Built in America : Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, 1933 - Present
Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, contains the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS). These three collections include measured drawings, large-format photographs, and written histories for more than 35,000 historic structures and sites in the United States dating from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. The buildings, landscape design and engineering technologies in the collections range from windmills and one-room schoolhouses to the Golden Gate Bridge and buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
- The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
- Postwar United States, 1945-early 1970s
Related Collections and Exhibits
- Gottscho-Schleisner Collection
- Frank Lloyd Wright: Designs for an American Landscape, 1922-1932
- Panoramic Maps
- Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation
- Detroit Publishing Company
Recommended additional sources of information.
Specific guidance for searching this collection
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
Built in America: The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) 1933-Present, provides an opportunity to investigate the history of the United States through the history of its buildings. Photographs and descriptions of buildings used during the eras of slavery, gold rushes, and world's fairs reflect the history of the people who lived in and around these constructions. Projects related to the development of the resort town, Atlantic City, New Jersey, and to the implementation of President Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) demonstrate the economic influence of a growing middle class and unparalleled unemployment during the Great Depression.
James Marshall was working in a California sawmill in 1848 when he discovered gold along the American River. More than 100,000 miners arrived in the area over the next year in the hope of finding riches.
The gold mines and mills in Calaveras County's Madam Felix-Hodson District represent mining activities from the mid nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The accompanying"Summary of District History" describes the mines established in the area and acknowledges that only one of the ventures "was a financial success, and that was only during the 1885-97 and the 1932-42 periods . . . . The lack of understanding of the nature of the gold occurrence and inadequate technology, coupled with insufficient financial resources, explain these repeated failures," (page 8). The gold rush achieved greater success farther north.
In August 1896, the discovery of gold along the Klondike River in Alaska prompted hundreds of miners to make claims before the winter weather closed the area to travel.
A year later, the rush was on, as tens of thousands of people traveled to Seattle to purchase food, clothing, equipment, pack animals, and steamship tickets before heading to Alaska. The millions of dollars spent in Seattle influenced the city's economy for years to come.
Beginning in 1898, the Dalton Trail Post ran along part of the U.S.-Canada border. The post was designed to maintain order in the gold rush, control the surge of people to the area, and establish a border custom station. Inspector A.M. Jarvis led eighteen Canadian Northwest Mounted Police from April to October, 1898. Under his supervision, they collected over $11,000 in custom fees, captured several criminals, and witnessed the remnants of the U.S. Reindeer Relief Expedition pass through to the Klondike (page 3).
- Why do you think that so many people tried to strike it rich in the gold mines?
- Do you think that most people recouped the money that they invested in the gold rush?
- How do you think that the influx of people in California and the Klondike influenced the development of those areas?
- What do you think was the environmental impact of the mining industry in these areas?
- Are there any contemporary investments or programs that are based on the possibility of earning a lot of money over a short period of time? If so, how do they work?
- Use the items in the collection to write a detailed journal entry in the persona of someone who participated in a gold rush.
International expositions were held in U.S. and European cities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of the "World's Fairs" held in the United States celebrated culture, commerce, and technology while commemorating a major historic event. For example, Philadelphias 1876 Centennial Exposition celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. One Exposition building, Memorial Hall, was "an early monumental building" and "one of America's first in the Beaux-Arts manner," boasting a ten-entry vestibule leading to an open arcade, (page 2).
Other exposition buildings featured in the HABS collection include the store buildings from Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition, the Jefferson Memorial Building from the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, and the Palace of Fine Arts from San Francisco's 1915 Exposition, which was characterized as "the most original creation in the architecture of the Exposition, as it was the most beautiful" for its dome and sculptures (page 8).
Famous buildings from U.S. history were also displayed at a number of expositions. For example, the Harpers Ferry, West Virginia fort raided by abolitionist John Brown in 1859 was "considered of so great historic value that it was removed to Chicago in 1892 and exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition," (page 2). Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt's Cross-Ranch Cabin was moved from North Dakota and put on display at the St. Louis exposition in 1904.
