Cataloguing Mississippi for HABS, Part 1

If you’ve hung around this blog for a while, or if you’re a regular on various Facebook groups, you’ve probably seen beautiful black-and-white images of buildings, or even floorplans and detail drawings, with the citation “HABS” or the spelled-out version “Historic American Buildings Survey.” Maybe you’ve even googled HABS and found that the links lead you to a Library of Congress portal that gives you this information:

About the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey

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. . . . Administered since 1933 through cooperative agreements with the National Park Service, the Library of Congress, and the private sector, ongoing programs of the National Park Service have recorded America’s built environment in multiformat 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. This online presentation of the HABS/HAER/HALS collections includes digitized images of measured drawings, black-and-white photographs, color transparencies, photo captions, written history pages, and supplemental materials. . . .

That’s helpful, but it still left me wondering how and why HABS came to be in 1933, and how it functioned logistically, specifically in Mississippi: who was involved, how did they choose the buildings to photograph, ditto the buildings to actually draw. That’s why I was really happy at the 2009 SESAH conference in Jackson to listen to a paper by then-HABS historian Virginia Price entitled “Cataloguing Mississippi for the Historic American Buildings Survey” about the HABS program in Mississippi. I learned a lot about the Depression-era activity of some of our architects, such as A. Hays Town and Emmett Hull, and about how Mississippi’s program compared with other states. In the interest of giving the paper a wider audience, and as an introduction to an upcoming HABS series here on MissPres, I finally got around to asking Virginia Price to allow her paper to be reprinted here, and she graciously agreed.

This reprint of the SESAH paper will be presented in three parts. Price later evolved this paper into an article, “Drawing Details: Taking Measure of the HABS Collection,” in Preservation Education & Research (Volume Four, 2011) that examined and compared Mississippi’s and Rhode Island’s HABS programs. 


Cataloguing Mississippi for the Historic American Buildings Survey

Virginia B. Price, 2009

Since its establishment in 1933, the Historic American Buildings Survey has become one of the largest architectural archives in the world with documentation on around 40,000 buildings and sites located throughout the United States that captures the essence of these historic places in measured drawings, large-format photography, and research.[1]


The ever-growing HABS collection is housed at the Library of Congress and is accessible through the Library’s American Memory website. The collection was expanded to include sites of engineering and industrial importance in the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER)[2] as well as the settings and landscapes of significance in the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS).[3] The archive is organized geographically, narrowing from state to county to locality. With the advent of internet, however, indexing the records for site-specific details has assumed new meaning as patrons no longer browse by shelf but by keyword terms to find the architectural example they seek.

The shift in how the archive is mined for details on American architecture places new emphasis on the data collection about the records themselves, as shown by a look at the documentation for Mississippi. Cataloguing the entries for Mississippi allows for the identification and analysis of the locations and sites noted for the state since the 1930s. Today there are 332 HABS records and 15 HAER records for Mississippi in the collection. Currently three HALS projects are underway. Eleven of the 332 HABS records stand for on-going work at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Gulfport.


Some of the historic places included in the collection have received recognition from other programs, such as the eighty-nine properties also listed in the National Register for Historic Places for their local, state, or national import at a specific time; the twenty-one (of the thirty-eight) National Historic Landmarks; the five (of nine) sites administered by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History; and the two (of three) engineering landmarks recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. HAER documented the USS Cairo and the Waterways Experiment Station, however, it has not yet recorded the Lapeyre Automatic Shrimp Peeling Machine in Biloxi, designated a landmark by ASME in 2004. National Park units account for 9 percent of the collection records, the majority of which are tied to Natchez National Historical Park. Additional HABS/HAER/HALS collection records can be found for historically significant sites included under the umbrella of the Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area.


That said, Mississippi is below the median for numbers of places recorded, ranking forty-first among the states, District of Columbia, and U.S. territories represented in the collection. Mississippi documentation sets average five pages per historical report compared to the overall average of nine; average six photographs per set compared to the overall average of eight; and average six drawings per documentation set compared to the overall average of seven.[4] The state also is well below the median for numbers of records, ranking forty-first among the states, District of Columbia, and U.S. territories represented in the collection.


