The Historic American Buildings Survey in New Orleans

Created in 1933, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) is an open-ended collection that documents the rich variety of the country’s architectural heritage, including dozens of public and private buildings across New Orleans. 

In 1933, the National Park Service established the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), a program dedicated to documenting the country’s architectural heritage. The institution of this program during the Great Depression provided jobs for unemployed architects and photographers and also captured vital information about endangered historic structures in an era when legal protections did not yet exist.¹ Charles E. Peterson, a National Park Service employee who is considered to be the creator of the program, framed his pioneering idea in the following terms: 

Our architectural heritage of buildings from the last four centuries diminishes daily at an alarming rate….It is the responsibility of the American people that if the great number of our antique buildings must disappear through economic causes, they should not pass into unrecorded oblivion…. 

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….²

For each property, a HABS entry typically contains a set of measured drawings, exterior and interior photographs, and a building history. Now the federal government’s oldest preservation program, the HABS collection at the Library of Congress is available online and continues to grow with the annual contributions of both students and practitioners.³

New Orleans architect Richard Koch served as the director of the HABS program in Louisiana from 1933 until 1941, during which time he led a team of architects and photographers that included architects Samuel Wilson Jr. and F. Monroe Labouisse Sr. and photographer Robert E. Tebbs. They documented dozens of threatened historic sites throughout the state, from grand plantations to simple cabins, along with outbuildings, hardware, and other important but often overlooked details. Their New Orleans projects included the Beauregard-Keyes House, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, the Cabildo, the Presbytere, Benjamin Latrobe’s Louisiana State Bank, and the Girod House (or Napoleon House), among many others. The research associated with their work led to the discovery of some valuable archival sources, such as the thousands of original watercolor plans at the New Orleans Notarial Archives, and helped to reignite public interest in the region’s built history.

 

1. Jessie J. Poesch and Barbara SoRelle Bacot, eds., Louisiana Buildings, 1720-1940: The Historic American Buildings Survey (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997), 1.

2. John A. Burns, ed., Recording Historic Structures (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004), 2-3. Peterson’s original 1933 memorandum is located in the American Engineering Record (HAER) Division of the National Archives.

3. Library of Congress, “Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey.”

4. Poesch and Bacot, Louisiana Buildings, 1720-1940, ix

5. Abbye Gorin, ed., Conversations with Samuel Wilson, Jr., Dean of Architectural Preservation in New Orleans (New Orleans: Louisiana Landmarks Society), 10.

 

Suggestions for Additional Reading and Research

HABS/HAER/HALS Collection. Library of Congress. 

Historic American Buildings Survey. Louisiana Division Records, Southeastern Architecture Archive, Tulane University.

Lewis, Richard Anthony. Robert W. Tebbs, Photographer to Architects: Louisiana Plantations, in 1926. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011.

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