SurveyLA Training – about Historic Contexts and Themes

How do you determine if a particular building or property is historically significant?

The SurveyLA project is based on the same concepts the National Parks Department uses in evaluating resources for the National Register of Historic Places: age, integrity, and significance. From the NPS site:

  • Age and Integrity. Is the property old enough to be considered historic? [Generally for the National Register, properties usually need to be 50 years old or older. For the California state register and for the City’s criteria there is no such age requirement. For now, the SurveyLA project is looking only at properties that date from before 1980.]
  • Does it have historical integrity? Doe it still look much the way it did in the past? [Appearance is only one part of integrity, however. Integrity also includes location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association.
  • Significance. Is the property associated with events, activities, or developments that were important in the past? With the lives of people who were important in the past? With significant architectural history, landscape history, or engineering achievements? Does it have the potential to yield information through archeological investigation about our past?

That’s all pretty basic, and I think I understood those ideas right away when I started as an intern with the survey project. What’s more complicated is the idea of historic contexts and themes.

In a nutshell, historic contexts and themes are just categories that allow us to think about the significance of multiple historic resources at the same time, rather than thinking about every historic property as a totally unique thing.

So, for example, the city of Milwaukee, WI had a huge amount of industrial development in the late 19th and early 20th century because of its position on grain-shipping routes across the Great Lakes, and one of the major industries that developed was brewing beer. Today, there are several major historic brewery structures left in the city. So it might make sense to establish a context of “Industrial Development” as a way of considering the city’s history.

Within that context, “Beer and brewing” could be a theme, allowing us to consider all the remaining breweries as a group and also to compare them with each other. As a group, they are clearly significant for their role in the city’s history. But it worthwhile to preserve all of them? Once the theme is established, it’s possible to answer that question by looking at the entire group of thematic properties and deciding if all of them convey some important historical information or association, or if perhaps only some of them are particularly representative of this history. It’s also possible to look at the group of thematic properties and to decide if any are unique within the group itself—for example, the very first brewery established might have a special and unique significance when compared with others that fall under the same theme.

For the SurveyLA project, one of the major tasks has been to develop a Historic Context Statement that covers not just one thing, like the industrial development of the city, but ALL important aspects of its history that might be reflected in the built environment. There are two parts to developing the historic contexts and themes. The first is a set of deeply-researched reports, by a huge range of experts in various fields, that tells the story of each aspect of the city’s history and how those histories are associated with the built environment. The second part involves turning that research into a set of categories and sub-categories—the themes and sub-themes that will be used to catalog properties in the survey itself.

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About Steve Duncan

Urban explorer, photographer, and historian.
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