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    How to Write a Historic Structure Report


    Fifty years later, in the early 1980s, the National Park Service (NPS) established crisply defined standards and guidelines for Historic Structure Reports. These guidelines, published in NPS-28: Cultural Resource Management Guidelines, have been widely disseminated for use by state, local, and private historic preservation agencies and are available from the National Parks Service Office of Historic Preservation. While these guidelines are helpful, they constitute a very small subsection in the entire set of guidelines pertaining to cultural resource management, and they do not elaborate on the specifics of writing or how to actually put an HSR together.

    The federal government is not alone in its efforts to define and shape the content of HSRs. The State of New Jersey Office of Historic Preservation has weighed in with the following definition of a Historic Structure Report, published in its document Historic Structure Reports & Preservation Plans: A Preparation Guide (PDF):

    Today, Historic Structure Reports (HSRs) are multi-disciplinary planning documents, often created by a team of professionals to evaluate many aspects of a property simultaneously. [An HSR] is a thorough record of existing historical research and resources as well as existing conditions. The HSR provides a forum to identify historic fabric and the means to minimize its loss, damage, or any adverse effects upon it. From an understanding of the historic fabric, long-term alternative actions and their impact on the site as a whole can be explored in the planning phase.

    This rather succinct definition provides a good springboard for exploring other related questions.

    Why are HSRs written?

    The primary purpose of an HSR is to serve as a planning document before any major interventions in the fabric of a specific building are undertaken. As was the case with Charles Peterson and remains so to this day, HSRs are typically prepared with a view toward restoration of a specific structure.

    To avoid the kinds of costly and irreversible mistakes that have happened all too frequently in the past, the historic architect or conservator responsible for the restoration of a structure should ensure that all relevant data have been acquired so that fact-based decisions can be made. Administrators reviewing funding requests should verify that the intended work will actually conform to the recommendations in the report. Through the aegis of the HSR, the restoration and/or redevelopment goals of the owner and the recommendations contained in the HSR can be addressed in a manner that achieves both.

    What differentiates an HSR from other documents commonly used in the field of historic preservation?

    Numerous types of documents are used in the field of historic preservation, among them architectural assessments, fabric analyses, conditions investigations, and landscape design documentation. What differentiates the HSR from these other report types is that the HSR is inherently multidisciplinary in its approach and development. Indeed, to be effective, an HSR must be the culmination of collaborative effort by a team of dedicated professionals who by interacting with one another and sharing their findings are able to produce a powerful document, the usefulness of which greatly exceeds the sum of its individual components.

    Why is this distinction important?

    Without this high level of interaction among the professionals from the various disciplines, it is amazingly simple to reach, and then act on, some erroneous conclusions.

    A classic example occurred during the restoration of the Commanding Officer's House at Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas. The historic diaries written by the commanding officer's wife stated emphatically that she detested blue. The paint analysis that was conducted for the restoration indicated that the original color of the paint on the woodwork in the master bedroom was light blue. But since the two professionals performing these disparate pieces of work were not in communication with one another, the disconnect was not immediately discovered and, in fact, was exacerbated by a subsequent typographical error in the written paint analysis which changed the paint code for light blue to an intense deep blue.

    When the paint samples were re-examined, it was discovered that what had been taken to be a white prime coat was, in fact, a set of four layers of white paint, clearly indicating that the blue color was a post-historic color (that is, one introduced subsequent to the historic time period of interest to the building owner and conservator). Had the two professionals involved had the opportunity to interact, this error — rather obvious in hindsight — might well have been avoided.

    Who is involved in creating a Historic Structure Report?

    Two obvious considerations are whether an HSR must incorporate the full host of possible disciplines or, if not all, then what minimum number of these disciplines should be represented for the report to be considered sufficiently thorough. The National Park Service clearly crafts its HSRs according to different types of structures, so an NPS HSR for a lighthouse is significantly different than one written for a Native American burial mound. Naturally, different disciplines — and experts within those disciplines — will be involved in commenting on each.

    In the past, it was common for one individual to assume responsibility for preparing a complete HSR. However, a team of professionals working together, each of whom has expertise in different areas, is more likely to process and understand the evidence gleaned from a wide array of sources, draw accurate conclusions, and arrive at the most appropriate decisions.

    The nature of many projects involving historic structures will be such that not every profession will need to be represented in the HSR, but whenever possible, every relevant profession should be. When this is not feasible — for example, when financial constraints limit the investigation — judicious choices will need to be made about which disciplines take priority on the project in question. At a minimum for an architectural structure, both an architectural conservator (or historical architect) and an architectural historian should collaborate to produce the report. For other structures, archaeological sites for example, one of these disciplines may be replaced by a professional in a discipline more directly germane to the nature of the site.

