Wednesday, July 16, 2008

HABS and Historic Precedents

Russell's new book is titled Roots of Home, which is how he refers to the particular mix of culture and customs that shaped an area's classic home styles. The first settlers in a region took building traditions they knew from where they came from and adapted them to the climate, resources, and landscape in the new place. Through the years the styles of the houses evolved with new migrations and cultural influences, and they are still changing today as they're modified to fit how we live in the 21st century.

To plan a new old house, we begin by researching the native-grown homestyles of the place in which the house will be built. In our office at Russell Versaci Architecture we have an extensive architectural library with more than 1000 volumes; many are antiquarian and most are out of print. On the shelves are hundreds of books with old drawings and photographs of houses that serve as a great resource for researching vernacular traditions.

Although we feel fortunate to have this extensive architectural library on site, we also rely on another resource -- one that's available to anyone with a computer. The
Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) is a huge electronic archive of drawings and photographs of early American architecture that is free and easy to search on the Library of Congress website. (For the story of HABS, read Russell's column titled Picturing Home, which appeared in the summer issue of New Old House magazine.)

All this information serves to introduce the drawing at the top of the post. It is a HABS drawing of a house that served as a historic precedent and design inspiration for the prefab tidewater cottage. The house was called Maidstone, and its record states that it was located in the vicinity of Owings in Calvert County, Maryland. Beyond that little bit of information, we don't know anything else about the house, like whether or not it still exists. Many of the houses in HABS are no longer standing. The project was begun during the WPA years to document in photographs and measured drawings the early architecture of our country before it fell to ruins or was bulldozed to make way for the march of progress.