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 Preservation Basics No. 6

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

As a recognized, formal academic and professional field, historic preservation is only about fifty years old. Organizations, ordinances, laws, and motivated individuals have been the backbone for establishing historic preservation in the United States.

Because preservation is connected to many other fields and its individual recognition is recent, the movement can be defined in different tracks, with a never-ending list of events. Books and professors can easily give you a long, thorough discussion on preservation’s history, so this post will highlight a few of the dates that are important to historic preservation in the USA. This particular list, assembled here, owes credit to Thomas Visser’s HP304 class lecture at the University of Vermont and to the book Historic Preservation by Norman Tyler. (Much of that same information can be found on this EMU webpage. I’ve simply compiled from the two and chosen which would be most relevant to readers.

You’ll note that the earliest efforts of historic preservation are centered on saving buildings and recreating environments. When that is under control and understood for the time, policy enters into the picture. As the years progress, policy plays an even larger role and the reaches of preservation are widened.

Now, for your very brief lesson in preservation history… enjoy! Feel free to add dates in the comments.

1813: Independence Hall (Pennsylvania State House) is purchased by the City of Philadelphia in order to save it from demolition.

1856: The Mount Vernon Ladies Association was chartered by Ann Pamela Cunningham in order to save George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, after Congress refused to purchase the property. The MVLA served as a basis for the structure of historical societies and organizations: run by women, raising money and restoring individual, landmark-worthy buildings in order to benefit the American public.

1872: Yellowstone National Park is designated as a federally protected area.

1876: The Columbian Exposition in Philadelphia introduces such items as the telephone, telegraph, linoleum, typewriter, and features an exhibit, The New England Kitchen of 1776, which will create an interest in Colonial architecture and style — hence, Colonial Revival.

1879: The Boston Antiquarian Club was founded in order to prevent the Old State House from being moved to the Chicago World’s Fair.

1901: William Sumner Appleton forms the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), which is now Historic New England (HNE).

1906: Antiquities Act, the nation’s first historic preservation legislation, designates monuments on federal lands and imposes penalties for destroying federal owned sites.

1912: Wallace Nutting (1861-1941), a  minister, photographers, preservationist, who wrote Old New England Pictures, acquired and restored a “Chain of Colonial Picture Houses” that were open to the public for a fee and serve as backdrops for historical photographs.

1916: The National Park Service is established.

1926: Colonial Williamsburg begins receiving funds from John D. Rockefeller, ,lead by Rev. W.A.R. Goodman. The 130 acre site is “weeded” to 18th century structures with important missing buildings reconstructed. Restoration guides the philosophy.

1927: Storrowton Village formed in West Springfield, MA using buildings relocated from MA and NH.

1929: Greenfield Village formed by Henry Ford by replicating and moving buildings.

1931: Charleston, SC establishes its “Old and Historic District,” which is the country’s first designated historic district. The district collectively develops restrictions in the general interest of the city.

1933: The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) is formed; it is the nation’s first federal preservation program.

1935: Historic Sites Act, passes by Congress, establishes preservation policy in the United States: “to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States.”

1936: The Vieux Carre is established as a historic district in New Orleans, LA.

1949: National Trust for Historic Preservation – established by Act of Congress as membership based organization, partially supported by federal appropriation.

1963: The demolition of Pennsylvania Station in New York City mobilizes the preservation movement.

1964: The country’s first historic preservation academic program is established at Columbia University by James Marston Fitch.

1966: National Historic Preservation Act is passed, establishing federal, state, and local government preservation responsibilities. Also established was the National Register of Historic Places.

1969: The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) is formed by the National Park Service.

1970: Vermont’s Act 250 Land Use & Development Act, of which Criteria 8 states that proposed projects will not have undue adverse effects on aesthetics, beauty, historic sites, or natural areas.

1976: Tax Reform Act removed the incentive for the demolition of historic buildings.

1978: Revenue Act – passed by Congress and established incentive (investment tax credits) for rehabilitation of historic buildings.

1978: Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties introduced.

1980: The Main Street Program is established by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The NHPA of 1966 is amended to include Certified Local Governments.

