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NPS Expansion: 1930s







New Deal



NPS 1933-39




Expansion of the National Park Service in the 1930s:
Administrative History

Chapter Five: New Initiatives in the Fields of History, Historic Preservation and Historical Park Development and Interpretation
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F. Historic American Buildings Survey

One of the first steps in the direction of the formulation of a national policy for the preservation of historic structures was the creation of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) by the National Park Service in 1933. Charles E. Peterson, chief of the Eastern Division of the Branch of Plans and Design of the Park Service, originated the idea of a nationwide plan using 1,000 unemployed architects, draftsmen, and photographers during a six-month period to secure, by measured drawings and photographs, as complete a graphic record as possible of the rapidly disappearing examples of early architecture and historic structures throughout the United States. The memorandum proposing the program was submitted to Associate Director Demaray in November and included both a justification and a suggested range of subjects for the project:

The comparatively few structures which can be saved by extraordinary effort and presented as exhibition houses and museums or altered and used for residences or minor commercial uses comprise only a minor percentage of the interesting and important architectural specimens which remain from the old days. 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. . . .

The list of building types should be almost a complete resume of the builders' art. It 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. The lists should be made up from the standpoint of academic interest rather than of commercial uses. The largest part of individual effort spent so far in measuring antique buildings and recording them seems to have been given with an eye to adapting historic styles to modern commercial architectural practice. Much good has certainly resulted from this motive, though whole classes of structures have been neglected. [27]

The proposal received swift approval from Demaray and Cammerer who then submitted it to Secretary Ickes on November 15, 1933. It was approved by the Secretary and the Federal Relief Administration by December 1. [28]

The opportunity for cooperation in this venture was offered to and accepted by Edward C. Kemper, executive secretary of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and Dr. Leicester B. Holland, FAIA, who served both as chairman of the Institute's Committee on the Preservation of Historic Buildings and as head of the Department of Fine Arts in the Library of Congress. The Park Service placed Thomas C. Vint, chief of plans and design in the Washington office, in charge of administering HABS. He was assisted by Thomas T. Waterman, John P. O'Neill, and Frederick D. Nichols. By late 1933 the United States had been divided into thirty-nine districts (six states in the northwest were left out because of winter weather conditions and the relatively low number of architects there who were unemployed), each with a district officer nominated by the AIA and appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. Upon appointment these officers contacted the local Civil Works Administration (CWA) officers to secure architects and draftsmen for the field parties. An advisory board was named by the Secretary of the Interior consisting of Holland, chairman; Dr. Herbert E. Bolton, professor of history University of California, Berkeley; Dr. I. T. Frary, Cleveland Museum of Arts, Ohio; Miss Harlean James, executive secretary, American Civic Association, Washington, D.C.; Dr. Waldo G. Leland, executive secretary, American Council of Learned Societies, Washington, D.C.; John Gaw Meem, architect, Santa Fe, New Mexico; William G. Perry, architect, Boston, Massachusetts; Albert Simons, architect, Charleston, South Carolina; and Thomas E. Talmadge, architect, Chicago, Illinois. [29]

By early January 1934 most field parties were in operation. On February 15, however, the CWA began a gradual phasing out of its programs and officially ended its funding on May 1 . At the height of this first phase of its activity, HABS employed 772 persons in preparing measured drawings and pictorial histories of some 860 buildings. [30]

The success of the program was acknowledged generally, and steps were taken to endow the program with a formal charter. On July 23, 1934, a memorandum of agreement was signed by the National Park Service, the American Institute of Architects, and the Library of Congress to insure a permanent organization for the coordination and continuity of HABS. Under the memorandum the American Institute of Architects, through each of its sixty-seven chapters, had the responsibility of identifying and cataloging structures (built before 1875) whose architectural merit or historical association made them a significant part of the cultural heritage of the United States. The Park Service would carry out the actual work of preparing measured drawings and taking photographs. The Fine Arts Division of the Library of Congress agreed to serve as the repository for the HABS inventory forms, drawings, and photographs. The advisory board continued in its same capacity with the aforementioned personnel. [31]

Emergency relief appropriations obtained from various New Deal agencies, as well as collaborative student thesis work arranged in cooperation with universities and colleges, allowed HABS to continue during the depression years. In the early period HABS programs were operated by local field teams in the vicinity of the architects' homes. In fiscal year 1940, however, an effort was made to distribute the coverage of HABS programs on a wider basis. A unit was established in Washington to coordinate the program of four special field groups that would work out of Boston, Richmond, St. Louis, and San Francisco.

Each of the four special units was given a station wagon and a travel allotment to enable it to operate over a wider area. [32]

By the end of 1940 funding and manpower had been reduced for HABS because of the hostilities in Europe. The survey virtually ceased during the American involvement in World War II, but early in 1941, some eight years after its commencement, a HABS catalogue was published containing entries for 6,389 structures recorded with 23,765 sheets of drawings and 25,357 photographs. [33]

Chapter Five continues with...
Movement Toward Passage of Legislation for National Program of Historic Preservation


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