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October 15, 2014
by James Way
Teresa Harris, Ph.D., Project Coordinator, Marcel Breuer Digital Archive, Syracuse University; John Arbuckle, Assoc. AIA, Co-chair, AIANY Historic Buildings Committee; Mary Beth Betts, Ph.D., Director of Research, Landmarks Preservation Commission; Donald Friedman, P.E., President, Old Structures Engineering; Nancy A. Rankin, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, John G. Waite Associates; and and Nathan Hoyt, FAIA, Architect

With an increasingly historicized New York City, the number of landmarked or historical districts in which architects will work is only increasing.  The panel “Keeping it Real: Researching Historical Buildings” included representatives from the architectural and engineering professions, an academic, and a director of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. Each looked at research and data collection in order to navigate preservation laws and renovations for historical buildings.

Existing archives are the foremost place one should check. Few will be as thorough as the Marcel Breuer Digital Archive at Syracuse University, where Theresa Harris, Ph.D., is project coordinator. She suggested looking for established works – archives, books, letters, memoirs, local historical organizations – before getting into deeper research in more extensive collections and databases. Language is a key to research. “Know the language of archivists,” Harris advised; she suggested keywords such as “files” and “papers” rather than merely “archives.” Of course, more well-known and documented architects as Breuer will have stronger foundations.

Echoing more established resources as launching points, Mary Beth Betts, Ph.D., provided a description of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, where she is the director of research. Beyond the usual repositories, Betts suggested subway documentation because nearby buildings are often included in reports and photos. “Fires are your friends, in terms of research,” Betts exclaimed, seemingly counter intuitively. However, she explained that fire and insurance reports contain extensive descriptions of building materials, means, and methods.

Nancy A. Rankin, AIA, principal at John G. Waite Associates, used two of her firm’s restorations – Hamilton Grange and the Old Nassau County Courthouse – as examples of how she compiles existing condition reports. She then updates these with whatever treatments her firm makes, not only as project documentation, but also as a basis for any future projects. If answers aren’t readily available, one must look at the project’s contemporaries to make “a connection to the past that makes the building come alive,” she said Tying into architectural investigation, Donald Friedman, P.E., president of Old Structures Engineering, focuses on structural forensics because structural drawings emerged only well into the 19th century. Rather, annotations were often included on architectural or shop drawings, and with taller buildings, only on those levels where the structure changed. “Be very inclusive in what you look for,” Friedman encouraged. In addition to legal documents that can include all sorts of details and commentary, photos of more famous buildings can include evidence of less noteworthy buildings in the background.

Rarely will the stories of historical buildings be ready for reading. A sleuthful approach and forensic research will reveal, perhaps, the hidden stories, structures, and situations of a building’s past as much of our building stock moves from aging to historic.

James Way, Assoc. AIA, Marketing Manager at Dattner Architects, frequently contributes to eOculus

Event: Keeping It Real: Researching Historical Buildings
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.07.14
Speakers: Mary Beth Betts, Ph.D., Director of Research, Landmarks Preservation Commission; Donald Friedman, P.E., President, Old Structures Engineering; Teresa Harris, Ph.D., Project Coordinator, Marcel Breuer Digital Archive, Syracuse University; Nancy A. Rankin, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, John G. Waite Associates; and Nathan Hoyt, FAIA, Architect (moderator)
Organized by: AIANY Historic Buildings Committee
Sponsored by: Artistry in Architectural Grilles

 

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