Five Questions With Katie Miller on the National Park Service and a Preservation Career

Five Questions With returns! In this series, I’m talking with colleagues, social media friends, and others I admire to learn some tricks of the trade, hear their stories, and introduce you to more preservationists. While the first three interviews have been with preservation friends I’ve made through social media, #4 is a graduate classmate of mine. I love making the world smaller and meeting friends who are doing inspiring work.

Introducing interview #4: Katie Miller!


BUNDLE UP and get outside and you can see rainbows and beautiful landscape in Anchorage, AK as demonstrated by Katie. Photo courtesy of Katie Miller. 

Katie Miller is one of the hardest working people I know, and one who is extremely dedicated to and excels at historic preservation. I thought you all might like to meet Katie and learn about her career with the National Park Service. It’s taken her to Massachusetts, New Mexico, Wyoming, and now Alaska. She has a B.A. in Cultural & Historic Preservation from Salve Regina University and M.S. in Historic Preservation from the University of Vermont. Read on for Katie’s interview and to see some beautiful photographs.

1. Katie, let’s start with the basics. What triggered your desire to work for the National Park Service? 

I grew up on Cape Cod, where I managed to find an internship working with the museum at the national seashore. Instantly, I was attracted to the agency’s mission to protect not only its historic resources, but the collective natural and historic environment for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of the public. I also loved working with a group of invested, good-hearted, passionate, hard-working people.

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O’Malley Peak, Anchorage, AK. Photo courtesy of Katie Miller. 

2. You’ve had multiple positions with the NPS? Would you tell me about them? 

After my internship at the Cape Cod National Seashore, I then drove to the opposite coast to work in the archives at Yosemite National Park in California.

In graduate school, I worked with the Cultural Landscapes Inventory Program at a NPS regional office in Santa Fe, New Mexico. After completing my coursework, the region stationed me at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

After the funding ran out for my position, I stayed with Grand Teton for as long as I could as a volunteer working on several projects, including historic furnishings reports, compliance reports, and an iPhone app. for self-guided history tours.

For two years, I worked as an architectural historian with a cultural resource management firm that received contracts from the NPS. There, I worked on National Register documentation for a few personally exciting historic sites, including Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, the Appalachian Trail (which extends from Georgia to Maine), Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, and Marsh-Billings National Historical Site in Vermont.

Now, I work directly for the NPS in the Alaska Regional Office as a historian.

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3. Tell me about your job duties with the Alaska Regional Office. 

It’s located in Anchorage, the state’s largest city, population-wise. As a historian, I write national register nominations, historic structures reports, and coordinate future cultural resource projects for national parks throughout the state. Alaska is a considerably sized area. If it were transposed over the contiguous United States (they call it the “lower 48” here), Alaska’s body would encompass most of the Mid-West and its tails would extend from Sacramento, California, to Savannah, Georgia.

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The Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark near McCarthy, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Katie Miller. 

4. What was it like to pick up and move to Alaska (from Rhode Island) and how do you describe living in Alaska? 

I love working for the NPS. With full support from my family, the move was very easy. My father drove with me, all 5,000+ miles between Massachusetts and Alaska.

The state has mountains that meet the ocean; long stretches of darkness and lightness; the world’s most adorable animals — otters and puffins; inspiring Native Alaskan culture; and colorful auroras. I also get to work with some of the most wonderful people in the universe.

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On that 5,000 mile drive: Three Sisters near Canmore, Alberta. Photo courtesy of Katie Miller. 

5. What advice would you offer to new/aspiring preservationists? 

Don’t underestimate the power of an internship – it’s the perfect opportunity to identify your interests. If you’d like to work with the NPS, I encourage you to look into the Student Conservation Association and the National Council for Preservation Education Internships. Also — if you’re passionate about something, take the risk. It will be worth it.

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Flying from Juneau to Skagway in a six seater plane. Photo courtesy of Katie Miller.

Thank you, Katie. Your photographs and your travels are beautiful. We’re proud to have preservationists like you who are dedicated to the National Park Service. Enjoy Alaska!


SIA 2013: Mighty Mississippi

Tales from SIA 2013 continue with Friday’s tour named, “Mighty Mississippi: A Twin Cities Riverboat Cruise with the Experts.” (There are typically four tours from which to choose on the Friday.)

Mighty Mississippi!

Mighty Mississippi!