1988: The National Trust for Historic Preservation launches its 11 Most Endangered Places List. (The entire state of Vermont is listed in 1993 and 2004.)

1991: New Orleans Charter for the Joint Preservation of Historic Structures and Artifacts, drafted by the Association for Preservation Technology and the American Institute for Conservation, in order to address how preservation interests and collection considerations could co-function. The result is that both are important and require care. A set of 10 principles is adopted.

1995: The Secretary of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties is revised to adopt the four sets of standards: preservation, rehabilitation, reconstruction, and restoration.

1998: The National Trust for Historic Preservation chooses to become independent of federal funding.

2000: The Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS) is established by the National Park Service.

2005: 1897 Century Building in St. Louis, MO demolished, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation supported demolition. A New York Times article “When Preservation equals Demolition,” covers the story. This serves, to some, as a wake up call for ethics.

2007: The National Trust for Historic Preservation begins addressing historic preservation and sustainability issues.

2008: The Pocantico Proclamation on Sustainability and Historic Preservation is released by the National Trust. It addresses how to make the existing environment sustainable. Read it here.

Historic Preservation Basics No. 5

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)

If you find yourself standing in a group of historic preservationists, you’ll probably find that half love the National Register and writing nominations and the other half are not so keen on writing nominations. It’s likely that they’ll answer that while they appreciate the National Register, they’d rather find other avenues of preservation besides writing nominations. I’ll admit, I never thought much of the National Register in my undergrad days. I found the nominations difficult and when I learned that the NR couldn’t guarantee that a historic building would be saved, I wondered why even bother?

Things change. Preservationists mature. No, the National Register will not protect your historic building from eminent domain. But, the National Register will guarantee that your property will receive state and federal review on projects that require evaluation of the effects of projects on historic resources. And an NR listing can provide help in winning grants. If we revisit the core of the National Register, it can also be considered a record national pride and heritage. Soon enough, I changed my tune when it came to the NR, particularly for property protection in state and federal projects.

Is every NR eligible property listed in the National Register? No. There is endless work. It is quite possible that your property is eligible, but not listed in the National Register.

Consider this post an overview crash course of NR basics for everyone, as well as clarifications about the NR.

Definition

Officially, the National Register of Historic Places is defined as:

“The National Park Service administers the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register is the official federal list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture. National Register properties have significance to the history of their community state, or the nation. Nominations for listing historic properties come from State Historic Preservation Officers, from Federal Preservation Officers for properties owned or controlled by the United States Government, and from Tribal Historic Preservation Officers for properties on tribal lands. Private individuals and organizations, local governments, and American Indian tribes often initiate this process and prepare the necessary documentation. A professional review board in each state considers each property proposed for listing and makes a recommendation on its eligibility. National Historic Landmarks are a separate designation, but upon designation, NHLs are listed in the National Register of Historic Places if not already listed.”

Restrictions

Most often people have questions about restrictions that a nomination or a listing on the NR places on their properties. The short answer? A listing does not change your ownership rights or restrict what you do to the property unless the project is funded by federal (or state) money. Local ordinances may have restrictions, so it’s best to ask your local officials, such as the Design Review Board or the Architectural Review Board. And you can always contact your State Historic Preservation Office. I assure you that they are more than happy to help you understand your historic property and get the answers that you need.

Evaluation for Listing

In order to be listed on the National Register, a property must be evaluated and nominated. Properties are buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts, which must pertain to at least one of our criteria:

A. That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or

B. That are associated with the lives of significant persons in or past; or

C. That embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or

D. That have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory.

The National Register nomination can be thought of as making a case for your property. So how does that property exemplify the significance of one of the above criteria? You have to establish a historic context in order to judge significance. The National Register Program uses areas of significance in order to build context. For example is the area of significance transportation? You’ll need to narrow it down (highways of the 1920s, perhaps, or metal truss bridges in Vermont pre-1927 flood) and develop a context for the area of significance. 

Yes, it sounds complicated. I will not pretend to be an expert. After all, even experience professionals that I know will tell me to constantly refer to the National Register Bulletins. The Bulletins go over every part of the nomination. Essentially, if you can make a strong enough, thorough enough, sensible discussion/argument for your property’s significance, then it has a good chance of being listed on the National Register. Some properties may be more difficult (like, say, a ski area) than others, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

50 years?