- What did the construction of ornamental temporary buildings imply about the intent of these international expositions?
- Why do you think that people were interested in seeing buildings such as the Harpers Ferry fort?
- What do you think was the role of these historic buildings at the fair?
- Is the value and significance of an historic building affected when it is removed from its original location?
- How did historic buildings compare to the buildings that were designed specifically for the event?
Civilian Conservation Corps
In 1933, the first piece of major legislation in Franklin Roosevelt's Civil Works Administration established the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). This organization enlisted young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five to preserve and protect the nation's natural resources, and to reduce unemployment. Many projects focused on forestry, flood control, soil erosion, and forest fires. Enrollees built new roads, reservoirs, and fire towers and planted millions of trees in U.S. parks. A search on the phrase, Civilian Conservation Corps produces examples of projects undertaken between 1933 and 1942 such as Ohio's Vesuvius Dam and Shawnee Fire Tower.
Textual accounts of these projects are informative and particularly useful for those surveys that don't include photographs or measured drawings. For example, the description of the Camp Cleawox Organizational Tract describes the area's use of "typical Depression-era rustic architecture of natural wood and stone for a northwest forest environment," (page 2). (The CCC officially ended shortly after the start of World War II.)
- What sorts of projects were done by the CCC?
- Why do you think that national forests were used as worksites for the CCC?
- Who do you think benefits from efforts to protect the nation's natural resources?
- Why do you think that natural wood and stone were common building materials for "Depression-era rustic architecture"?
- What might these choices suggest about the goals and values of the CCC projects?
A search on the term, slave, produces images and descriptions of buildings in which millions of people were fed, sheltered, healed, worked, and sold while living in bondage in the United States. For example, the slave market in the Public Square in Louisville, Georgia includes a tablet that reads:
This old Market Building was erected in 1758 at what was then the junction of the Georgetown and Savannah trails. Here there was an Indian Trading Post, and this cross roads was a meeting place of Slave Traders going from the "Up-country" to the rice fields further south. Many slaves were sold here. Later it became the official place for Sheriff's sales, as well as a community market house, and remained so until recently.
Other featured buildings in the HABS collection include a slave cabin from South Carolina's Arundel Plantation and the Retreat Plantation, Slave Hospital, and Greenhouse on St. Simons Island, Georgia. This two-and-one-half-story hospital features ten rooms and "was typical of the manner in which the best plantations of the South looked after the welfare of their slaves," (page 3).
- Who do you think were the "Slave Traders" traveling along the Georgetown and Savannah Trails?
- Why do you think that slaves were often sold in community centers such as the Market Building?
- Why do you think that some plantation owners constructed hospitals for their slaves?
- Do you think that there are any benefits to preserving these buildings as they were used during the antebellum era?
- What can these places tell us about slavery?
Atlantic City, New Jersey
In 1852, New Jersey businessmen and a Philadelphia-based railroad and land company received a railroad charter to run trains from Camden to Atlantic City. Atlantic city was incorporated two years later and the first train arrived there on July 1, 1854. The city's reputation as a prime destination for vacations and conventions developed in the subsequent decades.
The Atlantic City Boardwalk was first created as a ten-foot-wide walkway in 1870 so that "strollers would not return to hotels, trains, and businesses with sand in their shoes," (page 2). A decade later, the city built a new boardwalk. The boardwalk hosted more than 100 businesses alongside its wooden platform, by 1883, and was the heart of the area’s commercial and entertainment center:
The first pier, Howard’s Pier, constructed in 1882, had a pavilion for theater and vaudeville . . . Applegate’s Pier opened in 1884, providing music and vaudeville, a picnic area, a parking lot for baby carriages, and an ice water fountain. The Iron Pier (1886) . . . was sold to H.J. Heinz and Company [in 1898] and became the famous Heinz Pier . . . . [with] permanent displays of the company’s products, and gave away free samples. After opening in 1898, the Steel Pier entertained crowds with moving pictures, band and orchestra concerts; it hosted national conventions and commercial exhibits.
