Interview with John O. Brostrup, HABS Photographer, 1936-1937
by Catherine C. Lavoie
October 13, 2009 witnessed the passing of John O. Brostrup who, in 1936 at only 20 years of age, was hired by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) of the National Park Service to create large-format, black and white images of historic structures within the Washington, DC Metropolitan area.
Brostrup was born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 9, 1915. In 1936, in the midst of America’s Great Depression, he moved with his mother, Margareth Nielsen Brostrup, to Washington, DC in hopes of finding work. He worked for HABS from 1936-1937. It was in Washington that he met and married Patricia Nason, with whom he later had two children. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Brostrup moved to Rochester, New York, where he worked many years for the Kodak Corporation, but he never forgot his experience with HABS.
His many photographs can be viewed through the HABS collection within the American Memory, Library of Congress website. Brostrup’s photograph of the Decatur House in Washington, DC(HABS No. DC-16), taken in 1937, is said to have served as the model for the 1971 U.S. postage stamp entitled “Historic Preservation” in recognition of the burgeoning national movement.
Prior to the arrival of Brostrup to the Washington, DC, district office of HABS, staff architects had been photographing historic buildings since the program’s inception in 1933. However, most lacked the skill needed to produce clear, high-quality images for the record. Brostrup’s photographs demonstrate both technical skill and a keen eye to composition. He photographed approximately 200 structures, capturing this area—much of which was still largely rural—at the end of an era, before it was transformed by a postwar construction boom and today’s suburban sprawl. For many of the buildings, Brostrup’s photographs are the only record that remains.
Created as a Depression-era, New Deal program, the early HABS initiative mobilized approximately 1,000 professionals to produce hundreds of sheets of measured drawings, large-format photographs, and historical data pages on a large array of building forms. By examining extant materials, such as the instructional bulletins that were sent to the field teams and some correspondence, a general understanding of how the program operated can be ascertained. However, less is known about the all important perceptions, and the day-to-day responsibilities, of those individuals entrusted with undertaking the actual recording. That is why HABS was so pleased to have the opportunity to interview Brostrup and to publish this interview as part of a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the HABS program. Through his reminiscences, we gain insight into his work, and the work of the many dedicated individuals who gave life to the HABS vision.
The National Register of Historic Places also has proved to be an adaptable framework with well-supported guidance through regulations and interpretive bulletins.7 However, there are outer limits to the size of an area that may receive National Register recognition and with good reason. One factor is the mandates of the National Historic Preservation Act and regulations, which require federal agencies to take into account the impact of actions on properties listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. It should also be noted that an even higher standard of protection is provided by Section 4(f) of the U.S. Department of Transportation Act for federally funded transportation projects.8 These regulatory requirements associated with recognizing the significance of a place or property have reinforced the careful delineation of what is identified as culturally significant9 and cannot be easily merged with the overarching concept of a treasured landscape. However, the information offered by the national register programs is an essential starting point for dissecting and understanding the value of any landscape.
This interview of Brostrup was conducted April 22, 2002, by photographer Jack E. Boucher (JEB) and historian Catherine C. Lavoie (CCL), both of HABS.
CCL: Can you tell me how you found out about HABS?
JOB: Yes, the Evening Star at that time was the prominent Washington newspaper. I had just arrived in Washington the previous Christmas 1935 and had never been east of Chicago in my lifetime. I’d had a few years of professional photography in Omaha, Nebraska and so I was just casually reading the paper one day and I noticed a little two-paragraph news article. It wasn’t even a help wanted ad. It described the opening of an office in Washington to study early American architecture. They would be doing architectural drawings, photography, and history of the prominent buildings, and even utilitarian buildings, in the area. I so went down right away to investigate and was almost hired on the spot for the photography position.
CCL: Who hired you?
JOB: Tom Waterman [HABS Assistant Program Director], I think, was my first contact at the national office, and he sent me up to—I think it was 1708 I Street—to Delos Smith, [at the HABS Washington, DC District office]. He probably was the one who made the final decision.