The tour began via bus, which would bring the group from St. Paul into Minneapolis. The tour began with the 7th Street Improvement Arches, which are 1884 masonry arch bridges constructed in the helicoidal (spiral) method. These bridges were on a former rail line, but are now the corridor is an active bike path in St. Paul.

Helicoidal construction in the Seventh Street Improvement Arches.

Helicoidal construction in the Seventh Street Improvement Arches.

Seventh Street Improvement Arches, with the bike path.

Seventh Street Improvement Arches, with the bike path.

Continuing into Minneapolis we saw the city skyline and many mills lining the Mississippi River. After seeing the (newest) Hennepin Avenue Bridge and Nicollet Island, we strolled across the Stone Arch Bridge with a NPS ranger who gave a history of the river corridor. The Mississippi River is a National River & Recreation Area, managed by the National Park Service.

Pillsbury "A" Mill in Minneapolis.

Pillsbury “A” Mill in Minneapolis.

The SIA group walking across the bridge.

The SIA group walking across the bridge.

What a lovely skyline: historic buildings and new buildings all in one.

What a lovely skyline: historic buildings and new buildings all in one.

Everyone boarded a riverboat in the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock & Dam. To those of us (like me) who had never been in a dam & lock before, this was very exciting!

Learning how a dam & lock operates, as we travel down.

Learning how a dam & lock operates, as we travel down.

And then once through the lock & dam, the views of the city were spectacular, especially the Stone Arch bridge.

The Stone Arch Bridge from the river.

The Stone Arch Bridge from the river.

The Gold Medal Flour sign can be seen on the grain elevators on the left.

The Gold Medal Flour sign can be seen on the grain elevators on the left.

The tour on the riverboat included many, many bridges, historic and new. While touring these bridges, our guides included bridge experts, historians and the boat operator, who offered history and significance of the bridges and surrounding resources. Here are just a few images from the day:

The new I-35W bridge in te background and 10th Ave (Cedar Ave) bridge in the foreground.

The new I-35W bridge in te background and 10th Ave (Cedar Ave) bridge in the foreground.

Up close and personal with all of the bridges.

Up close and personal with all of the bridges.

Minnesota is lucky to have many open spandrel concrete arch bridges.

Minnesota is lucky to have many open spandrel concrete arch bridges.

This is the Omaha Railway Swing Bridge, which the operator opened for us to see!

This is the Omaha Railway Swing Bridge, which the operator opened for us to see! Here it is shown completely open as we floated down the river.

A miniature stone arch bridge.

A miniature stone arch bridge. The Mendota Road Bridge.

A new bridge: The Smith Avenue High Bridge in St. Paul.

A new bridge: The Smith Avenue High Bridge in St. Paul.

Back in St. Paul: the Chicago Great Western Railway Vertical Lift Bridge and the Robert Street Bridge.

Back in St. Paul: the Chicago Great Western Railway Vertical Lift Bridge and the Robert Street Bridge.

Among many bridges,there were other interesting sites to see along the river including the abandoned Island Station Power Plant.

Abandoned Minnesota? The Island Power Plant.

Abandoned Minnesota. The Island Station Power Plant.

Part of the St. Paul skyline.

Part of the St. Paul skyline.

And that is only some of the scenes from the tour. It was a beautiful day (the clouds only threatened us for a short while in the afternoon). The tour included lunch as well. It was a perfect day on the river. Hats off to the organizers and sponsors: the SIA, Mead & Hunt, and the Historic Bridge Foundation. If you love bridges, history and water, this was the perfect tour on the SIA. Come join us next time!

To read additional details about the tour, read a post by Amy Squitieri of Mead & Hunt on the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles blog. And if you can name some of the bridges pictures, please do. There were way too many to commit to memory in one afternoon! Here are more of Minnesota’s historic bridges.

*Note: Click on any image for a larger, clearer version.

Preservation ABCs: L is for Landscape

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.


L is for Landscape

Windham County, Vermont, agricultural landscape, October 2009.

The word “landscape” likely triggers images of rolling hills, the coast, mountains or flat farmland. When discussing historic preservation and landscape, those images still hold true, except landscape is more aptly called “cultural landscape” by the National Park Service. Basically, cultural landscapes represent how humans have modified the environment and interacted with the land.

