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Before the Wrecking Ball Swung

The Historic American Building Survey's mission to photograph important architecture before its demolition.

HABS was the brainchild of Charles E. Peterson, a twenty-seven-year-old restoration architect who worked for the National Park Service. Eight months after FDR took office, he wrote a memo that proposed this unprecedented undertaking, and his cogent argument caught the attention of his superiors. As he wrote:

It is intended that the survey shall cover structures of all types, from the smallest utilitarian structures to the largest and most monumental. Barns, bridges, mills, toll houses, jails, and, in short, buildings of every description are to be included so that a complete picture of the culture of the time as reflected in the buildings of the period may be put on record.

December 12, 1933 was the first day of business, and before long HABS had thirty-nine field offices across the country, with only a regional manager, a clerk-secretary, and a stenographer in each outpost. Photographers were enlisted whether or not they had experience shooting buildings. They had to provide their own equipment—most often the 4×5 tripod-mounted view camera then standardly used for architectural photography—though HABS bought (and owned) their film.

It was a bare-bones operation. “The photographs are for the purpose of record,” the HABS Bulletin admonished soon after the project began, “so that it is more important that they be clear and sharp in their delineation of detail than that they are artistically composed or effective from a pictorial point of view.” This stipulation encouraged the default mode known as “HABS light,” most readily found under overcast skies that created no complicating shadows and allowed a structure to be shot from any angle, so that a job could be quickly wrapped up and then on to the next.

Some ambitious HABS photographers ignored these strictures and instead produced striking images that flouted the time constraints. These efforts sometimes rose to the level of high art, just as Eugène Atget’s had done during the early decades of the twentieth century. He was commissioned by the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville in Paris to record the vanishing antiquities of the city for posterity, but nonetheless turned in some of the most poetic photographs ever made.