JEB: Thomas Waterman was an architect.
JOB: Yes, he was a major architect on the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.
CCL: And Delos Smith? What can you tell us about him?
JOB: Delos was the manager of the HABS [Washington, DC District] office.2 He was a wonderful man! He had training in architecture from where, I don’t know. Delos assembled some wonderfully different individuals! I hope you won’t mind a reflection back to Delos Smith. We had in the office there a secretary who did all the typing, for everybody, the historic records, etc. Her name was Beverly Langmeade. She was a charmer, and she kept the office awake and alive! She served Delos very well—most of the time. Well, he had a paper come back to him that he had dictated. He had dictated “the façade was decorated with a Palladian window.” Well, in Gregg shorthand the characters for decorated must be very similar to “destroyed.” So she had written, “The facade was destroyed by a Palladian window!” Being the kind, gentle man that he was—and challenging her to look back at her notes—he wrote, in the margin “not quite clear.” That’s a true story!
CCL: So who did you report to directly?
JOB: Delos [Smith].
JEB: What brought you to Washington?
JOB: My mother and I moved to Washington [together]. My father passed away when I was four and she never remarried. And so we eventually moved to Washington. She was out of work—we were very poor people—and she got a civil service job with the Federal Trade Commission. Everything got better when we came east. Horace Greeley said, “Go west young man, go west!” but we did the opposite and everything got better! I met my wife in Washington and our children were born there. We lived on Emerson Street, in the northwest. It was one block from the original Hot Shoppes; there was only one back then, on Georgia Avenue and 14th Street.
CCL: During what time period did you work for HABS?
JOB: Well I was hired in March, I believe, of 1936 to the end of 1937.
CCL: We know that you worked in Prince George’s County; in what other areas did you work?
JOB: Well, Montgomery County; we covered just short of Baltimore, some work in Annapolis, and down [in the] counties adjoining Prince George’s County.
JEB: How old were you when you started photographing for HABS?
JOB: Twenty. I was born in 1915, so it was a little before my 21st birthday that I started.
CCL: In what area were you formally trained?
JOB: I took a correspondence course [in photography offered] out of New York. That course provided the 5” x 7” camera, and the text books; that was about three or four years prior to coming to Washington. I also had one year of college, in the liberal arts.
CCL: Did you have any prior training, experience, or just an interest in, architecture or history?
JOB: Yes, not anything formal, but that has been one of the hazards of my life! I have been interested in too many areas, but I have always loved beautiful buildings.
CCL: What kind of photographic projects were you working on before you started with HABS?
JOB: My initial exposure to photography was as an unpaid, underage youth while living in Omaha, Nebraska. My mother worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, down in the yards—not in the upper headquarters—in a building that housed the photography lab on the second floor. I was very fortunate [through that connection] to come under the tutelage of the photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad, Burt Roha. To keep out of mischief in those days everybody worked on Saturday from 8:00 to 1:00. Everybody did. There was not a 40-hour week until FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president]. So to keep me out of mischief, on Saturdays I took the streetcar down about 9:00 to the rail yards. I was just a clean-up and “go-for” for Burt Roah. He produced photographs on polished ferrotype tins; these were black enamel tins used in the days before chromium in order to get a high gloss on the prints. He was a fine man, very wise and very patient. He exposed me to photo-graphy and I’ve never turned back! Then, starting about when I was 17 or so, I had my own little photographic business in Omaha before coming to Washington.
CCL: What were you told about the goals of, or the philosophy behind, the HABS program when you started?
JOB: Well, it was by induction I think, because everyone had an enthusiasm for their work as described to them, probably by Delos [Smith].
CCL: So were you given any particular instructions about what you should do?
JOB: No, because there was nobody else, no other photographer there but me. Although—yes—there were the formal instructions provided by the national headquarters, and they prescribed 5” x 7” images.