There are four types of cultural landscapes: (1) historic sites (2) historic designed landscapes (3) historic vernacular landscape and (4) ethnographic landscapes. Preservation Brief 36 explains cultural landscapes succinctly. Subtypes of these four types range from highways to parks to neighborhoods to farmsteads to battlefields to gardens to sacred sites, among many more.

Like other historic resources, landscapes have boundaries and historic context and significant features that contribute to their integrity (think of the threats to battlefields for a reference). The National Park Service maintains the Cultural Landscape Inventory (CLI) of all cultural and historic landscapes across the country. Cultural landscapes are an entire field of study, obviously much too lengthy for a single post, but visit the CLI to get started. (And if you’re a cultural landscape expert, feel free to add more as a primer.)

Aside from the NPS definition of cultural landscapes, “landscape” can refer to everything around us. When you read your landscape, you are reading every element (not necessarily historic) of your environment and understanding the place where you live: what existed before and what exists now. Reading landscape is important because it allows preservationists and others to understand “sense of place” and what makes a place unique.

So think about your landscape? Do you know of any designated cultural landscapes around you? If not, how would you describe where you are?

Love Your Landmarks

Photographs, historic landmarks, a contest, springtime — there is so much to love about the National Historic Landmark Program Photography Contest. How to enter? Check out the rules on the NHL website. In brief: You can enter up to 10 photos per person, but one per landmark. Upload your photos to the Flickr group. And swing by the NHL Facebook page to get more information and news about the sites.  Want to know more about the NHL program? Check out this tutorial.  See last year’s winners; gorgeous!

Why enter? Here are five reasons.

(1) Most of us are snap happy with our digital cameras. Thank goodness for digital, yes? While we may take longer to print our photographs, if we ever do, at least we can experiment with the camera until we take the “perfect” shot. But, with these digital cameras, do you take the time to practice getting a good shot or are we all just clicking away on the cameras? Now is your chance to have a subject, an assignment, a goal and a deadline. Maybe you can learn a few new camera tricks and functions.

(2) Maybe after all that practicing, you’ll win. Then your winning photograph will be featured in the NHL calendar, which you can download for free. Who doesn’t love to win a contest?

(3) Our National Historic Landmarks are the most significant properties in the United States, meaning they are the most significant to our collective heritage, and are important to all of us. Understanding our history is important.

(4) The National Park Service is always in need of support, so get out there and show the federal government and decision makers just how important the NPS and landmarks are to you.

(5) It’s a great reason to get outside in the springtime, alone or with family and friends. You could even take a road trip to 10 NHLs if you’re really in need of an excuse to get away.

There are approximately 2,500 NHLs. Need to find one near you? Check here. Have fun! You have until June 13, 2012.

Thanks to Sabra for sending along the flyer and head’s up about the contest beginning. 

Preservation Photos #125

The Monroe Elementary School, constructed 1926, is the home of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas. Photo taken June 2006.

From the National Park Service:

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is one of the most pivotal opinions ever rendered by that body. This landmark decision highlights the U.S. Supreme Court’s role in affecting changes in national and social policy. Often when people think of the case, they remember a little girl whose parents sued so that she could attend an all-white school in her neighborhood. In reality, the story of Brown v. Board of Education is far more complex.

In December, 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court had on its docket cases from Kansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, and Virginia, all of which challenged the constitutionality of racial segregation in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court had consolidated these five cases under one name, Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka. One of the justices later explained that the U.S. Supreme Court felt it was better to have representative cases from different parts of the country. They decided to put Brown first “so that the whole question would not smack of being a purely Southern one.”

Learn more about the school and its relation to Civil Rights here. Read the building history from the HABS documentation here.

Annaberg Sugar Mill Plantation Ruins

The US Virgin Islands are more than beaches, spirits and palm trees. The islands have centuries of history and culture to share. Approximately two-thirds of the island of St. John comprises the Virgin Islands National Park. Much of the park is underwater, which you can see via snorkeling; but, there are many interesting hiking trails and historic sites on land, too.

Welcome to the Annaberg Sugar Mill!

The Annaberg Sugar Mill Plantation Ruins comprise the Annaberg Historic District in the Virgin Islands National Park. Sugar plantations were abundant in this region throughout the 19th century. Though originally grown in India, Columbus brought sugar to the Caribbean, where it thrived. You’ve heard “Cotton was King” in reference to the US South. Well, here “Sugar was King.”  In 1758, a Dutch immigrant, Salomon Zeeger, purchased the property and named it Annaberg in honor of his wife Anna. Though its namesake, the Zeegers did not construct the mill, which dates to ca. 1800. An Irish merchant,James Murphy, purchased many adjacent properties, including Annaberg, to create his sugar estate. Sugar product continued on the plantation long after his death in 1808.

