Preserving on paper
The historic American Buildings Survey represents the national standard for documenting historic buildings, sites and landscapes - although its focus has recently narrowed.
A copy of the map of Massachusetts, illustrating historically significant buildings to be studied for the survey
The genesis of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), now the country's oldest federal preservation programme, was in President Franklin roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s. Since its conception, HABS has been 'studying, measuring and otherwise recording early American architecture' according to a methodology implemented in January of 1934 and tested in the field between 1934 and 1940.1 Workers began by amassing an inventory of all 'historical and otherwise interesting structures'.2 This index guided the survey's initial documentation efforts.
In Washington, DC, Thomas C Vint of the Branch of Plans and Design administered the survey, along with John P O'Neill and Thomas T Waterman. Helping to direct HABS were various advisory committees, while the work was completed by state-based field teams led by district officers. In April 1934 a tripartite agreement between the Park Service, the American Institute of Architects and the Library of Congress sought to make the survey permanent.
The early survey was a partnership between the federal government and a sundry of preservation-minded individuals and organisations. Federal funding and procedures for systematic documentation were coupled with state-based expertise and manpower. The Outline of Early American Architecture, intended as an analysis of the survey's findings, was never finished, but the raw data - the index cards, historical notes, drawings and photographs - went to the Library of Congress as Leicester Holland, chief of the fine arts division, envisioned. This data formed the bedrock of
the HABS collection.
After the first flush of worker relief financing during the New Deal, the survey was sporadically funded and was not active in all states. The survey was revived in the 1950s following a hiatus corresponding to World War II and post-war era.3 In 1969, the Historic American engineering record (HAer) was established. Similarly, 2000 saw the emergence of the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS). The offshoots of HABS grew out of a need to address engineering and industrial technologies and, later, cultural landscapes. Today, of the collection's 36,936 recorded sites, 29,331 are HABS, 7,601 HAer and four HALS.
Documentation of these sites consists of measured architectural and engineering drawings; large-format, black-and-white photographs, rather than enlargements of 35mm film or digital prints; and written data, which encompasses both historical context and architectural description. The collection currently is augmented by materials generated by the HABS staff, by an annual measured drawings competition, through donations from universities and scholars, and to satisfy preservation law requirements.
As an archive HABS complements, and at times benefits from, the work of those organisations that are entrusted with the conservation, preservation and maintenance of America's historic resources. While not explicitly named in historic preservation legislation, it is implicit in statutes from the 1935 Historic Sites Act onward. Since 1966, legally-prescribed mitigation
Opposite page: Indianfield Plantation House, Pinopolis vicinity, Berkeley County, South Carolina. This two-storey, wood dwelling had a central hall plan. The building was covered by Lake Moultrie shortly after being recorded, making it an early example of endangered building documentation. Thomas T Waterman, photographer, 1939, HABS/HAER/ HALS Collection, Library of Congress (HABS No SC-26).
documentation has done much to sustain the survey.
By the late 1990s, this type of recording project accounted for a third of the entries to the collection. The records of the survey that comprise the collection housed at the Library of Congress, including the mitigative submissions, provide valuable insights into American architectural history. Material evidence represented just as it was encountered affords a snapshot in time of the resource. For mitigation, such existing condition documentation satisfies legal requirements, as well as supplying primary data on soon-to-be altered or vanquished structures for scholarly examination.
The 1906 Antiquities Act provided the foundation for the preservation standards and guidelines that augment the survey. First, the act decreed that damage to or destruction of 'any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the federal government' was a punishable offence. The act also enabled the president to declare the presence of landmarks on government-controlled land, and it stipulated that rules and regulations be published from time to time.
Shortly thereafter, in 1916, the National Park Service was created. The NPS monitored how the designated national parks, monuments and reservations were used and if that use corresponded to its purpose 'to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and... to provide for the enjoyment of the same... as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations'.4 This responsibility increased dramatically in 1933 when executive Order 6133 transferred the parks and monuments under the purview of the War Department and the Forest Service to NPS custody.
expanding again in 1935 under the Historic Sites Act, the National Park Service matured as a cultural steward. The Historic Sites Act specifically extended the NPS's scope to include documentation and survey. The act directed attention toward America's historic and archaeological sites, buildings, and objects by, for example, mandating investigative research to obtain accurate information pertaining to these seminal places. The NPS's new obligations included caring for 'drawings, plans, photographs and other data of historic
and archaeological sites, buildings and objects' as well as surveying the same 'for the purpose of determining which possess exceptional value as commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States'. These legislated duties, moreover, had the unintended result of legally underpinning HABS.5
reinforcements for the aging legislative bulwark arrived in 1966 with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. This act established the National register of Historic Places and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation as well as ensuring, in Sections 106/110, that for federally-funded initiatives any adverse effects on historic properties would be mitigated. Crafted with the goal of protecting the nation's 'irreplaceable heritage', section 106 determined that 'any district, site, building, structure or object that is included in or eligible for inclusion in the National register must be taken into account'. Furthermore, the advisory council had to be given the opportunity to comment on those projects impacting America's historic places. Section 110 governed federal agencies' role in preservation. These agencies, in cooperation with the state historic preservation offices (SHPOs), were instructed to develop a programme to survey and inventory their historic buildings. They were also required to record historic properties prior to demolition, and to send those records to the Library of Congress.
Directing the practical application of sections 106/110 are the Secretary of the Interior's Guidelines for Architectural and Engineering Documentation: HABS/HAER Standards.6 As stated in the standards, the goal of the burgeoning collection of drawings, photographs, and written historical information is 'to provide... comprehensive documentation of buildings, sites, structures and objects significant in American history and the growth and development of the built environment'.7 The standards govern content, quality, materials and preservation of the records generated for the collection.
These criteria ensure what is produced actually illustrates the subject; presents accurate, reliable and verifiable information; appears clearly, concisely and consistently with scale markers and location references; and will endure through the use of archivally-stable products. The documentation must also be reproducible. This last feature is facilitated by standard sizing, by a copyright-free status and, since the advent of the American Memory website, by the internet.
The standards specify three levels of documentation. Generally the first level is reserved for prominent sites such as those listed as National Historic Landmarks and those located in the 'primary historic units' of the National Park Service.8 This premier category requires all three formats: written data, drawings, and exterior and interior photographs. The second level also contains the three components, but copies of existing drawings are substituted. The third level lightens the recording load considerably, slimming
This blockhouse was recorded for the Survey with Works Progress Administration funding in 1934. While the two storeys were of similar proportions, the upper block was positioned diagonally to the lower portion, doubling the vantage points of a traditional building from four to eight. The structure is said to have been constructed in the 1850s by settlers as protection from the indigenous peoples, which explains the security features such as the eight sides and retractable ladder. The building was moved in 1911 and reconstructed as a monument to Joel Farmer, Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Notes by Jamieson Farmer; drawn by Rudolph Paetz, HABS/HAER/ HALS Collection, Library of Congress (HABS No OR-21).