Predominantly the Mississippi records correspond to forms of domestic architecture, houses made of wood and brick as well as various outbuildings, characterizing 65 percent of all the building types noted. With indexing, the collection could yield precise information about building materials and use as well as about architectural plans, scale, and forms. To date the index for Mississippi’s records consists of broad categorizations, making regional patterns difficult to discern. Despite these deficiencies in data collection about the entries, from the beginning of the program recording efforts took surveyors to each of Mississippi’s five regions: the Hills, the Pines, the Delta, the River, and along the Coast, as well as in the Black Prairie. Of these, the Mississippi Delta is perhaps the best known culturally, although the coastal region in the southeast corner of the state became synonymous with the state in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Yet the River and Hills regions are best represented in the records of the HABS collection.

Counted as part of the River region, Mississippi’s capital of Jackson has nineteen sites recognized in the collection. However, the most documented city is Natchez with recorded buildings. Largely due to the attention paid to Natchez, Adams County maintains the greatest presence in the collection of any county in the state, with Warren County running a distant second. Warren County’s stature within the collection is likely due to the work done for Vicksburg National Military Park as well as HABS efforts in the 1930s that concentrated on recording resources in both Natchez and Vicksburg.


Back to post 1 The formal proposal for HABS was written by Charles E. Peterson in November 1933 and funding through the National Park Service assured in December. Peterson’s memo was the summation of contemporary efforts to preserve America’s early architecture through recordation and was greatly influenced by his interaction with the restoration architects in Colonial Williamsburg. See Catherine C. Lavoie, “Architectural Plans and Visions: The Early HABS Program and Its Documentation of Vernacular Architecture,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 13, no. 2 (2006/2007): 15-35. Also, Martin J. Perschler, “The Historic American Buildings Survey in Maine, 1934-1965,” unpublished paper 2001, 1-22, and its expansion as Lisa Pfueller Davidson and Martin J. Perschler, “The Historic American Buildings Survey During the New Deal Era,” CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship 1, no. 1 (Fall 2003): 49-73.

Back to post 2 Established in 1969 in partnership with the Library of Congress and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Back to post 3 Established in 2000 in partnership with the Library of Congress and the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Back to post 4 Mississippi averages based on database tallies on 03/10/2009.

Categories: Historic American Building Survey (HABS), Historic Preservation


4 replies

  1. Glad to learn more about the HABS survey. My impression is that it was done partly to document these structures and partly to provide employment for those who did the documentation. I too wish there had been more recorded. They seem to have picked up far more sites in Alabama than in Mississippi.


  2. Yes, that’s my impression to, and even now I’m not sure why. Unfortunately, the records of conversations and correspondence just aren’t there to show us their motivations, at least none have surfaced so far.


  3. Alabama’s large HABS presence was due to Walter and Varian Burkhardt from Auburn University. He directed the program while she did a major media and public relations campaign throughout the state, both with the passion of zealots. “Alabama Ante-bellum Architecture: A Scrapbook View from the 1930’s” is a nice book containing reprints of Varian’s newspaper articles, which ran in local papers and drummed up local support for HABS. For a short time, it became somewhat of a status symbol among old planter families to have one’s house documented by HABS, leading to some envy among those whose houses had not been profiled. Alabama has far more HABS surveyed buildings, with more than 720, than any southeastern state other than Virginia, due to the Burkhardts. From 1933 to 1937, HABS under Walter Burkhardt surveyed more than 500 buildings, a rate of one every three days. Robert Gamble’s “The Alabama Catalog: Historic American Buildings Survey: A Guide to the Early Architecture of the State” has an essay on the history of HABS in Alabama, as well as an updated catalog on every HABS surveyed building in the state, listing what fate befell the buildings after the Great Depression.


  4. Thanks, E.L., for posting this series. I’ve always found James Butters’ work around Mississippi to be haunting and invaluable, as well as far too brief. When you look at the dates on his photos, it’s amazing how swiftly he got around.


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