Overhills Revisited

Overhills will forever remain a beloved memory of mine and a peaceful bubble of a world in the rural sandhills of North Carolina. I may not have lived or visited Overhills during its life as an active hunting retreat or family retreat, but I had the honor and pleasure of working for the buildings and the people who inhabited and loved Overhills. There was  a point in time when I thought that there would never be a day when I did not think of Overhills; but, years have passed since my oral history work finished and it now seems like a dream, like another world. My thoughts on Overhills are spaced further apart, but no less meaningful. The place, the people, the project have helped to define who I am. (The oral history project report can be accessed and downloaded through Fort Bragg.)

Aside from the Overhills Oral History Project, the property was documented under the Historic American Landscape Survey for the Library of Congress as the Overhills Historic District. (Read the HALS report.)Many of the records have been digitized: photographs of Overhills, floor plans, landscape plans, historical research. Not everything is digitized yet, but it is enough to trigger memories as I browse through the collection. Take a look with me.

Nursery Road, one of the roads through Overhills. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-26. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Overhills approach road to the Hill. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-15. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Overhills polo barn. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-16. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Croatan, a house at Overhills. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-8. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

These pictures remind me of the drive to and through Overhills, walking the grounds through the long leaf pines, exploring and attempting to learn as much as I could about the layout and landscape, piecing together historical research & oral history, visiting the houses and barns and imagining Overhills in its heyday.

Sadly, today, Overhills continues to deteriorate and/or suffers from vandalism. It pains me to hear of another building that has caught fire or to come across current Overhills pictures scattered across the internet that show the state of the place. It is incredibly sad, amplified by the fact that I know the stories and the history and the people of Overhills. Eventually, I’ll stop randomly searching for Overhills photos on search engines.

However, the HALS photographs and documents, in addition to the oral history project products, allow the good memories to stay with me. So I continue to look through the documentation. I don’t want to forget anything I know about Overhills. I’m sure my reaction time to specific questions – probably those found in the Overhills archives – is delayed from a few years ago, but that’s okay. I remember the bigger pictures. While my preference is preservation and rehabilitation instead of mitigation, I understand the importance and strength of proper and creative documentation because of this project. No matter which memory strikes me, I am reminded of the significant and unique story of Overhills, and how much I love(d) it.

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Other posts about Overhills: 3 Hours in the Life of an Oral Historian. Carolina Day. Another Day in the Field. My Ode to Oral History. Overhills by Jeffrey D. Irwin & Kaitlin O’Shea. Oral History & Me? It’s Complicated. Overhills Book Release. Johnny. Those Unknown Photograph Subjects. Why They Don’t Let Me Outside. Time Travel Wish. Voice as a Powerful Primary Source.

Historic Preservation Basics No. 7

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.

(3) Photography

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!

Some Resources:

HABS, HAER, HALS Guidelines from the NPS

Recording Historic Structures by John Burns

Documentation cheat sheet by State of Minnesota

Sacred Places overview of Measured Drawings (very helpful!)

Vermont Division for Historic Preservation – Requirements for Photographic Documentation of Historic Structures

When in doubt, speak with your State Historic Preservation Office or State Historical Society.

 

Historic Bridges

Covered bridges, steel truss bridges, arch bridges, suspension bridges – all of these, and numerous other categories, are found throughout the United States. Many of these are historically significant structures.  Typically, the term historic preservation is accompanied by a mental image of a historic building, or so I would imagine. But, do we give bridges a fair amount of attention? Covered bridges are the easiest to recognize, possibly the most romanticized, but steel truss and arch bridges may be less recognizable and remembered.  The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) documents buildings, while the Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS) handles landscape, and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documents structures such as bridges, railroads, ships, canals, and steelworks.  HABS, HALS, and HAER are programs of the National Park Service. Search the collections at the Library of Congress.

Historic bridges provide important information about previous transportation systems, routes, the locations of roads and towns, and by preserving bridges, original character of a roadway can be retained (think scenic byway).  They are just as important to historic preservation as buildings and landscape.  Many historic bridges fall into disrepair and the traffic outgrows the bridges. Sadly, instead of restoration, repair, or reinforcement, they are often replaced with new bridges.

Fortunately, many people begin with small, personal efforts to record and save structures, buildings, and landscapes. The efforts begin small and spread as other find their shared interests. Thank goodness for individual interests.  After all, HABS, HAER, and HALS can only reach so many properties scattered across the vast country in cities and down country dirt roads.  One such example of an effort is the website, Historic Bridges of the United States, which is a database of currently 29,164 bridges across the USA.  Civil engineers, preservationists, historians – all sorts of people contribute to this site.  James Baughn started the site , is the acting webmaster, and continues to add bridges. Everyone is encouraged to send information and photographs. [Read the background of the site and effort here.]

Viewers can search the database by specific geographic locations, designs of bridges, status, waterways, cities, years, roads, or builders.  Or viewers may browse randomly. The site also posts news relating to the bridges.  Even better, existing HAER reports on these bridges are listed on the website.  Each database entry includes a photograph (if available), a map with the bridge’s location, any known history, UTM coordinates, and its status.  It’s a great website and fun to browse, if you’re interested in bridges.  

The photographs below are from my Route 66 road trip in 2006.  

A rainbow curve bridge on Old Route 66 in Kansas.

A rainbow curve bridge on Old Route 66 in Kansas.

Sign at the end of the bridge. (Excuse the camera lens).

Sign at the end of the bridge. (Excuse the camera lens).

Sign at the other end of the rainbow bridge.

Sign at the other end of the rainbow bridge.