The Regional Review

Volume III - No. 3

September, 1939


Historic American Buildings Survey Compiles Record of Cultural Monuments

By Orin M. Bullock, Jr.,
Regional Architect,
Richmond, Virginia.

The uncoordinated and scattered but passionate interest of individuals and organizations in historical characters and events of the early days of American colonization and development has resulted in the marking, preservation or even the restoration of many fine old buildings through the country, and has stimulated a widespread public interest in the political and architectural history of the United States. In answer to a growing demand, studies have been made and published concerning various of the more obvious and outstanding architectural monuments.

It is fortunate that an interest in our architectural heritage has been so generally aroused while examples of the architectural development of every culture group in the country still remain to be studied. The inexorable tide of destruction destined to wipe out the great majority of the buildings which knew the beginning and first flourishing of the nation cannot be stemmed; fire, the natural elements and the American's insatiable desire to modernize and improve have been taking their toll of our antique buildings at an alarming rate.

The work of private individuals and organizations has been limited by lack of funds and circumscribed by the natural tendency to appreciate the importance of only those structures which are associated directly with great names or antiquity. Emphasis has been placed on the preservation of individual monuments because the scope of such enterprises could not embrace a national field or inquire into more than a local culture.

The opportunity to preserve or record examples of all types of buildings of architectural importance is logically a function of the federal government. That, and the necessity of providing employment for technical men during the years of depression, together with the public interest in antiquity, have resulted happily in the Historic American Buildings Survey. The Branch of Plans and Design of the National Park Service, charged with the responsibility of designing buildings for the operation of areas dedicated to conservation of the natural beauties of the country, recognized an analogy between the conservation of nature and the preservation or our early architecture. It initiated and has been designated to administer the work of the Survey.

sketch of building

The Survey is making the only detailed compilation of the native architecture of the United States ever attempted. It is an undertaking so broad in scope that only an agency of the federal government could hope to record even representative examples of our varied architectural culture. Work was inaugurated in the latter part of 1935 and has been prosecuted with funds provided by the Civil Works Administration, the Emergency Relief Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, and through the active cooperation of the Library of Congress, the American Institute of Architects, universities and the schools of architecture, and many private architects.


"History is no longer a record of past events. It is an illuminating account of the expanding life of man in all its manifestations, revealing how each stage of civilization grows out of preceding stages, revealing how the past still lives in us and dominates us, and enabling us to profit by what has gone before. So considered history is inspirational. The Santa Fe and Oregon Trails are not merely old time routes of travel and emigration, whose furrows in the earth's crust interfered with tillage when agriculture developed along their courses; they are highways of the indomitable spirit of man in earnest and arduous quest and fired with passion of purposeful endeavor. Considered in this way, the career of man and the careers of men stir the emotions, arouse enthusiasm, and awaken zeal which fuse into patriotism; and patriotism is regarded as a worthy quality of citizenship." (Opinion of Kansas Supreme Court concerning the exercise of eminent domain to preserve places of historical interest: The Council Ring, Vol. I, No. 10, p. 3).

Although far from complete, the Survey has filed with the Library of Congress measured drawings and photographs of thousands of buildings designed and erected before the period of "eclecticism" in the United States. (See The Regional Review, Vol. I, No. 6, p. 28, for a notice of the publication of a catalog of drawings and photographs on file January 1, 1938). The student already may inquire into the local architectural characteristics of many sections of the country and trace the progression of culture and cultural influences which have directed the course of American architecture. The practicing architect thus has reference material for accurate restoration or reconstruction of early buildings in readily accessible form; and the detailed plans of many buildings burned or otherwise destroyed have been recorded permanently. This nationwide work of measuring, photographing and recording will be continued during the current fiscal year, with funds provided by the Public Works Administration, under the direct supervision of the Branch of Plans and Design of the Service, with the cooperation of private architects and the American Institute of Architects.

The buildings selected for recording were erected before 1860 (except for certain western examples), a date chosen somewhat arbitrarily- but a most pertinent one in the history of architecture in the United States--because after that time the sectional characteristics of the country became less and less distinct. Steadily increasing movements of population and accelerated distribution of information broadened architectural taste, and local differences in design and construction methods disappeared. There is little sectional difference in our architecture of today.

Moore House

Swan Tavern

administration building
At the top is the Moore House, a restoration, and in the middle is the Swan Tavern, a reconstruction. Both buildings are in Colonial National Historical Park. At the bottom is the modern Colonial structure erected as an administration and museum building at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

As a further result of the widespread interest in our political and architectural history, the federal government has obtained many buildings closely identified with important periods in the development of our country which have been designated as national historic sites or as national monuments. Outstanding among them in Region One are those at Salem Maritime National Historic Site, in Massachusetts, which is being developed to portray the Golden Age of the clipper ship commerce of the United States. Wharfs, the old customs house, other structures, and gardens are being restored. Another is Hopewell Village National Historic Site, in Pennsylvania, where the story of the beginnings of the iron industry will be told through exhibits in the old buildings still standing at the area. There also is Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia, which preserves examples of 18th century architecture and culture in addition to explaining the military history of Revolutionary days. Still another among many examples is ancient Fort Marion, at St. Augustine, Florida, where the military architecture of early America is on exhibit.

The principle of conservation is interpreted, by the designers of new park structures proposed for areas of little historical importance to indicate the desirability of creating in new buildings some of the architectural atmosphere typical of the vicinity. An attempt is made to achieve designs which have their roots in local tradition without a sacrifice of modern functional characteristics.

Administration buildings, bathhouses, museums and lodges are types which were unknown before the development of parks began, yet they still may seem "to belong" in the family of cabins, mansions or commercial buildings found near the area and thus exhibit local cultural influences. For those park areas having no particular native architectural characteristics, or those of a purely scientific purpose --- such as Cape Hatteras, in North Carolina, which is set aside to preserve a national sea shore, and Ocmulgee National Monument, which is primarily an archeological center, or the Statue of Liberty National Monument, which provides a setting for the sentimentally important statue --- the designers feel free to suggest frankly functional building, in the "modern" manner. In those buildings (like the administration-museum structure of Ocmulgee National Monument, shown below), the requirements of the program and the availability and adaptability of material and labor are the guiding factors. The resulting buildings therefore reflect the taste of the twentieth century and an interpretation of the scientific point of view.

This work of architectural conservation by an agency of the federal government is a significant example of the functioning of democracy, for the interest and enthusiasm of the people have resulted in a study, recording and preservation of a natural heritage for the cultural benefit of all.

sketch of building

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Date: 04-Jul-2002