If you’re selling a historic home, particularly a prominent one built in the 17th, 18th or 19th century, there may be a treasure trove of floorplans, architectural drawings, and photographs for your home online at the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). HABS began in 1933 as a program to find meaningful work for thousands of architects (and photographers) left unemployed when the Great depression virtually brought construction in America to a halt. From 1934 to 1940, architectural survey teams documented thousands of homes, public buildings, and other structures, dating from the early 1600s through the mid-1800s. The program continues to this day, and the collection now includes more than 500,000 drawings documenting more than 38,000 historic structures across the country.
You can search for towns, street names, or names of people associated with the house. The site is also indexed by place and by subject. You’ll need to know what county a house or area is located in, but if you do, browsing by place may uncover one or several nearby historic homes. If you’re looking for windmills, lighthouses, Arts & Crafts Houses, mansard roofs, or saloons, or any other type of property, you can browse through those categories with the “subject ” search.
Some properties have a short data sheet and one photo, while others have dozens of pages with floorplans, drawings of architectural details, elevations, molding profiles, tens of photos, and extensive historical documentation. You’ll get a sense of the range of some of the best-documented properties by visiting the HABS highlights page. The pages can be printed out and make for nice additions to marketing packages. Adding one of the HABS photographs to an MLS listing or online presentation also ought to catch a historic home buyer’s eye.
The HABS site is also interesting for what it reveals about changes to houses over time. In Alexandria, Virginia in the 1790s, merchant Jonah Thompson built two houses side by side, joined by a connecting passageway and entrance court. In the 1940s, the HABS surveyor described the house- “This is one of the superlative buildings of Alexandria and though sadly abused and bereft of much of its original woodwork, remains one of the most interesting and appealing structures to be found.” The HABS entry for the Jonah Thompson house includes a lengthier description of many of the house’s features, and several photos. The image on the left is one of those photos from the 1940s HABS survey, while the one on the right is the same side of the house in a more recent photo.
The house has obviously undergone quite a bit of renovation. It still is a superlative property, though, and it’s currently for sale by Virginia Smith of Arlington Realty. At $2.85 Million, its days of “sad abuse” are clearly well behind it.