CCL: What did the government provide you with in the way of supplies, means of transportation, or anything of that nature?
JOB: We had to drive our own cars with a very minimal provision for mileage. I drove a four-door passenger car that was at least four or five years old. The camera had to be provided by the photographer. I guess I was issued the film down at the Interior building. We were sort of subcontractors, although we were paid by the Interior Department.
CCL: When you were traveling for HABS, did anybody travel with you, and if so, who?
JOB: I would say that not more than half the time I worked alone. Always in Prince George’s County I’d have [HABS architect] Forrest Bowie with me.3 Occasionally he would go on other projects, but not generally. Sometimes I had architects with me that were assigned to do the drawings; we all worked as a team.
CCL: Who selected the actual buildings to be photographed?
JOB: Well, of course, I will confine my answer to just this area, was a combination probably of Delos Smith, Forrest Bowie, and Thomas Waterman.
CCL: Do you know what criteria they used to make their building selections?
JOB: I would anticipate that it was the quality of the structure, in the case of the houses.
JEB: I was wondering if you had what we would today call a “Go-for” to help you with your work?
JOB: The answer to that is absolutely no! Jack, we’re talking about a totally different time frame than you are working in. This was the Depression, everybody had to be independent and do their own thing or they didn’t survive!
CCL: Did you have owner consent prior to going to a site, or were you sometimes just finding structures of interest along the way?
JOB: All my work was assigned. I never worked independently without direction from Delos [Smith] or Tom Waterman.
CCL: What was your typical day like?
JOB: Well, I’d like to describe a typical day of photographing in Prince George’s County. I would leave home in the District of Columbia and drive 20 miles to meet Forrest Bowie at [his home,] Mount Lubentia. Forrest Bowie worked primarily as an architect, but he knew all the roads and he had the contacts through his family with many of the owners of the properties, aunts and uncles and cousins and so forth, so that we were able to gain entrée into these houses. We are talking about the days before expressways, so I’d leave pretty early in the morning to get to Forrest’s house about 8:00 or 8:30 at the latest. And he would have previously contacted the owners and gotten agreement to get in. We would photograph all day and sometimes we would go back to Mount Lubentia for a delightful lunch. Oh, I remember those [days] with pleasure! CCL: Did you meet any of the property owners, and if so, what was the reaction of most of them to what you were doing?
JOB: Almost always they were not in the house. Very rarely did I meet them, but when I did they were most hospitable and understood the aims and goals of the project.
CCL: Did you ever collect historical data or interview owners about the history of their house?
JOB: No, that was all Forrest’s job. My work was not related to the gathering of historical information; my job was to be a photographer. But that brings up a very interesting point. I have long thought that was the weakest link in the operation of the HABS program. They concentrated heavily on the architecture because of the origins starting with the AIA (American Institute of Architects). And then came the drawings and the photographs [which in my mind] were secondary in importance, but the history gathering, I feel, had a lot yet to be developed.
CCL: Who was doing the drawings?
JOB: Well, there were about five or six architects in the district office. There was William Woodville, a resident of Georgetown; there was Forrest [Bowie], I think there was a Neil Sparks, I can’t remember the others.
CCL: Was there much interaction between you and the architects?
JOB: Well, just small talk and lunches together, nothing professional other than they did their job and I did mine. Occasionally they would ask me to take a photograph of a particular feature of note.
CCL: They were all working in an office located in the District of Columbia?
JOB: Yes, they all worked at 1708 I Street, I think it was. Those were innocent times. In the summer time we had an organ grinder that would stop you—we were on the second floor—and [he would] grind on with his monkey on his shoulder. We would pitch out coins and the monkey would go down and pick them up and put them in a little tin can on the [grinder’s] other shoulder. This is just one of the reflections that I have of happy, innocent, simple times.
CCL: How did you feel about what you were doing? Did you have a sense that you were doing important work?