In this historic district are ruins of slave cabins, a magass (drying) shed, a windmill tower, a horse mill, an oven, a boiling house, a curing house and overseers’ quarters, a water cistern and a dungeon, a still house, a rum still, a firing trench and an ox pound.

The trail sign at the Annaberg Sugar Mill. There are 16 points along the trail, though not the same number of informational panels.

When we visited, we were fortunate that volunteer interpreters were on site to give us a helpful lesson on the boiling house. They also handed us a detailed walking tour, which supplemented the few interpretive panels throughout the site. (My knowledge of the site comes from the NPS walking tour brochure, which is very well done.)  We found the site to be in need of additional interpretive signage, especially because the volunteers are only on site for a few months out of the year. Without the brochure and/or the guides, it is much harder to understand the site.

The view near the windmill. Not a bad view for the volunteers and park rangers!

The windmill, which rotated by an attached pole. Rollers crushed sugar cane, which ran into a tank where it stayed until it was ready for processing,

Looking up and through the windmill.

The cook house, where bread was prepared for workers.

Standing inside the boiling house. On the left you can see where the coppers (kettles) were located in order to boil the cane juice down to sugar. Boiling sugar required a lot of attention and skill.

Close up of boiling house wall. The walls were constructed of volcanic rock set into a mortar composed of sand, fresh water, molasses and quicklime from seashells and coral.

Boiling house doorway with wood frame remaining.

Exterior of boiling house.

View looking through the boiling house windows towards the windmill.

View from the horse mill. Horses walked in a large circle in order to substitute for the lack of wind and windmill power on a calm day.

We loved the Annaberg Sugar Mill site for more than the view; the buildings are fascinating. It is a site very different from those throughout the continental United States (though the boiling house reminded me of smelting iron and similar processes, which was a good reference point). Ruins are always intriguing, and historical context and information heightens appreciation and awe of such sites. If you are visiting St. John, the Annaberg Plantation is a must. (A tip: make sure you get the walking tour and read it before you walk around, wondering what the unidentified buildings are.)

Read a detailed history of Annaberg Plantation, from the National Park Service. View the HABS drawings, from the Library of Congress. See the HABS photographs.

National Park Service’s Teaching With Historic Places: USS Arizona

The US Military wears the flag flying this way ("backwards" most of us would say) so it always looks like they are moving forward.

December 7 is the remembrance of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

USS Arizona. Image source: NPS Teaching with Place. Click for source link.

To learn about Pearl Harbor, try visiting the National Park Service’s webpage called, “Teaching with Places Historic Lessons Plans:  Remembering Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona Memorial.” You find maps, a brief history lesson, and historic images. Start here with the historical context:

The attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II. The attack had significant and far-reaching political effects on the United States, changing the minds of many who had been philosophically opposed to war or who had taken a passive stance towards the war in Europe. The increasing diplomatic confrontations and economic sanctions against Japan by the United States and others, compounded by Japan’s undeclared war in China and the weakening of European control in Asian colonies, precipitated the war in the Pacific. The Japanese felt that the time was opportune to conquer British, American, French, Chinese, and Dutch territories in Southeast Asia. This belief pushed militaristic factions in Japan to provoke war with the United States. Fearing that the United States Pacific Fleet would pose a formidable obstacle to Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia, Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, visualized a bold attack on the Pacific Fleet while it lay at anchor at Pearl Harbor. Such a surprise strategical attack, bold and daring in its execution, would, he believed, secure the Pacific.

Teaching with Historic Places is a part of the NPS’ Heritage Education Services. In a nutshell, “Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) uses properties listed in the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places to enliven history, social studies, geography, civics, and other subjects. TwHP has created a variety of products and activities that help teachers bring historic places into the classroom.”

Browse for lesson plans and interesting information, even if you are simply teaching yourself. Thanks for the resource, NPS!

Fort Monroe Joins the National Monument Club!

Okay, it’s not actually called the “National Monument Club,” but it sounds fun, right? I’d wear a button.

On November 1, 2011 President Obama designated Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA a National Monument using his presidential power designated in the Antiquities Act of 1906.

