Series introduction. No. 1 = Ideas You Should Not Believe About Historic Preservation. No. 2 = Vocabulary for Translating and Holding Your Own in a Preservation Conversation. No. 3 = Let’s Talk about Architecture / The Very Beginning of Describing Buildings. No. 4 = Let’s Talk about Buildings A Bit More. No. 5 = The National Register of Historic Places (What You Should Know). No. 6 = The History of Historic Preservation.
No. 7 = The Basics of Documentation
Much of our work in historic preservation involves recording our past, often by way of documenting the built environment. When our environment is documented, we can connect it to people, events, and other places and tell our collective history.
Simply put, documentation of a historic structure involves three parts: (1) historical research, (2) measured drawings, and (3) photography. Each has standards established by the National Park Service / Historic American Buildings Survey, and these standards remain the industry practice. An excellent source is the book Recording Historic Structures by John Burns, which teaches the reader the HABS/HAER/HALS standards for documentation.
This post will not outline the standards, but rather, give you and introduction to what documentation involves, and hopefully inspire you to start practicing on your house.
Keep in mind that more than buildings can and are documented; sites, structures, objects, districts, landscapes… they count, too! Saying historic “building” just streamlines the discussion. Now, let’s begin.
(1) Historical Research
What is the history of ownership of the building? Who has lived there? What functions has the building served? Is there any available information about how it has changed? Are any historic photographs to be found? The extent of research and details will vary by project (i.e. funding, time, purpose), but the goals are the same.
How do you find this information? Many of these items can be found at your local library.
a) Deed Research (City Hall, Town Offices, County Clerk’s office — depending on where you live. A few lucky places such as Cumberland County, NC have their land records digitized). Some locations will require that you pay for your time and photocopies. Some are charging now for digital photograph permission, too! But if you are a student or an educational endeavor, you can probably ask to have the fee waived.
b) Historic Maps – Beers, Wallingford, Sanborn Insurance Maps, Plat Maps. Check your library and ask for help. In some cases you might find them online through sites such as the David Rumsey Map Collection. Maps will help you date your property and sometimes identify former landowners.
c) City Directories - These are usually only for larger cities and not small towns (like Sanborn Maps), but they can provide information on the use of the building and the owners.
d) Miscellaneous town records and files at the town library, historical societies, state archives.
e) Newspaper articles – Head to the local resource room at your library and get cozy with microfilm. After you’ve used it a time or two, the nauseous feelings should subside. Historic newspapers often had much more social content that our current papers. You can learn a lot about the local area and its people.
f) Oral history – Ask around! Word of mouth will lead you to the best sources. Asking interviewees to describe buildings and places will often give you great information.
Historic research will often be incorporated into a historical narrative about the property that serves the purpose of recording a fair history.
(2) Measured Drawings
Measured (to scale) drawings document the building as-is. The level of detail might vary, but a full set of drawings will include elevations, sections, and details. Every part and detail of the building is measured. Most are done on CAD nowadays, since it is faster than hand drawing and easier to transmit and share. In order to learn standards and proper methods, it is best to take a drafting class. For instance, different line thicknesses are used to denote types of walls. However, if you aren’t documenting a building professionally, you can do your own “measured drawings” at home. These would probably more akin to field sketches. Draw/sketch your floor plan, elevation, or detail as best as you can. Record your accurate measurements on your sketches.
When sketching your building, think of it from largest to smallest. Draw the outline or frame of the building. Start at the bottom and work your way up. Then include doors and windows. Draw and record details (window frames, cornice details) in a separate drawing so your numbers don’t get mixed together.
Measured drawings are not required by every project, but if a significant resource is to be demolished, measured drawings often serve as a form of mitigation for the loss. For buildings of national significance, the measured drawings would serve as an important research resource for the present and the future.
There is too much to say about measured drawings, but here are a few tips: 1) It is much easier with three people (one for the measuring end of the tape, one for the dumb end (aka zero end), and one to record); 2) Accept that you will probably have to go back more than once because you will inevitably forget to measure a detail; 3) If necessary for your understanding, redraw your field sketches with clear numbers and delineation; 4) Sometimes it helps to photograph a detail with the tape measure in the picture; and 5) Decide if you are rounding up or down and to which segment of the inch.
Photography is perhaps the most prolific form of documentation, and some would say the easiest, thanks to the aid of digital cameras. However, good photographic documentation requires more practice than a point-and-shoot camera. Standards are changing in terms of which mediums are accepted and which types of ink, but the basics of what to photograph remain the same. To effectively document the building, be sure to include all elevations and corners (N, S, E, W elevation and NE, NW, SE, SW corners for example). These corner shots are often called record shots . Do your best to get both elevations in the picture. It is best to take an image with as little parallax distortion as possible. In other words, stand as far back as you can in order to get the entire plane within the photo frame and do not tilt the camera. You may find yourself standing on stone walls, cars, or hanging out a window. Just be careful and do not trespass (unless you have permission)! After elevations and record shots, photograph details. Perhaps the door frame is significant or the portico columns. For interior rooms, it is important to have the ceiling, walls, and floor within the frame.
Photographs should be accompanied with the name of the subject of the photograph, the property and its location, the direction from which the picture was taken and to where it is looking, the date, and the name of the photographer. This is the basic necessary information, but, again, keep in mind your SHPO may have different requirements.
So the three main components of documentation are historical research, measured drawings, and photography. Once you are familiar with the tree (and now you are!), you can learn the standards of your organization and start practicing. Many preservation programs have classes in documentation if you are interested professionally. However, if you want to document your own house, you do not have to be a professional. Check out those deed records, draw your house floor plan, and take good, thought-out photographs. It’s fun!
Recording Historic Structures by John Burns
Documentation cheat sheet by State of Minnesota
Sacred Places overview of Measured Drawings (very helpful!)
When in doubt, speak with your State Historic Preservation Office or State Historical Society.