Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Historic American Building Survey (HABS) Records

If you stop by my office these days, you’ll find me muttering to myself behind piles of architectural photographs and negatives, drawing masters, field notebooks, data book reports, blueprints, maps, and ephemera, all created or collected by the Historic American Buildings Survey to document comprehensively (and often with style) the architectural heritage of California and the Western states. The Historic American Buildings Survey, or HABS, was initiated during the Great Depression to put unemployed architects to work and provide architectural, historical, and photographic documentation of historic structures and sites throughout the United States, many of which have since been destroyed. Since 1973, CHS has served as the state repository for duplicate HABS records generated by the National Park Service for the Western states, including California. Originals are sent to the Library of Congress and can be searched online here:

CHS’ HABS records should be an invaluable resource for researchers interested in particular historic buildings; historic preservation in general; the development of architectural photography; and the continuing cultural legacy of the New Deal. And, many of the drawing masters and photographs in the collection have an undeniable aesthetic appeal. Among these are striking photographs taken by Roger Sturtevant. Here is his beautiful 1934 photograph of the hydraulic mine in Downieville, California (Cal-1420):

Sturtevant renders the energy and ecological violence of hydraulic mining with an eerie calmness and geologic sense of time. Here’s another classic Sturtevant picture, of Downieville’s Main Street in March 1934 (Cal-1290). Again, the image radiates stillness:

As impressive as the quality of the photographs and drawings is the thoroughness with which HABS workers documented individual buildings, structures, and sites, including the Jewish Cemetery in Sonora, California (Cal-111). This moving photograph of two-year-old Fanny Baer’s gravestone is one of a series of exquisite pictures of the cemetery taken by Sturtevant:

Marie Silva
Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian

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