Let's Make History!

I am a practicing architect. My office, SRG Partnership, and its Research Committee offers an annual research fellowship and today it was announced that my proposal was selected! This year's request for proposal asks the question "How does technology influence design and how does design influence technology?" and, within this context, looks for proposals to create an 'object of utility.' While many of the proposals concerned themselves with emerging technologies, mine took a slightly different approach. I asked SRG to help me make history.

Specifically, I asked to help me make preservation photography of National Historic Landmarks. Good design is informed and influenced by its history. But history is only that which survives, or had survived long enough to be recorded. Stewardship of that record guarantees this dialog remains relevant.

The challenge of preserving our historic architectural heritage is that archival documentation cannot be subject to trends. The speed at which technology is evolving means that the design profession readily accepts speed, complexity, and obsolescence but, while a historical record can document these trends for posterity, the act of recording cannot follow a parallel path. To endure, it requires simplicity, reliability, and permanence (i.e., utility). Comprehensive federal standards have been established by the Secretary of the Interior for content and composition of architectural and engineering photography and procedures for creation and storage of photographs to guarantee longevity.

My goal here is to provide proper preservation photography for historically significant places in the Pacific Northwest and donate this work to the national archives at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. for inclusion into the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), and/or Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) of the National Park Service (NPS).

2016 marks the centennial celebrations for the National Park Service and the fiftieth anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. This is an excellent opportunity to research the Standards and apply them in real-world applications, to record and protect important historic sites of the Pacific Northwest, to provide the philanthropy these sites need, and to promote their importance as part of our national heritage. 

Bybee-Howell House (1856), Sauvie Island, OR (2016). This photograph is now in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) in the Library of Congress (#HABS-OR-47-3).

Recently, I had my first photograph accepted by HABS: a picture of the Bybee-Howell House (1856) joins the two existing photographs made in 1934. To build upon this, I have been researching the practice of historic preservation and mitigation photography and looking for new projects that are not yet well-represented in our national archives. My proposal outlined an education opportunity and three preservation photography projects which, based on historic significance, age, risk of loss or deterioration, and lack of extant photography, I feel have the greatest need for documentation:

  • 2016 Pacific Northwest Preservation Field School, operated by the School of Architecture & Allied Arts, University of Oregon. Attend a week-long session at Mt. Rainier National Park restoring seasonal workers cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1936-1937. Sessions entail hands-on work, documentation, and preservation related activities. Evening lectures delve into other areas of preservation.
  • Cloud Cap Inn (1889) on Mt. Hood, Oregon. The one-hundred twenty-seven year old Cloud Cap Inn has no photographic documentation in HABS as compared to over 150 photographs of the fifty year younger Timberline Lodge (1938). Cloud Cap sits at 6000’ elevation on the north side of Mt. Hood and has been fortunate in recent years to narrowly escape the Gnarl Fire of 2008 and Dollar Lake Burn of 2011. The interior includes guest signatures on the walls dating to the late 1800s.
  • Kam Wah Chung (1886) in John Day, Oregon. Following completion of the Trans-Continental Railroad, mining activities in John Day attracted enough Cantonese labor to establish the third largest Chinatown in the U.S. just behind San Francisco and Portland. Kam Wah Chung & Co. operated as an apothecary and mercantile from 1886 through 1948 by its original owners, whereupon it was closed up with its more than 60,000 artifacts left intact where they stood. This building has no photographs in HABS.
  • B-Reactor (1944), Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Washington. This is the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor which produced plutonium for the Trinity Test at Los Alamos and the “Fat Man” atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki. In 2015, an agreement was reached between NPS and the Department of Energy (DOE) to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park, however, funding is not fully established for its creation or operation. B-Reactor has extensive photography in HAER taken between construction and the late 1960s but no specific historic preservation photography. In fact, many of the photos in the B-Reactor HAER collection are actually of F-Reactor, identical in many respects but built later. DOE has begun to allow guided public tours which has an impact on the integrity of the site and building.

Objects of Utility to be Fabricated:

  • To satisfy the Standards for Architectural, Engineering, and Landscape Documentation, and the archival requirements of the Library of Congress, large-format (minimum 4”x5”) black and white negatives and contact prints will be made. The large-format negative is preferred for two reasons: longevity of the film and clarity of the image. The material stability of sheet film satisfies the archival requirements for longevity (500 years), while the clarity of the resulting image comes from a high level of resolution not possible in smaller film formats. Film can always be digitized but exclusively digital information may not always be recoverable due to the vulnerabilities of digital data including media degradation, hardware and software obsolescence, file format migration, proprietary formats, etc. In addition, maintenance of digital archives is much more expensive than maintenance of film archives.
  • Additionally, I intend to make enlarged fiber-based silver gelatin prints of the work and seek out venues where we can exhibit the work and promote understanding of these unique places and the people who built them.

I am overjoyed to be named a Research Fellow and very grateful and humbled to have the support of my colleagues for this project. I look forward to sharing this adventure along the way, on this blog and website, on social media and Instagram [ @harleycowan and @srgpartneship ], as well as in person. I hope you will join me.

- Harley


From the Library of Congress website:

The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) collections are among the largest and most heavily used in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. Since 2000, documentation from the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) has been added to the holdings. The collections document achievements in architecture, engineering, and design in the United States through a comprehensive range of building types and engineering technologies including examples as diverse as the Pueblo of Acoma, houses, windmills, one-room schools, the Golden Gate Bridge, and buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Administered since 1933 through cooperative agreements with the National Park Service (NPS), the Library of Congress, and the private sector, ongoing programs of the NPS have recorded America's built environment in multi-format surveys comprising more than 556,900 measured drawings, large-format photographs, and written histories for more than 38,600 historic structures and sites dating from Pre-Columbian times to the twentieth century.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA), the NPS, and the Library of Congress re-signed the HABS Tripartite Agreement in 2003. First signed in 1933, the agreement created the HABS to document America's historic structures and to create work for architects, draftsmen, and photographers left jobless by the Great Depression.

Now the oldest federal preservation program still in existence, (and, in fact, the longest lasting official partnership between a private organization and the federal government), HABS has played a leading role in preserving America's culture through documentation of important civic structures. Its mission has always been to create a lasting archive of America's historic architecture.

The AIA Presidential Citation Award presented to HABS reads:

Presented to the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) to celebrate seven decades of distinguished service to the design and construction professions and the public, whose memories, values, and dreams are reflected in glass, wood, stone, and steel. The rigor of their science and the passion of their commitment as enlightened stewards of America's irreplaceable design heritage have yielded one of the world's largest cultural and historic resources archives, thus ensuring that the past will continue an essential, inspirational dialogue with posterity.