The 50 year rule is not a rule; it is a guideline. For example, the Cold War related historic properties are exceptionally significant and have achieved their significance in less than fifty years.

Myths

The Louisiana Division for Historic Preservation has a succinct list of myths and facts about the National Register. The myths are as follows:

  •  
    • DOES NOT restrict the use of the property. (For example, an owner can continue to live in a listed house, convert a listed property to another use, continue to farm ground where a listed archaeological site may be located, conduct new construction on the site, etc.)
    • DOES NOT restrict the sale of a property; unless under the jurisdiction of a federal agency.
    • DOES NOT require continued maintenance of private property.
    • DOES NOT require that any specific guidelines be followed in a rehabilitation (unless the owner is using federal funds or receiving the Investment and/or Homeowners’ tax credit). (For example, the owner of a listed property may paint his building any color he chooses.)
    • DOES NOT require the owner to give tours of the property or open it to the public.
    • DOES NOT guarantee funds for restoration.
    • DOES NOT require or guarantee perpetual maintenance of the property.
    • DOES NOT provide a National Register plaque or a state historic marker for the property (although property owners are eligible to acquire such markers at their own expense)

Clarification: Historic/Eligible and Old/Ineligible

Suppose your property is 100 years old, but is not eligible for the National Register. Why not? It would mean that integrity has been lost (the seven aspects of integrity). Perhaps too many renovation projects have erased the historic fabric and the building cannot be read as historic. If its character defining features are lost or if the historic property is out of context, then it will not be eligible.

This is where we revisit historic v. old. Professionally, historic means eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Old means a property that is ineligible.

However, do not take this to mean that an “old” building is unimportant.  It may not be important to the entire region, state, or nation, but all old buildings have meaning to those in and around them. Existing buildings should be cared for and maintained. Existing buildings are existing resources – embodied energy. While the National Register is an excellent foundation for historic preservation and determining what is significant, historic preservation goes beyond the NR. Old buildings are members of sustainable environments and communities. Old buildings are wonderful, whether historic or not. Old buildings can be beautiful old homes up and down the street.

So, why the distinction? Well, in a society that is constantly building new and bigger, it is important to recognize what snapshots of our heritage should be preserved. For the purposes of historic preservation, not every building age 50+ can be saved. Some are just old, without National Register significance, no integrity at all — and quite often we are forced to choose. In that case, it is important to know which resources have a higher significance to the heritage of our culture. But in terms of loving buildings and using existing resources, old buildings are much more plentiful and worth the love.

“Historic” is tossed around by everyone, but if you’re dealing with preservationists, consider which is appropriate: old or historic.

Got it?
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Still have more questions? The easiest way to answer your questions about the National Register is to visit the FAQ page of the National Park Service National Register page. Check out this list of questions — click to head to the NPS NR FAQ page.

Frequently asked questions about the National Register of Historic Places.

Want to share your love of the National Register? Check out these new, stunning posters made by the National Park Service. You can download a PDF for free, print it, and display it in your office or classroom or anywhere. (And if you’re lucky like me and you have a mother who likes to laminate, then you’re all set!)

National Register poster page 1. Click for original.

National Register poster page 2. Click for original.

Historic Preservation Basics No. 4

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

Historic Preservation Basics No. 3 introduced a simple outline for learning how to approach a building; how do you talk about the buildings around you? Now you have the basics: number of stories, roof shape, windows, footprint, and then details. The first four are easy; as they say, the devil is in the [architectural] details.

Let’s first establish that architectural details can be structural or aesthetic. Details matter because architectural styles are read through details, shapes, massing, and materials. So, the more you can identify on a building, the more likely you are to clearly match it with a style. (A slight disclaimer: the majority of buildings will fall under more than one architectural style; just be able to support your reasoning.)

If you want to become familiar with architectural styles, pick up a copy of Virginia & Lee McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses or another style book. Read it. Mark it. Refer to it constantly. Professionals do it all the time.