The Atlantic City Convention Hall was built between 1926 and 1929 to cement the city's reputation as a prime site for national conventions.
- Why do you think that Atlantic City flourished as a resort town?
- Who do you think traveled there during the late nineteenth century?
- How do you think that the city has changed since the introduction of gambling during the 1970s?
- What do the architectural features of the city suggest about its character and function?
The photographs and descriptions in Built in America: The Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey 1933-Present, can be used to develop many critical Thinking skills. Documents related to war memorials provide an opportunity to chronicle U.S. conflicts and the different ways in which they were remembered. Picture palaces from the 1920s provide an opportunity To understand the growing elegance and popularity of the motion picture industry. Buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright provide insight into the work of one of the nation's most famous architects. Other materials allow one to assess the conflicting interests of national defense and environmental conservation during the Cold War and to research the rise of power industries during the early-twentieth century.
Chronological Thinking Skills
A search on the phrase, world war memorial, produces a number of examples of monuments commemorating U.S. involvement in national and international conflicts. These works can be used to create a pictorial timeline of wars and to assess the changing architectural styles of the memorials themselves. For example, the Battle Monument in Baltimore, Maryland was completed in 1825 as "the first significant war memorial ever built in the United States," (page 2). The monument was designed to commemorate the September 1814 British attack on the city as did Francis Scott Key's Star Spangled Banner. It employs both Egyptian and Classical architectural elements and includes a sculptured figure at the top, griffins, and two reliefs on the shaft.
The Civil War memorial in Massachusetts's Mount Auburn Cemetery also prominently employs Egyptian architecture in the form of a sphinx, while the Civil War tribute in Michigan's Monument Park uses the Greek Revivalist style of a single column. The State Soldiers' & Sailors' Monument in Indianapolis, Indiana, however, commemorates the Mexican, Civil, and Spanish-American Wars with sculptured figures that populate a Classical stone column.
The World War I monument in Rhode Island's Memorial Square also adopts a Classical style of architecture and "reflects the late 1920's popularity of Greek Revivalism in the use of a Doric column as the principal form," (page 3).
- What do you think is the purpose of a war memorial?
- Who is the monument designed to memorialize?
- Who is its audience?
- Where are monuments generally constructed?
- Why do you think that these monuments use Egyptian, Greek, and other Classical forms to pay tribute to these wars? How did these styles change over time?
- How do these monuments compare to contemporary memorials (e.g., the Korean or Vietnam Memorials in Washington, D.C.)?
- Which monuments do you prefer? Why?
Historical Comprehension: Picture Palaces
The motion picture industry grew dramatically during the 1920s. Approximately 100 million people attended movie theaters each week -- almost double that of church attendance. In fact, some people argued that the movie theaters of the era had become the new places of worship.
Picture palaces offered a middle-class audience a sense of luxury for the price of admission. Ornate architecture, smoking lounges, powder rooms, and attentive staff created a fantasy world in the theaters long before the first reel of the motion picture began. A search on the phrase, movie theater, produces a number of examples. Loew's Theater was one of the first theaters in Jefferson County, Kentucky. Architect John Eberson, one of the three renowned theater architects of the 1920s, included detailed sconces and figurines in spacious lobbies and vestibules. He even included his own image as a bust among images of more famous men in the theater's vestibule ceiling (page 2).
The HABS collection includes images of the Fox Theater in Seattle, Washington, and a description of the area's theater designs:
Spacious lobbies with flowing staircases, glamorous lounges, smoking areas, and crying rooms were standard, while house and stage support functions were generally well-hidden from the patron in subterranean or backstage areas. Seattle's Coliseum featured a Turkish men's smoking room and a Mother Goose Nursery, and the Paramount its own "salon de musique." The Music Hall Theatre was notable for its small but elegant mezzanine lounge, and its generous suite of art-deco styled ladies' rooms.
