In 1933, four years after the stock-market crash that kicked off the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), a make-work program for unemployed architects, draftsmen, and photographers. Soon HABS recorders began streaming into every state of the union, where they documented America's architectural heritage—and, in the process, laid the groundwork for the emerging historic preservation movement.

Compared with bulwarks of the New Deal like the Civilian Conservation Corps and agricultural subsidies, HABS was a minor program, yet its impact has been profound and enduring. Remarkably, "it's the only work relief program of the '30s that still continues in some form," notes C. Ford Peatross, director of the Center for Architecture, Design, and Engineering at the Library of Congress. Co-administered by the National Park Service, the Library of Congress, and the AIA, HABS and its newer sister programs, the Historic American Engineering Record and the Historic American Landscapes Survey, have yielded an archive of 550,000 drawings and photographs of 38,000 sites and structures. These have helped generations of architects and historians better understand the built environments of the past.

An early HABS employee, M. James Slack, documented Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico—the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America—in 1934.

An early HABS employee, M. James Slack, documented Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico—the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America—in 1934.

Credit: Library of Congress

Today, documentation is done mainly by student teams working in the summer. You don't have to be a design professional or scholar to enjoy the fruits of their labor: HABS records are online, at loc.gov/rr/print/catalog.html, and fully accessible to (and downloadable by) the public, with no restrictions on use. HABS "has always been one of our highest-use collections," Peatross says, and is now becoming a popular online tool for K-12 education.