 The Antiquities Act states:

The President of the United States is authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.

Read here to learn which Presidents have designated which monuments. It began with Teddy Roosevelt and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

Devil's Tower (future) National Monument, ca. 1900.

The PreservationNation blog gives you the full scoop on the efforts by the National Trust, politicians and citizens to persuade the President to designate Fort Monroe. Here is a brief bit of history about Fort Monroe, from Rob Nieweg at PreservatioNation:

Located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Fort Monroe is a principal landmark of African American heritage. Old Point Comfort was the site of the 1619 First Landing of enslaved Africans in the English-speaking New World, and in 1861 it became the unique birthplace of the Civil War-era freedom movement. The May 1861 events at Fort Monroe inspired 500,000 African American women, children, and men – dubbed “contrabands” by the Union Army – to liberate themselves from bondage. They didn’t wait for permission, but made their way at great risk to relative safety behind Union lines, first at Fort Monroe and shortly thereafter at the ring of fortifications surrounding the nation’s capital. The courage and plight of the freedom seekers influenced national politics and hastened President Lincoln’s formal Emancipation Proclamation.

Fort Monroe. Image from Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park. Click for source & CFMNP website.

Read the rest of the article and browse through the blog for more information. If you’re happy to hear this news, join the National Trust in thanking President Obama for his efforts and designation. (It’s a simple form to fill out, but as your parents should have taught you, saying thank you goes a long way.)

Wondering the difference between a National Park &  a National Monument? The National Park Service describes it as such:

The two classes of reservations comprising the national-park and national-monument system differ primarily in the reasons for which they are established. National parks are areas set apart by Congress for the use of the people of the United States generally, because of some outstanding scenic feature or natural phenomena. Although many years ago several small parks were established, under present policies national parks must be sufficiently large to yield to effective administration and broad use. The principal qualities considered in studying areas for park purposes are their inspirational, educational, and recreational values.

National monuments, on the other hand, are areas reserved by the National Government because they contain objects of historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest. Ordinarily established by presidential proclamation under authority of Congress, occasionally these areas also are established by direct action of Congress. Size is unimportant in the case of the national monuments.

Thanks to everyone for your efforts. Here’s to another success story in preserving our national heritage!

Cold Weather Coming! Insulation!?

Who else is getting chilly in the Northeast? Maybe it’s chilly in the Midwest, too? And the Northwest? Certainly you southerners are still enjoying the summer sun’s warm rays with a few lovely, blustery fall days. My memory could be skewed, but I am fairly certain that October was still very warm in the North Carolina Sandhills.

Normally, I wouldn’t mind this chill, except right now we are lacking heat in our house. (Thanks again, Irene.) We’re working on it with insurance, so hopefully it will be warm again soon. Fortunately, as new homeowners, we have a never-ending list of projects to do, which means there is enough reason to move constantly and keep warm. My favorite task is painting. I love painting! We’ll talk paint colors again soon.

Before fun aesthetic matters like paint colors, let’s get back to insulation issues. I was relieved to hear that I am not crazy after my rant against spray foam insulation. See the comments by Maria and Henrietta.

As I’ve mentioned, this year’s winter will be for observing how our lack of insulation affects our 1928 house. The attic is insulated, so all will be okay this year. Next year we’ll decide what we’re missing. Between now and spring I would like to acquire more knowledge about insulation. Colleagues and friends know my stance on insulation (at least insulation in my house), and I’d like to have more credible answers – rather than just some knowledge combined with gut instincts – for when they ask me questions about their house. While I’ve never claimed to be an expert, people know that I care about historic structures. There is no use in caring and not applying preservation know-how or learning it.

Step One: Acquire References.

My list of references from reliable sources includes:

(1) Issues: Weatherization from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (with special note to insulation)

(2) Technical Preservation Services: Weather from the National Park Service

(3) Energy Costs in an Old House from Historic New England

(4) Q&A from Old House Online (Old House Journal)

(5) Q&A from Historic HomeWorks (John Leeke)

What have you found helpful? What can you add?

Step Two: Read & Comprehend. That is a project for winter.

As smaller measures this year, we’re making sure to close the storm windows and add insulated curtains. If necessary, maybe we’ll tackle weather stripping. However, I really do not expect the house to be especially cold. It’s a good house and I have faith in it.

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.