JOB: I knew the buildings were important. I could sense the importance of the major buildings, of course, but even the minor buildings—the kitchens, the slave quarters—they served an important part of the economics of running the plantation or even a private home. I have always liked history in general—not specific to areas or structures. I just enjoy history! I want to get back to that point about fleshing out the family, the families and how they influenced the architecture, the construction, the choice of properties. It ties in so importantly to the architecture of the houses. How did this property that we are in right now [Marietta] first get purchased, and how did the family develop the resources to build this magnificent house? I think that relates to the story of the Historic American Buildings Survey!
CCL: You won’t get any argument from me! What was the condition of most of the buildings you were photographing?
JOB: Well, none of them were in the condition that they are in now. None! You bring up an interesting point. I did some work for Henry du Pont when he was still in residence at Winterthur. At that time he was gathering paneled rooms and that magnificent Mount Morency stairway in the entrance hall. And [People thought,] here was this Yankee du Pont up there in the North Country stripping our southern houses of their paneled rooms and taking it up there! Most of those [historic interiors] would have disappeared [were it not for du Pont]. Now, we have the Essex Room, a paneled room, and lots of [other] wonderful things preserved under ideal conditions.
CCL: Were most of these buildings you photographed suffering from Depression-era neglect?
JOB: Absolutely, there was no question that many of these buildings were suffering under the Depression. A gentleman at the awards dinner yesterday had copies of my pictures of his family property [from that period], and it was absolutely just about to collapse. And the details—the archways and [other architectural elements] . . . they were just marvelous! The house was in a condition at that time that if someone had seized upon it, it could have been saved, but nobody had the money.
CCL: I assume that many of the houses you photographed did not have the comforts that we consider necessary today, like central heat and electricity; is that true?
JOB: Well that is true, but even in those days—in the Depression era—they did not have the comforts they’d enjoyed maybe ten, fifteen, or even thirty years earlier than that. It was the Depression time; everything was falling apart! Even the so-called wealthy people were neglecting their homes. That’s why so many of the homes that I photographed have since disappeared. It speaks to the importance of preservation from here on.
JEB: Were you able to use your own creative, artist judgment in your photography?
JOB: I appreciate your comments. I didn’t feel I had any specific creative or artistic [ability]. I just did the best I could, but nobody gave me any direction. CCL: I noticed that you honed in on certain elements, not just architectural elements, but construction details.
JOB: Oh! That might have had an origin in [the fact] that both of my grandfathers were house builders. I never thought about that! Of course I visited a few of those [houses], and that [exposure] probably showed up in work. My grandfather on my mother’s side, we lived two blocks from them . . . he did a nice job. I never thought about that!
JEB: Did you know any other photographers that did work for HABS in this area? Or were you inspired by any others?
JOB: I didn’t know any other photographers that worked for HABS anywhere. But I knew of Francis Benjamin Johnston. Oh my goodness—what an incredible person! She had a long history of photographing early houses before HABS, maybe twenty, thirty years [before]. She was the real pioneer in historic American architecture photography. Her work was marvelous. She was a great inspiration to me.
JEB: What kind of camera did you use in your photography work for HABS?
JOB: The 5″ × 7″ folding camera that came with the photographic course, the correspondence course; that was the package. I don’t remember the brand, but it came with everything I needed. They [even] supplied the black cloth! You have to cover the ground glass that the image is being photographed on with a black cloth to exclude all the ambient light to be able to see that image.
CCL: Because it was the Depression, were the quantities of film limited, or did they ask you to limit your views?
JOB: No. I didn’t shoot two of anything, but they didn’t ever ask me to limit my film use.
JEB: How did you develop your film?
JOB: I had to set up my own darkroom in my home on Emerson Street.
JEB: Did you deal with your interior shots using existing natural light or did you use artificial lights?
