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House History: A Guide to Uncovering the Stories of Local Buildings and Properties

Surveys and Historic Designations

isometric drawing of the frame of a one-room house with chimney
Daniel Donovan, delineator. Isometric Drawing. Pear Valley, State Route 628 vicinity, Shadyside, Northampton County, VA. 2011. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Historic Preservation movement has had a rich influence on America's landscape, especially since the mid-1960s, and has sparked the creation of initiatives across the country, from broadly conceived to locally defined, and from governmental initiatives to private advocacy groups.

Architectural surveys, for example, are a terrific resource for finding records of individual buildings, but also for understanding building types such as houses or regional architecture comparatively, and in context. Some architectural surveys are undertaken as part of historic designation programs that may list and protect specific properties. Other surveys might be undertaken as part of historical research projects, or as tools for advocacy. Given this, they can be located in a variety of repositories across the local, state, and national levels.

With the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, several new or existing national programs received a mandate to foreground historic preservation as a consideration for future changes to the U.S. built environment. Most notably, the act created the National Register of Historic Places that describes and lists properties of significance, along with a system of State Historic Preservation Offices, which now work together with NPS to implement an ongoing national historic preservation agenda. This builds directly on the agency's earlier preservation activities going back to the previous century.

One significant and ongoing program, the Historic American Buildings Survey began as a project for out-of-work architectus to document historic buildings during the Great Depression years of the 1930s.  HABS became a permanent program of the National Park Service in July 1934 and was formally authorized by Congress as part of the Historic Sites Act of 1935. Related projects, the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) were added later, in 1969 and 2000 respectively.

From the beginning, HABS has operated through formal agreements as a cooperative programs between the public and private sector. The United States Department of the Interior, through the NPS, is responsible for administration of the survey programs, including creation of the documentary records that are transmitted to the Library of Congress for public access and preservation. The American Institute of Architects, which joined with the Library of Congress and the National Park Service in establishing HABS, serves the program in an advisory capacity. HAER and HALS are likewise administered though similar cooperative agreements, and the three surveys together now form a significant collection of documentation freely available at the Library of Congress. With time, the surveys have documented all manner of built structures, from humble everyday houses or outbuildings to elaborate engineering marvels and magnificent park lands.

Other surveys of houses and related architecture have been taken on by individuals, organizations, or state and local municipalities. See our links below, and look for even others in the location(s) that you're researching.


Library of Congress Digital Collections

The Library of Congress has made many archival items available through online Digital Collections. You can also explore the complete list of Digital Collections to find even more and see the latest additions.

Among digital architectural surveys, and of particular note, the Library of Congress is custodian of the Historic American Buildings Survey / Historic American Engineering Record / Historic American Landscapes Survey collection, a collaborative project since the 1930s between the Library of Congress, the National Park Service, and several professional organizations including a co-founder, the American Institute of Architects. Among the collection that inspired the original Historic American Buildings Survey was the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South, an extensive collection of photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston, also held at the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress also holds additional architectural photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston in a collection of her work. Other photographers have also created survey-like portfolios of architectural photography, including among collections at the Library, the Carol M. Highsmith Archive and the John Margolies popular and roadside architecture collection. For more large collections of architectural photographs at the Library, see our page on Photographs / Visual Materials.

Other Digital Collections

Other significant architectural survey collections are available online through other institutions. They include:

National Surveys

State and Local Surveys

U.S. states and many smaller localities--such as counties, townships, cities, or towns--maintain their own portfolio of historical-architectural surveys and/or slate of historic preservation designations. You can often find these online by searching in a web browser for the name of a location along with the words "historic preservation."  For states, use the abbreviation "SHPO," or consult the list below.

Also included here are several state- and city-level surveys as examples:

In some instances, individuals or institutions have compiled local, state, and regional research resources, including as dictionaries, encyclopedias, checklists, and blogs, to aid in architectural research. Examples include:

For a complete list of subscription databases available on-site at the Library of Congress, see the Library's Electronic Resources page. Databases especially relevant to architectural surveys and historic preservation are listed below. In addition, see the Architectural Resources page of this guide.

The subscription resources marked with a padlock are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available. They may also be available through local or research libraries, through Interlibrary Loan, or for purchase.

Library of Congress Guides

Listed here is content most related to architectural surveys and historic preservation. The Library's collection of research guides continues to grow. Please see our sections on architectural records, on maps, and on photographs, for additional related research guides. Please also see the complete list of Library of Congress research guides for additional guidance.

Research Guides

Story Maps

A Story Map and related blog post look at Frances Benjamin Johnston's role in the Carnegie Survey of the American South:

Other Research Guides and Related Resources

A number of other institutions have created materials especially relevant to architectural surveys and house history research. They include:

Clickable Maps

Information Pages, Blog Posts and Articles


Historically, advocacy organizations have played a significant role in the spread and influence of the historic preservation movement, since before the passage of Historic Preservation Act. Since 1966, and the act's passage, additional government-based organizations have emerged at the federal, state and local levels. Architectural historians, public historians, and preservation professionals have also created organizations for the sharing of procedures, practices, and hands-on knowledge.

Advocacy Organizations and Historic Preservation Non-Profits

Advocacy Organizations and Historic Preservation Non-Profits play a crucial role in the work of gathering architectural history and promoting and maintaining historic preservation. Most states and major localities within them have preservation organizations that can be located by searching online. Try entering the name of a state or place, plus the phrase historic preservation, plus a term such as society or organization, to locate them. Some examples include:

Federal Preservation Organizations

Professional Organizations