Drawn to Perfection

Celebrating 70 years of recording the glories of American building   

By Dwight Young

HABS is marking an important anniversary this year. Before you start muttering about obscure acronyms, let me remind you that HABS is the Historic American Buildings Survey, and if ever there was a legitimate cause for a bang-up celebration, this is it. Somebody should bake a cake in the shape of a historic building.

HABS is the brainchild of a National Park Service employee named Charles Peterson, who suggested that architects put out of work by the Depression be hired by the government to draw and photograph historic structures. Congress appropriated some funds, and an agreement called for the Park Service to administer the program, the American Institute of Architects to provide professional guidance, and the Library of Congress to house the drawings and photos. In 1934 the first surveyors went to work, fanning out across the country to document old buildings so that (in the words of an Interior Department memo of the time) they "should not pass into unrecorded oblivion."

The survey shut down during World War II, was reactivated in 1957, and is still going strong today. Most of the work is now done by summer field teams of architecture students instead of down-on-their-luck professionals—and in addition to the traditional T-square and tape measure, today's surveyors often employ high-tech photogrammetry (useful in recording irregularly shaped or fragile structures) and computer-aided design, or CAD (ideal for large buildings with lots of complex repetitive detail). Altogether, the program has documented more than 30,000 structures, with recent additions ranging from the home of a colonial governor in Pennsylvania to the sprawling Kennecott Copper Mine complex in Alaska. According to the most recent estimate, the HABS files in the Library of Congress bulge with 150,000 photographs, 51,000 measured drawings, and 90,000 pages of architectural and historical data.

The success of HABS led in 1969 to the birth of the Historic American Engineering Record (haer) to document sites of industrial and engineering significance. Nearly four years ago, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (hals) was created to provide the same level of systematic documentation for historic manmade landscapes not covered by HABS or haer. Together, these three programs are compiling a comprehensive visual record of the varied and ingenious and wonderful things—cabins and cathedrals, grain elevators and gardens, railroad depots and row houses, state capitols and steel mills, covered bridges and cast-iron storefronts—that have risen from the American land.

HABS' job will never be finished, of course, but the survey is already recognized as an incredibly rich archive of American architecture and invention. Many of the drawings and photos, especially those from the program's early years, are works of art in themselves. Many HABS drawings—too many, in fact—provide the only known visual record of buildings long gone. And when the buildings they document are still standing, they can be an invaluable preservation tool. After Hurricane Frederic in 1979 extensively damaged the historic city hall in Mobile, Ala., restoration architect Nicholas Holmes Jr. and his son put the building back in shape with the help of HABS drawings that had been prepared around 1935—by Holmes' own father.

My affection for this program stems partly from the fact that I am a HABS alumnus. As a graduate student, I was part of a team that prepared drawings of a little carpenter Gothic church in Virginia. The whole experience—taking photos, clawing through shrubbery and clambering up ladders to measure the building, fumbling with unforgiving black ink and slick sheets of mylar—made me feel very architecty, as if I were the natural heir to the glorious talents of Palladio, Richardson, and Wright. It was a feeling I rather enjoyed. Given what turned out to be my near-total lack of drafting skills, it was also a feeling I may never experience again. But it's there in black and white, filed away in the Library of Congress: two drawings with a notation in each lower left corner. DRAWN BY: DWIGHT YOUNG.

Happy anniversary, HABS, and thanks for saving my name—and several thousand historic buildings—from unrecorded oblivion.