There are three federally funded programs that are involved in capturing and preserving information about old and historic structures. The oldest of these programs is the Historic American Buildings Survey, or HABS, under the auspices of the National Park Service. Back in 1933, when the US was deep into an economic depression that began in 1929, HABS came into being for two reasons: first, to get an accounting and written record of the historic structures still standing; and second, to give employment to a large number of architects, draftsmen, and photographers who were unemployed at that time. You could say that this early attempt at creating a record of these structures was the genesis of the modern historic preservation movement. The fruits of their labor can be found as collections in the Library of Congress. When you have the time, search through that archive for the historic structures in your neighborhood. It’s fascinating to see the condition of those building in the 1930s. Since some of the buildings surveyed back then are no longer in existence today, this will be your only chance to see and appreciate what is long gone.
In 1969, the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) was founded, with its primary objective to document historic mechanical and engineering artifacts. There are several YouTube videos available showing summer interns involved in the 12-week program, earning college credits and gaining experience in the field of historic preservation. This is an example of one of those videos.
The last of the federally funded programs is the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS), founded in October 2000. Its predecessor was the Historic American Landscape and Garden Project, which recorded historic Massachusetts gardens from 1935 until 1940, and administered by HABS for the collection of documents.
The work that these programs are involved in is essential for the proper and complete recording of the past. I would never try to diminish their value and importance to our society and historic identity. Nevertheless, this reminds me of the person who is recording, on their cell phone, a violent crime in process. You often wonder why they didn’t drop the phone and go help the victim of the crime. While the US government is spending money on recording details of buildings, shuttered factories, and landscapes, local historical societies are starving for funds to save, renovate, restore, and preserve the buildings in their neighborhoods right now. Why is it that recordkeeping is the responsibility of the federal government, while the actual preservation of these buildings is largely left to underfunded state and local government agencies? Grant monies are available, but the total is insufficient to the task at hand. I sometimes feel like I’m personally being asked to fund these efforts twice; first through donations and membership directly out of my pocket, and second by paying my taxes for the common good.
What’s your take on this situation? What information am I not aware of to demonstrate that the governance of our taxes is providing for critical efforts at the grass-roots level?