The decorative style of the movie palace was always its chief character-defining feature. Often the degree of decorative elaboration progressed from exterior to lobby to inner auditorium, providing gradual immersion into the fantasy world within. Styles varied widely from expressions of traditional classicism to exotic idioms and eclectic mixes. (page 20)
Picture palaces were often a featured part of a larger commercial center but these palaces (whose numbers peaked between 1925 and 1930) were designed "to rival the fantasy of the motion picture itself. Theatres increased significantly in scale and plan, and seating capacities grew to well over 1000 patrons." (page 19).
- How do you think that picture palaces reflected the values, concerns, and dreams of its audience?
- Why do you think that architectural design plays such an important role in attracting an audience?
- What other forms of entertainment did picture palaces compete with during the era?
- What other forms of leisure use architectural design to attract business?
- How do you think that modern amenities such as stereo surround-sound and stadium seating compare to the features of the picture palaces?
- Do you think that movie theaters offer a different experience for an audience now? Why or why not?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Frank Lloyd Wright and Organic Architecture
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was one of the nation's most famous and influential architects. In the late nineteenth century, he began amending mentor Louis Sullivan's classic design maxim, "form follows function," with the notion, "form and function are one."
Wright's organic architecture attempted to reinterpret principles found in nature by creating a harmonious relationship between the design of a building and its purpose. His work included banks, resorts, office buildings, a gas station, synagogue, beer garden, and art museum. A search on Frank Lloyd Wright produces examples spanning his seventy-year career.
The 1889 house and studio in Oak Park, Illinois, includes the first residence Wright built for himself. The documents accompanying the photographs in this collection explain that "the House and Studio are a source and proving ground for ideas and forms which were put to dramatic use throughout Wright's career," (page 2).
Wright created his largest collection of buildings for the campus of Florida Southern College. After going over budget for the first building, college President, Dr. Ludd Spivey, and Wright agreed to build the campus with student labor. Wrights students designed the campus while "Dr. Spivey's students would then take time from their classes to build the buildings," (page 2). The architect called for the construction of promenades to allow movement through a citrus grove. They were placed at ninety, sixty, and thirty-degree angles to preserve the trees and to protect students from rain showers. However, "Mr. Wright's ecological consideration . . . was thwarted by a heavy freeze which killed the citrus in one night," (page 4).
During the Great Depression and World War II, Frank Lloyd Wright attempted to improve the design of houses for middle- and upper-class homeowners. Descriptions of the Walter Lowell House (1950) in Iowa explains how occupants and nature harmonized "psychologically and spiritually" through a design that employed natural light and reduced the amount of furniture needed: "Tables, shelving, cabinets, and some seating are built into the house. . . . This room is skillfully subdivided so that one portion provides the space and built-in shelving, sideboard, and tables needed for dining," (page 4).
Additional information on Frank Lloyd Wright is available in the Library of Congress exhibit, Designs for an American Landscape, 1922-1932.
- How did Frank Lloyd Wright's different designs embody the principles of organic architecture?
- What types of projects did he take on during his career?
- How do you think that Frank Lloyd Wright's style developed over time?
- How do you think that his designs influenced other architects in the United States?
Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Missile Defense
The end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War prompted the United States military to create a missile defense system. In 1954, the Army introduced the Nike Ajax guided-missile system as an improvement on anti-aircraft artillery. It was the first step in an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union over long- and short-range missile silos. Four years later, the second-generation missile, the Nike Hercules, was designed to carry nuclear warheads and destroy incoming explosives and nuclear weapons.
A search on Nike missile produces images and data pertaining to a variety of missile defense sites across the nation. For example, the Mt. Gleason Nike Missile Site was the first missile base constructed in California's Angeles Forest.
It was built in a very short period of time, due to its priority status. The site was in operation . . . before the installation of water and sewer lines . . . . The rushed construction of Mt. Gleason symbolizes the nationwide American effort to counteract the potential "Red Scare" of enemy intervention. (page 27)
The construction of a missile site at Mt. Gleason also demonstrates that a defense system was considered a higher priority than were environmental concerns. The report accompanying the photographs of the base includes correspondence that notes the few limitations that the National Forest Service could place on the Army site in terms of soil erosion and environmental impact.