Again, I will not write a book here. Instead, let’s look at details. The intent is to train your eye to pull out details and to know where to look.

1. Door/window surrounds

How are the doors and windows accented? How are they set in the building? What surrounds them? Are there columns? Moldings? Arches over the windows? Pediments (think triangles) over the windows?

Madison Heights, VA. June 2008.

This set of double doors is striking, right? It’s a feature that you don’t see everyday or on modern houses, so you know that you want to mention it when talking about the building. Each door has 14 panes of glass over an inset panel. There is a four light/pane transom over the door. You could also mention the screen doors. The molding is hard to see in this photograph, but you can see some detail near the transom, indicating that it’s probably part of the style.

2. Windows

What are the shapes of the windows? Of the window panes? What are the materials?

Burlington, VT. August 2008.

The 1/1 window in this picture is likely a replacement window, based on the materials not the fact that it is 1/1. (Albeit, this replacement is not nearly as bad as white vinyl windows.) The interesting feature about this is the cast iron lintel (above the window) and the cast iron sill.

3. Decorative Details

Different styles will have varying levels of details. To find details, just pick out anything that seems beyond the standard box frame that you would draw for a building. Look for anything that doesn’t seem structural (as in, the house could stand up if it were removed).Note the surfaces and materials of walls and details.

Thousand Island Park, NY. August 2008.

(This house has so much to talk about! But let’s start with the details.) You can see the stickwork in the gable (thanks to the thoughtful painting) and the turned balusters (porch railings) and turned, decorative porch support posts. The porch roof has patterned shingles. The screen door detailing flows with the details.

Shelburne Farms Inn, VT. September 2009.

This image shows false timbering (the stripes in this image between bricks and the stucco, which beckons Tudor style usually). Note the diamond pane windows in the bay and the brackets under the eaves (the overhang of the roof).

4. Roof

Aside from the shape, what are the roofing materials? Is it patterned? Is there anything distinctive about it?

Montpelier, VT. October 2009.

This church steeple has a distinctive patterned slate roof; obviously, you’ll talk about it in your building description.

5. Massing

Another important part of describing buildings involves the massing, or how the elements of the building fit together in terms of scale and proportion. It isn’t always something that you can describe, but something that you can judge. Consider the massive McMansions and how large they are. Then compare them to pre-mid 20th century homes. The massing or scale of the elements of modern homes is exaggerated and often looks wrong.

Burlington, VT. April 2010.

Burlington, VT. April 2010.

Massing, shapes, elements, and sections of the buildings are just one thing to keep in mind. What else can you notice about this pictures? Window size, window panes, roof details? Wall materials? Porch entry? Chimney location?

While this is just a brief overview of talking about buildings, hopefully it gets you thinking the next time you’re looking around your built environment. Once you are comfortable picking out elements of buildings, pick up an architectural style book and start browsing through the styles. You’ll probably find that details such as lots of stickwork or 6/6 windows can help you find the style of and date your building. In addition, construction techniques and interior details can help your categorize and date your building, too. For now, just enjoy the buildings and know that quite often, the details tell the story.

Readers, this was a short list – feel free to add!

Historic Preservation Basics No. 3

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

Much of historic preservation has roots in historic architecture. Our built environment is, well, built; and, in order to appreciate and discuss our surroundings, preservationists and others alike use an architectural vocabulary. This vocabulary provides a cohesive literature for reading about, writing about and talking about buildings. These architectural terms are the foundation for how architectural styles are identified, studied, and described. It can be complicated; students spend years studying historic architecture. Entire dictionaries of architectural vocabulary exist, and entire books are devoted to architectural styles.

Keep calm and keep reading: this post will not recreate those dictionaries and books.  This post will guide you as you look at a building, because before you can start classifying buildings, you need to feel confident in looking at the elements.

To look at a building and to identify what you see may seem intimidating. But, you do not need to know every architectural term in the books or every style – not even close. Rather, you can visually find your way around a building with a few categories and lessons on how to talk about what you see. Once you start talking about buildings and noticing their elements and characteristics, you’ll never look at a building the same way, and you’ll gain a greater understanding of your built environment.

