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HABS: Lens and line preserve America

It was make-work, said critics. Why put the landscape of the United States in print and photograph? What point in transferring the three-dimensional world to two? Today, over 50 years after the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) placed an army of photographers, architects, and writers ``on the dole,'' their product is vital and their labors continue. Of all the depression-era work projects, only this architectural one endures as a ongoing project.

Several shows and a hefty book, ``Historic America: Buildings, Structures and Sites,'' mark the event, and the program itself -- documenting the architecture of America -- persists as both a scholarly and activist program.

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In 1933 when Charles E. Peterson, an architect with the Park Service, founded what he calls ``the largest collection of its kind in the world,'' the notion that America had an architectural heritage sounded strange.

``The Park Service had the big trees and the Grand Canyon, but they weren't interested in this,'' Peterson recalls. Even Independence Hall shrank in significance when compared with the scenic sites and raw resources of the West under their administration. ``Not one of these people knew the US was in the history business.''

Now some 17,000 documents -- including 7,700 photographs, 4,100 measured drawings, and 4,200 pages of written architectural history -- sit in the Library of Congress under the auspices of the Park Service and the American Institute of Architects (AIA). This material was amassed by HABS and its younger offspring, the Historic American Engineering Record. A measured drawing may sound almost redundant, but besides amassing documents for scholarly use, the record is vital to preservation and architectural construction. The survey is both a repository and a street fighter in the battle to preserve American architecture.

At its height, the survey spread 772 employees around the country. This number has dwindled, first during the hiatus of World War II, then in the Carter and Reagan administrations. Critics complain that stacks of drawings and documents lie neglected by the paltry staff of 50. Yet exhibitions have been on view for an extended period in Washington, and several are still traveling around the country. These shows include:

``HABS: The First Fifty Years,'' a review of the first five decades, with architecture ``from plains sodhouse to elegant plantations and New England churches, theaters, mills, bridges, elaborate theater houses, and Southern dog-trots,'' is featured in the Library of Congress Jefferson Building through March 30.

``America's City Halls,'' photographs of the country's municipal architecture documented by HABS -- which just left Austin, Texas -- will now travel.

``Black American Landmarks'' will be in Athens, Ga., Jan. 28 through Feb. 26.

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The 708-page volume on ``Historic America'' just released (Library of Congress, $29.95) affirms a HABS role as the far-flung scholarly and architectural arm of the government. While the general reader may find the text dry, the catalog is useful, the photographs quite handsome, and some of the essays show how the survey adds to history as well as to historic revisionism.

Writing about the photographs of America's Main Streets, Carole Rifkind, author of one of the chapters in ``Historic America,'' remarks, ``There is extraordinary geographic, economic, ethnic, and cultural diversity.'' She also notes a ``resourcefulness and faith in material progress.'' Other chapters show everything from kitchens to a two-horse sleigh; from an overwhelming neo-rococo parlor in Chicago to a splendid radiator at Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, N.Y.; from a Kentucky log cabin to the Admiral Dewey arch in New Jersey. Also shown are well-known documents on American Victoriana and on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

``HABS at an Awkward Age,'' suggests the title of the chapter about how the agency is faring in the 1980s. It discusses the problems of low funding, the recording of ``insignificant'' buildings, and other troubles, including complaints. Peterson himself, no less strong-minded in his opinions after 50 years, also embedded his tough comments in the commemorative book.

Peterson, the AIA organization, and others are concerned about the lack of an advisory board, which had kept some professional eyes on the survey. The board was ``surreptitiously dropped five years ago,'' Peterson remarks. He adds: ``Within the Park Service, the architectural profession has been fragmented, dispersed, and suppressed.'' Preoccupied with the raw materials and natural resources of the West, he says, ``the department leaves the impression that the National Parks as an ideal are only for juveniles and that the historic treasures of the nation are for crazies.''

Feisty as ever, this founding father (``I just happened to be at the right spot at the right time'') laments that he has spent several ``maddening years'' fighting to protect what he founded.

``Cut back, but surviving,'' a spokesman for the survey concedes in describing HABS today.

AIA director of design Maurice Payne observes, ``It [HABS] has survived the New Deal, the Fair Deal, whatever deal, the Reagan era.'' One hopes the endurance record of this faithful minister to America's architecture will help ensure its survival.

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