The jurisdiction of the National Forest Service changed in 1969, however, when Congress established the National Environmental Policy Act. This legislation was created to "declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment." The report notes that the Forest Service, "backed by federal legislation now, pressured the Army to dispose of the military installation in a manner consistent with the Forest Service's environmental management standards," (page 37).
All Nike Missile defense systems began deactivation three years later when President Richard Nixon signed the SALT I treaty to limit anti-ballistic missile systems in the United States and the Soviet Union.
- How did the construction of the Mt. Gleason site impact the Angeles Forest?
- Why do you think that the construction was allowed to occur despite its environmental impact?
- How do you think that the interests of national defense compared to the interests of environmental conservation during the Cold War?
- How do you think that the two issues are viewed in contemporary society?
Historic Research Capabilities
The HAER collection allows for a close examination of the energy industries that developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, the mining industry is represented by buildings such as Maryland's Consolidation Coal Company Mine and Montana's Lombard Coke Oven, which "represents a specific stage of technological development in the coking coal industry," (page 2).
Other featured technologies include traditional constructions such as the Gregg Shoals Dam & Power Plant in South Carolina as well as alternative sources such as New York's Gardiner Windmill and the Death Valley Ranch Solar Heater. The latter technology is an example of the solar industry that thrived in southern California before World War II and the widespread use of natural gas.
- How did the energy industries change over time? How are the power demands and resources different in contemporary society?
- What were the demands of using fossil fuels such as coal?
- How did the nation change after the construction of dams and power plants during the early twentieth century?
- Why do you think that solar power was a short-lived alternative in California prior to World War II?
The materials available in Built in America: The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) 1933-Present, provide an opportunity to develop critical thinking and creative writing skills. Descriptions and images of various buildings and structures in these collections provide the basis for research projects. Meanwhile, historic homes can serve as the catalyst for creative writing exercises and a discussion regarding the homes of authors such as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Poe.
Many of the materials in these collections provide examples of how to document the historical significance of a building or structure. Select a local building such as a school, church, retail center, or private residence and research its history. Resources might include personal interviews, newspaper clippings, or public records that are available for review through local government agencies. Document the historical significance of the building through the use of photographs, written descriptions, and any other suitable methods. The following questions provide a starting point.
- In what year was the building constructed?
- What is the architectural style of the building?
- Who owned the building?
- What was its original purpose? What is its current use?
- What was the relationship between its construction and its purpose?
- How does it compare to other buildings in the community?
- How has the building changed over time (additions, natural disasters, renovations, etc.)?
All of the buildings and structures in these collections have a story to tell about the nations past. Write a scene in a play, an entire play, or a short story exploring the significance of one of the places featured in these collections. Browse the Subject Index to select a location. You may choose an anonymous setting, such as a mine during the California Gold Rush, or a slave cabin, or a famous setting such as Abraham Lincoln's birthplace, Thomas Edison's mansion, or the White House.
Use the elements of your play or narrative to explore the role of place in shaping the lives of the people who lived there and the events that took place in it. Also consider how the place reflects a certain historical era. Keep the following questions in mind:
- When was the building constructed?
- Who lived and/or worked in the building?
- How is the building a reflection of the era in which it was created?
- Did the building play a role in the events of that era?
- How might characters and events change in another setting?
Browse the Subject Index and select a type of building, such as a church, hospital, or gas station. Compare the different examples of each type of building as they were constructed in different parts of the United States.
Write an essay discussing the architectural consistencies and discrepancies in these various buildings and locations. Determine the specific elements that seem to define a community building.
A search on some authors' names will produce images of authors' homes such as Philadelphia's Edgar Allen Poe House, William Faulkner's house in Oxford, Mississippi, and the Minnesota home in which F. Scott Fitzgerald completed his first novel, This Side of Paradise.
- Why do you think that people are interested in visiting homes of authors?
- Can these buildings tell us anything about the authors who lived in them or provide insight into their work? Why or why not? If so, how?
- Do you think that these buildings should be preserved in honor of their former residents?