We always used to ask, how could the foremost technological nation in the world not have an agency dealing with its technological past,” says Eric DeLony, principal architect for the Historic American Engineering Record, a federal project based in Washington, D.C. He began asking this question in the late 1960s, when, as a graduate student in architecture, he became involved with the Historic American Buildings Survey, the WPA-born archive of historic architecture. Over the next few years DeLony and several colleagues on the survey found themselves increasingly interested in engineering structures, which received relatively little attention at the time—bridges, dams, power plants, milling operations. “We realized,” he says, “that these things are probably the most fragile part of all our built environment. They needed a place to go, to be recognized.”
In 1969 they got one. The Historic American Engineering Record was established as part of the National Park Service. Over its seventeen years HAER has pursued two main projects. First, it has been building a basic inventory of historically important sites. It has identified and documented twelve hundred engineering landmarks, gathering all basic historical information, photographs, and other available material and organizing it in a computerized data system-freely available to architects, engineers, historians, scholars, or anyone else who is interested. But the heart of HAER’s work is its other big project, its summer recording program, which provides far more complete and lavish documentation of especially notable sites. Each year some sixty graduate students in architecture and engineering join HAER as interns and set out for two dozen or so locations, where they prepare maps, photographs, written reports, and detailed architectural renderings, creating a thorough record not only of each structure’s appearance but also of its innermost workings.
The drawings, which follow painstakingly gathered measurements, are done in ink on archivally stable Mylar. They capture with eloquence the machinery of America’s past, frequently just before it disappears forever. They provide overviews of the workings of complex systems such as gun-powder-making plants, iron furnaces, and smelting works. They explode details like wooden gearing systems and steel bridge-girder connections to show how all the pieces fit together. As the selections shown here demonstrate, they display with startling, straightforward clarity the functional beauty of these diverse designs.
All HAER material can be consulted by the public at the Library of Congress.
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