How to Write a Historic Structure Report
by David Arbogast
One could say — at least in a generic sense — that any report written about a historic structure could be considered a historic structure report. The term, however, has evolved over time, taking on a very specific and far more limited meaning. Here we take the reader through the typical structure and content of a Historic Structure Report (HSR) and, in doing so, demonstrate what makes the HSR distinct from other documents and important in its own right.
It is worth beginning by asking the question, What is a "historic structure"? What, exactly, makes a structure "historic" rather than merely old? And are HSRs limited only to historic structures?
Historical significance may, like beauty, be in the eye of the beholder, and various criteria and categories have been created to determine historical significance. For most structures aspiring to the lofty heights of historical significance, getting listed in the National Register of Historic Places settles the question.
There are, however, structures that fail to meet the standards required for listing in the National Register, but are significant in other ways. Typically, these structures are of more recent vintage and thus not sufficiently old to qualify for the National Register. Nevertheless, Structure Reports for these buildings can be, and often are, crafted along the same lines as the HSR for the same type of historic structure, giving the HSR concept applicability beyond "historic structures."
The earliest example of a formal Historic Structure Report was published in 1935 by Charles E. Peterson, Chief Historical Architect of the National Park Service. In the early 1930s, Peterson conducted an investigation of the Moore House, the site of the surrender at Yorktown, Virginia during the Revolutionary War. What constitutes an HSR has evolved and been refined over time — so much so, in fact, that the Moore House Historic Structure Report would no longer fit a close definition of what constitutes an HSR by many professionals. Nevertheless, Peterson's report is considered to be the seminal work in establishing the HSR as an important and useful tool for historic preservation.
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This article is excerpted from How to Write a Historic Structure Report by David Arbogast, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton.
In addition to documenting more conventional buildings, Historic Structure Reports (HSRs) can also cover non-building construction, such as bridges, monuments, and dams. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, is an example that combines qualities of buildings and non-building structures.
Photo: Historic Architecture Building Survey (HABS)
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The historic landscape section of an HSR documents the evolution and current condition of the landscape surrounding a historic structure. The grounds of the Biltmore Estate, near Asheville, North Carolina, were extensively modified in conjunction with construction of the house in the late 1800s.
Photo: Library of Congress
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