VIEW SOUTHWEST, NORTHEAST ELEVATION (photograph image is reversed) – Cedar Point Lighthouse, Cedar Point at Patuxent River & Chesapeake Bay, Lexington Park, St. Mary’s County, MD. Photo by Chesapeake Division, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, 1981. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.md1021/photos.083959p Part of HABS MD,19-LEXP.V,1-

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.

Detail view of Gasholder House, looking N, showing valve house entry and members of team recording structure. - Concord Gas Light Company, Gasholder House, South Main Street, Concord, Merrimack County, NH. Photo by Gary Samson, August 1982. Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/nh0131/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">HAER NH,7-CON,9C-</a>

Detail view of Gasholder House, looking N, showing valve house entry and members of team recording structure. – Concord Gas Light Company, Gasholder House, South Main Street, Concord, Merrimack County, NH. Photo by Gary Samson, August 1982. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.nh0131/photos.105479p Part of HAER NH,7-CON,9C-

HISTORIC AMERICAN BUILDINGS SURVEY TEAM MEASURING EXTERIOR OF INDEPENDENCE HALL (LEE NELSON ON CORNER LEANING OVER) - Independence Hall Complex, Independence Hall, 500 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1959. Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/pa0939/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">HABS PA,51-PHILA,6-</a>

HISTORIC AMERICAN BUILDINGS SURVEY TEAM MEASURING EXTERIOR OF INDEPENDENCE HALL (LEE NELSON ON CORNER LEANING OVER) – Independence Hall Complex, Independence Hall, 500 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1959. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.pa0939/photos.139609p Part of HABS PA,51-PHILA,6-

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.

Washington Monument entry in Why Document Historic Resources?, a Story Map created by the National Park Service’s Heritage Documention Programs and Cultural Resources Geographic Information Systems (CRGIS) staff.  (Photo featured at right: GENERAL VIEW FROM THE NORTH – Washington Monument, High ground West of Fifteenth Street, Northwest, between Independence & Constitution Avenues, Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1971. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.dc0261/photos.027182p )

Of course, buildings of national significance are important to record, like Independence Hall in Philadelphia, featured below:

HABS PA,51-PHILA,6- (sheet 18 of 45) - Independence Hall Complex, Independence Hall, 500 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. Measured drawing by Marie A. Neubauer and Alan L. Wieskamp, 1987. Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/pa0939/">HABS PA,51-PHILA,6-</a>

HABS PA,51-PHILA,6- (sheet 18 of 45) – Independence Hall Complex, Independence Hall, 500 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. Measured drawing by Marie A. Neubauer and Alan L. Wieskamp, 1987. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.pa0939/sheet.00018a Part of HABS PA,51-PHILA,6-

ASSEMBLY ROOM, SOUTHEAST CORNER - Independence Hall Complex, Independence Hall, 500 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1959. Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/pa0939/">HABS PA,51-PHILA,6-</a>

ASSEMBLY ROOM, SOUTHEAST CORNER – Independence Hall Complex, Independence Hall, 500 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1959. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.pa0939/photos.139613p Part of HABS PA,51-PHILA,6-

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.

VIEW OF INTERIOR FRAMING - Shaker Church Family Round Barn, U.S. Route 20, Hancock, Berkshire County, MA. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1962. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ma0103/photos.077587p Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/ma0103/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">HABS MASS,2-HANC,9-</a>

VIEW OF INTERIOR FRAMING – Shaker Church Family Round Barn, U.S. Route 20, Hancock, Berkshire County, MA. Photo by Jack E. Boucher, 1962. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ma0103/photos.077587p Part of HABS MASS,2-HANC,9-

Taft Memorial Bridge, Isometric Cutaway - Connecticut Avenue Bridge, Spans Rock Creek & Potomac Parkway at Connecticut Avenue, Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Drawing by Ann Wheaton, 1995. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.dc0594/sheet.00002a Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/dc0594/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">HAER DC,WASH,560-</a>

Taft Memorial Bridge, Isometric Cutaway – Connecticut Avenue Bridge, Spans Rock Creek & Potomac Parkway at Connecticut Avenue, Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Measured drawing by Ann Wheaton, 1995. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.dc0594/sheet.00002a Part of HAER DC,WASH,560-

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.

HOME OF THOMAS RUSSELL ONE OF THE FOUNDERS OF THE PRINCIPIO COMPANY. SLAVE QUARTERS AND WOOD HOUSE. - Green Hill, Slave Quarters & Woodhouse, State Route 7, North East, Cecil County, MD. Photo by E. H. Pickering, 1936 Oct. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.md0360/photos.087143p Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/md1021/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">HABS MD,8-NOREA,3A--1</a>

HOME OF THOMAS RUSSELL ONE OF THE FOUNDERS OF THE PRINCIPIO COMPANY. SLAVE QUARTERS AND WOOD HOUSE. – Green Hill, Slave Quarters & Woodhouse, State Route 7, North East, Cecil County, MD. Photo by E. H. Pickering, 1936 Oct. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.md0360/photos.087143p Part of HABS MD,8-NOREA,3A–1

CONCOURSE FROM SOUTHEAST. - Pennsylvania Station, 370 Seventh Avenue (from West 31st to West 33rd Streets between 7th and 8th Avenues), New York County, NY. Photo by Cervin Robinson, 1962 April 24. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ny0411/photos.119996p Part of <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/ny0411/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">HABS NY,31-NEYO,78-</a>

CONCOURSE FROM SOUTHEAST. – Pennsylvania Station, 370 Seventh Avenue (from West 31st to West 33rd Streets between 7th and 8th Avenues), New York County, NY. Photo by Cervin Robinson, 1962 April 24. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ny0411/photos.119996p Part of HABS NY,31-NEYO,78-

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.

Learn More:

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