JOB: A combination; I had my own lights, my own cords. This might be an interesting story—it’s not here in Prince George’s County, but . . . we went up as a team—Tom Waterman, some architects, and myself—to photograph the two Mennonite structures at Ephrata [Cloisters in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.] Have you ever been up there and seen those; the separate ladies’ building and the men’s building? They are quite high, and [have] very small little cell-like rooms, and that steep stairway! Well, I didn’t come anywhere near prepared to run extension cords through that mileage building! Someone said I could get some cords down at the hardware store. Well, what they had were the Christmas lights for the streets of Ephrata, and [inside the buildings there was] an open socket every two feet. I strung those [Christmas lights] all through that building, and we didn’t have any problem!4
JEB: Did you ever use flash bulbs in your work?
JOB: Yes, but not related to my HABS work. I sometimes used a technique where, [say] you have a long hall, you flash some down there, and then you come back a few feet and flash some more [and so on].
JEB: We still use that technique; we call it “painting with light.” Did you remain a photographer throughout your lifetime?
JOB: After HABS, I did work in private industry—all related to photography. I spent four years in World War II in the Navy, and I was hired as a photographer second class because of my experience, right on the few days after V-J Day. After 1956, I had joined the Eastman Kodak Company. I was always a technician and interested in camera work. After my three months training they said, “We think you might do well in marketing.” I said, “You have got to be kidding!” I didn’t think that I was a people person at all. I liked to be in the darkroom or behind the camera. So I did [go into marketing]. I worked in New York City of all places, and I loved it! Marketing!
CCL: Did your interest in historic architecture continue?
JOB: Always! I have always had an interest!
JEB: The last question that I want to ask you is if you can recall any extraordinary experiences you might have had while photographing for HABS?
JOB: No, [I don’t recall any] right at the moment. I think the extraordinary experience that I gained in my two years with HABS is the totality of the program and how that affected my appreciation of these buildings. [I thought about] the people that lived in them and created them. The lift [that I got from them]—if these walls could talk! I would love to be able to know more, and I come back to the filling out of the historic records. I’d like to go back to one of my favorite houses, Mount Lubentia, to elaborate on that. You can understand why I have such a love for that house. Forrest Bowie was my associate in my work that I did, not only in Prince George’s County, but in others parts of Maryland. We had our planning sessions there before we went out for the day or next week’s work. It is such a magnificent building! When I went out there at the invitation of the current owners on Friday with my son and daughter-in-law—that is a moment that I will never forget! The entry doorway—magnificent! And the library—that buffet cabinet! And of course [talk about] the fleshing out of the history of the families; 300 years in one family before an out-of-family purchaser came along! That in itself is remarkable. So that is the answer to your question, a lifetime of researching, photographing, and loving these homes!
1. Susan Pearl, historian for the Prince George’s County Historic Preservation Commission, arranged the interview and it was sponsored by its parent organization, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC). The interview was conducted at Marietta, the c.1812, Glenn Dale, Maryland home of Gabriel Duvall, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court during the early 19th century. Brostrup traveled from his home in Rochester, New York at the invitation of the Prince George’s County Historical Society to accept the St. George’s Day Award presented to him at their annual awards ceremony and dinner, for his contributions to the history and documentation of the county’s landmarks. The interview was conducted the following day. The interview was transcribed at this time for the purpose of honoring Brostrup.
2. Delos Smith was the District Officer for the HABS program in Washington, DC and the surrounding counties. The HABS program was run out of the National Park Service’s Branch of Plans and Designs in Washington, with Thomas Vint as chief. Working for Vint were HABS program director, John P. O’Neill and assistant director, Thomas Waterman. While the Washington office provided general oversight and direction, the program was run through field offices nationwide by AIA appointed District Officers, such as Delos Smith.
3. Forrest Bowie was one of the architects hired by the Washington, DC District officer to produce drawings for HABS in that region.
4. Brostup took over 100 views of buildings within the Ephrata Cloisters complex, including inscriptions stenciled on the walls and historic images of non-extant structures. The makeshift lighting worked fine; not a single Christmas light is visible! See HABS No. PA-320 (and 320-A through L).