By Kim Williams
The D.C. Historic Preservation Office has recently launched an application called HistoryQuest DC. This interactive map that provides historical data about approximately 127,000 of the city’s buildings is a user-friendly new tool for scholars, researchers, students, and preservationists interested in historic buildings, historic neighborhoods, development patterns, and the city’s built environment. But beware: in addition to simplifying the process of researching D.C. buildings, the map has been described as a “serious time suck in the best of ways” for those interested in the city’s historical fabric.
In an effort to boost public awareness and appreciation of D.C.’s architectural heritage while also providing access to information about its built environment, the D.C. Historic Preservation Office set out to produce a visually alluring map showing the city’s building footprints with historical information attached to them. This application does that and more: it offers several operational layers of information, including historical data on individual buildings, links to documentation about properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, information on historical residential subdivisions, and identification of the city’s historic districts and their boundaries. HistoryQuest will also help the Historic Preservation Office achieve its ongoing goal of identifying and evaluating historic properties and planning for their preservation.
The featured layer in the HistoryQuest application—“Historical Data on DC Buildings”—provides the original dates of construction; names of the original architects, owners, and builders; insight into original building use; and other details. The data come from a variety of sources, the largest being the city’s building permit records. These records include completed applications for building permits, which provide information ranging from the names of the owner and architect, to the building use, to the types of materials proposed in construction. Starting in 1877 the city required permits for the construction of new buildings, alterations and additions to existing ones, moving buildings, and more. Over the course of a 10-year period, the Historic Preservation Office transcribed these historically rich building permits into an Access database, which required systematically sorting through approximately 100,000 permit applications. While that database does remain available to the public, the information is now accessible through the significantly more user friendly HistoryQuest.
In addition to providing easy retrieval of historical data, HistoryQuest also includes a query tool that allows users to filter the historical data within a specified geographic area or across the entire city. By querying a certain architect or owner, for instance, users can see all buildings associated with that person, both highlighted on the map and on a list. Queries by construction dates or construction date ranges can elucidate chronological or development patterns by street or neighborhood as well as citywide.
HistoryQuest, hosted on ArcGIS, the mapping and analytics platform from geographic information system software supplier Esri, is a work in progress and will be continuously updated in both a systematic and a piecemeal way as new information becomes available. For instance, additional research will more accurately date those buildings that were constructed before the introduction of the building permit system, including many of the buildings in the Capitol Hill and Georgetown historic districts. Dating “pre-permit” buildings is a challenging and time-consuming process of researching maps, tax assessment records, city directories, census records, and other primary source materials.
A similar approach will trace the histories of buildings constructed after 1949. Building permit applications dated after 1949, currently in boxes at the D.C. Archives, are being processed and made available to the public. In the meanwhile, post-1949 buildings are being dated using maps, newspaper research, real estate directories, and other sources.
Since launching at the end of November 2016, HistoryQuest has attracted 1,600 unique users, ranging from residents; to students and scholars; to preservationists interested in the history of individual buildings, specific neighborhoods, and the entire city. The application encourages users to share new information or propose revisions to existing information. Users can submit requested changes and append information, allowing the Office of Planning to regularly make revisions and additions as appropriate. To date 63 data changes have been proposed and reviewed.
HistoryQuest, created through a contract with JMT Technology Group, was made possible through the National Park Service Historic Preservation Fund. It is available to the public for general information and interest, as well as for preservation-related research and analysis. The D.C. Office of Planning intends to make the full dataset that populates HistoryQuest maps available on the opendata page in the future, which would allow the public to make its own maps and applications. HistoryQuest is an innovative tool that could readily be used as a model for other cities or entities interested in mapping information about their historic buildings.
Kim Williams is an architectural historian and the National Register coordinator at the D.C. Historic Preservation Office.
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