Let’s start at the beginning. Buildings are easiest when thought of in largest to smallest elements. For now, let’s stick to the basics. How would you describe the overall look of a house? You can start without knowing any architectural vocabulary. Forget the complicated architectural dictionary; let’s just look at the basic shape, layout, and some details of a building. You’d talk about the number of floors, the siding, the colors, porches, windows, etc., right? And that is close to what preservationists do – we just tweak our colloquial vocab a bit and go into more detail.

Here’s a fairly simple building for practice. Let’s go through a few basic items. I’ll give some short explanations and the answers for this building will be in red. Okay, what do you see?

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, August 2010.

1. How many stories?

A story/floor is a full story. A half-story means that the top floor does not have a full height wall and ceiling.

This red house has 2.5 stories.

2. What is the shape of the house footprint?

Is it a  rectangle? A square? An octagon?

From this angle, it appears to be a rectangular shaped foundation with a smaller rectangular addition.

3. Look at the front of the house – how many windows/doors are on the first floor?

The number of windows and doors = the number of bays.

Click and go to page 3.

There are two windows on either side of the door, so this house has five bays. The side of the house has two bays.

4. What shape is the roof?

Gable, mansard, hipped, pyramidal, shed, flat, gambrel? The easiest and most common roof is the gable — it’s the triangular shaped roof, the kind most of us drew as little kids. Gables can be in the front (front gable) or on the side (side gable). Mansard is the most ornate, and looks like another story rather than a roof. Pyramidal looks like a pyramid, with all roof sides equal. Hipped is almost like pyramidal, but all faces of the roof are not the same length. Shed is one plane on an angle and flat is flat. Gambrel reminds most of us of a barn.

Hopefully that makes sense, but if not … see the image to the right, which is from the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Guidelines: Roofs on Historic Buildings booklet.

This house has a side gable roof. The rear addition has a shed roof.

5. Describe the windows.

Typically windows are hung sashes (one or both sashes slide up and down). The sashes hold panes of glass. How many panes are in the window on the top sash? The bottom sash? As an example, you would describe windows as six-over-one (6/1), meaning the top sash has six panes of glass on the upper sash above the bottom sash, which is a single pane of glass.

You’d have to get up closer, but for the sake this exercise, let’s discuss if they are replacement windows or original windows. Replacement windows, most often, are a single pane. Any pieces (muntins) dividing the sash are simply attached to the window. Historic windows would have individual pieces of glass set into the muntins.

The way a window opens will also help you to describe it: do both sashes move up and down? Does the window swing open? Lift open? Not open? You can guess sometimes, but it is best if you can actually open the window yourself.

If the windows were original, they would be six-over-six. If they are replacement, they are likely one-over-one. Unless the top sash is fixed (in place), these windows are probably double hung (meaning both sashes move up and down). We’ll pretend they are original because they’re more fun to describe — see below.

6. Look at other details of the building that strike you.

Paint colors may help to highlight elements. Are there chimneys? What is the foundation?

This house has cornerboards (the white vertical boards on the edges — and the eaves (the edges of the roof) are white as well). From this angle, there does not appear to be a chimney. The foundation is stone. See that triangle over the door – that’s a pediment.

Alright, number six was just leading you to thinking about more.  Here is the house again. Let’s put these descriptions together – nothing fancy or stylized, just plain. Go down the list.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, August 2010.

This is a 2.5 story, five bay x two bay, side gable building. The main rectangular block has a shed roof addition to the rear. The house sits on a stone foundation. On windows are six-over-six double hung sash.

Alright, that wouldn’t win any description awards — effectively and succinctly describing buildings takes practice, but you have to start somewhere. But before you hone your architectural writing craft, you need to look at a building, pull out the elements, and put them together.

So, there you have it! You just told me what you see in that building. It’s not so bad, right?

Once you have the basic ideas, then you can get into more details. Now you’ll notice that not all houses are boxes, not all roofs are gables, windows can be incredibly detailed. Door frames and window frames come into play. Corner boards, water tables, materials… it’s good stuff.

Go take a walk and tell me what you see.

Next week we’ll add in another level of description — more nuances.