    How extensive should an HSR be?

    A number of parameters determine the depth of investigation and, ultimately, the size of an HSR. The size and complexity of the structure itself is perhaps the chief determinant. The relative age of the structure also plays a very large role, as do any alterations made to the structure over time. The extent of surviving archival resources, as well as time and budgetary constraints, are also significant contributing factors influencing the length of any given HSR. Bottom line, though, is that HSRs can range from being relatively brief to as much as several volumes of detailed information depending on the circumstances.

    What is the typical structure of an HSR?

    It is helpful to see the forest before examining the trees and that starts with the table of contents. Two primary approaches are useful for constructing a table of contents. One approach is to provide a complete and detailed contents page for the entire report. This helps provide a greater sense of unity to the report and works extremely well for shorter and simpler HSRs.

    The second approach is to provide a bare-bones table of contents which lists the sections of the report in order, but allows each section to have its own detailed table of contents. This approach is useful for large and/or complex HSRs in which a complete table of contents for the entire report would be ungainly and difficult to access, especially in cases where the sections are so large that they require standalone volumes. The author may elect to provide a detailed table of contents for the entire report up front and then provide the same information as individual tables of contents for each section. Lists of illustrations, tables, and drawings are subject to the same constraints as the table of contents and typically are placed following the table of contents at the front of the report.

    The body of the report should follow a logical order. With respect to the general structure of the text, the team leader should exercise care in developing and maintaining a consistent format throughout the sections. Although it is unnecessary to develop an HSR that reads as though written by a sole author, consistency in the writing tone and style will assist the reader in following the themes and goals of the HSR as they are developed within the document.

    Regarding pagination of the report, there are two schools of thought. One school maintains that pagination should be continuous from the title page through to the last page of the document. This works well for shorter HSRs that have relatively brief sections. The second school of thought is to paginate sections individually (e.g., 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; 2.1, 2.2, 2.3; 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, and so forth with 1.1 standing for section 1, page 1). For highly complex reports, this latter approach is very useful. This second approach also allows for addenda pertinent to a specific section to be added easily to the relevant section without disrupting the page numbering of the entire report.

    Should the HSR be the final word for planning for a historic structure?

    In an ideal world, this would be true and every effort would be made to discover all necessary data regarding the historic structure. However, over time resources such as forensic tools (fabric analysis, for example) are constantly developing and improving. As new information comes to light, an HSR should be revisited and revised as needed.

    Historic Williamsburg in Virginia serves as a good example. When the structures at Historic Williamsburg were restored beginning in the late 1920s, no effort was spared in research. Paint analysis was conducted and, as a result, a palette of colors was discovered and reproduced for use in the restoration. The same palette was marketed to the general public as authentic colors of the 18th century. Fifty years later, new investigation revealed that the original colors were significantly different than the old, faded, and shifted colors initially observed in the 1920s — and, as a result, the buildings were repainted.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    David Arbogast is an architectural conservator and teaches at the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies in Mount Carroll, Illinois.

    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.



    ArchWeek Image

    The earliest example of a formal HSR was published by Charles E. Peterson, then the Chief Historical Architect for the National Park Service. This 1935 report documented Peterson's investigations of the Moore House in York, Virginia, the site of the British surrender during the Revolutionary War.
    Photo: Historic Architecture Building Survey (HABS) Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    A list of masonry materials often included in the masonry-analysis section of an HSR.
    Image: W.W. Norton

    ArchWeek Image

    Metal applications in historic structures tend to fall into three broad categories: structural, decorative, and architectural (such as in roofing or flashing). The Edgar Laing Stores building in New York City was one of the first cast-iron buildings in the United States, employing metal applications in all three categories.
    Photo: HABS Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    A list of the members of a typical team for preparing an HSR.
    Image: W.W. Norton

    ArchWeek Image

    In documenting the interiors of historic buildings, such as the Missouri Governor's Mansion (shown here), it may be necessary to sample layers of finish materials, such as paint, in order to determine how a space may have originally been finished.
    Photo: HABS Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Many existing historic structures contain significant masonry components. The Theophilus Conrad House in Louisville, Kentucky, exemplifies late 19th-century stone masonry and includes excellent stone carving.
    Photo: HABS Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    An HSR should document the electrical and lighting features of historic structures, such as this original candelabra at the base of the stairs in the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut.
    Photo: HABS Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    How to Write a Historic Structure Report by David Arbogast.
    Image: W.W. Norton Extra Large Image


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