Work Programs and Stimulus Monies (75+ years later)….

With the discussion of national work programs on everybody’s minds as a relief to our trouble economy, a little retrospective came to mind as we pay homage to one of our most important research tools used in the historic preservation movement, the Historic American Building Survey. In 1933, deep into the Great Depression, the Federal government through the National Park Service established the Historic America Buildings Survey (HABS). The project was conceived to produce an archive of early American architecture, but it also served as a way to provide much-needed jobs for out-of-work professional architects, draftsmen and photographers. The initial ten-week work program was proposed by Charles Peterson, a young Park Service landscape architect who undoubtedly had out of work friends. He expressed his vision for the program:

The list of building types . . . should include public buildings, churches, residences, bridges, forts, barns, mills, shops, rural outbuildings, and any other kind of structure of which there are good specimens extant. . . . Other structures which would not engage the especial interest of an architectural connoisseur are the great number of plain structures which by fate or accident are identified with historic events. — Charles E. Peterson

These newly hired professionals were trained and guided by field instructions and were tasked with documenting a sample of America’s most noted architecture.

In Alabama, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, with the assistance of Professor E. Walter Burkhardt of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), drew up the potential statewide list of structures to be surveyed and documented. Work actually began in January 1934 and the survey peaked in late 1935 with funding eventually coming from the Works Project Administration (WPA). The survey employed 44 people including three photographers. Teams of HABS workers documented about 720 structures and structural complexes scattered throughout Alabama with over 6,000 photographs, 900 measured drawings and at least 900 pages of historical and architectural data. This made the Alabama collection the largest in the country, second only to the state of Virginia.

In Montgomery, the squad leader for the researchers was Earl Guthrie Lutx Jr. Professor Burkhardt, from Auburn University, was State coordinator and assisted him. Alex Bush, also of Auburn, took most of the hundreds of photographs of the Montgomery structures. The exteriors and interiors of 22 Montgomery notable structures, mostly residences, were documented as well as their outbuildings and gardens. The detailed architectural drawings tell us how the structures were constructed. The black and white professional quality exterior photographs tell us how buildings were maintained and landscaped. The interior photographs give us insight into room arrangements, furnishings, decorating choices and general lifestyles of the people who lived or worked in these buildings. Of those 22 documented structures only the ten listed below are still standing today:

  • Alabama State Capitol
  • Figh-Pickett House (Montgomery County Historical Society) on South Court Street
  • First White House of the Confederacy on Washington Avenue
  • Gerald-Dowdell House on South Hull Street
  • Gilmer-Lomax House on South Court Street
  • Tyson House on Mildred Street
  • Murphy House (Water Works and Sewer Board) on Bibb Street
  • Teague House (Alabama Historical Commission) on South Perry Street
  • St. John’s Episcopal Church on Madison Avenue
  • Stone-Young House on the Old Selma Road

By creating this massive archive of field drawings, photographs and notes of historic architecture, HABS provided the beginnings of primary source material for Montgomery’s historic preservation movement. Decades of city expansions and emerging interstate highway systems took their toll on Montgomery’s HABS structures. For those magnificent pieces of 19th architecture that fell, we at least have a record of their existence and the people who made them happen. All of the ten remaining Montgomery HABS structures have undergone extensive restorations and are working, viable parts of our community.

The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) nationwide collection is among the largest and most heavily used in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. In 1987, local architectural historian Robert Gamble compiled the Alabama HABS research, drawings and photographs in his book The Alabama Catalog, A Guide to the Early Architecture of the State. If you are lucky enough to own an edition of this out-of-print publication, Gamble gives you directions to locate all of the existing HABS properties for your wanderlust! Research notes and more of the photographs for all the Montgomery houses can be seen at www.memory.loc.gov website.

Carole King (not the singer, just the hummer) enjoys midtown living from South Capitol Parkway in Capitol Heights where she has lived for 25+years. Carole has been the historic properties curator for the Landmarks Foundation that manages Old Alabama Town for 28 years and is passionate about neighborhoods, their architectural character, their people, and their preservation!

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