Sunday, November 15, 2009

HALS Documentation - What's involved?

Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) documentation has three components – a written history, drawings and photography. The part that I am most familiar with is the drawings. My firm, PGAdesign has completed HALS drawings for three sites, and is actively engaged in preparing drawings for Doyle Drive at the Presidio in San Francisco. The photos in this posting are from Doyle Drive.

HALS Guidelines for each component describe how to prepare the documentation. The Guidelines for drawings, lists several different types of drawings that can be used to illustrate a particular landscape. The difficulty is that the guidelines were written to be used for all types of landscapes – from a small, formal residential garden to the White House grounds. The challenge is to select what drawings will best convey what a landscape looks like.

In the case of Doyle Drive, which is a large (1.2 mile long) and complex landscape, we are preparing several different types of drawings. The vegetation plans show trees and shrubs. Unique graphic symbols are used for different species of trees. Shrubs are categorized by size – low, medium and high. Species are listed in a plant list.

Our “Built Environment Plans” show “hardscape” features, i.e. Walls, paving, stairs, ramps, fences, etc. Another set of drawings illustrate views. The external views diagram shows what can be viewed outside the site – like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the East Bay Hills. Three internal views diagrams highlight what can be see within the site, including the national cemetery, the historic stables buildings, and the batteries. A battery is where the artillery was mounted to defend the presidio.

The existence of the bluff, that overlooks the bay, is one of the strategic reasons why the presidio is located where it is. This bluff provided an elevated vantage point to see enemy ships. It also divides the presidio topographically. Crissy Field is just slightly above high tide while most of the presidio is elevated above the bluff. Today, the presidio is no longer a military facility. It is a national park and recreation area, so the new design for Doyle Drive includes re-grading, to better connect the upper and lower portions of the site. Portions of the bluff will be cut down by this grading and an important feature will no longer exist. Capturing the bluff and recording it, is important to understanding this site. Our section drawings, being completed by Janet Grayck, illustrate the topography of the landscape. These drawings show the bluff and the relationship between the upper and lower portions of the site.

Ultimately, these drawings along with the written narrative and HALS photographs will reside at the Library of Congress accessible to future researchers, and to the public online. Our drawings will show what the landscape around Doyle Drive was like in 2009, before it was changed. In this way, a piece of our national heritage is being preserved, which is one answer to the question, “What is the purpose of HALS?”


  1. Interesting post - helped me to understand a lot about your process. What about people? Do the drawings also help to document the presence of humans and what they are doing at the site?

  2. Sarka,

    Interesting question. Yes, HALS does document the impact of people on the landscape. HALS is for landscapes that have been "touched" by man, which is to say they may be "designed" or "vernacular". In either case they have been created by people. This as contrasted to a natural landscape. HALS drawings depict the landscape as it exists at "a moment in time" - current time. The historic narrative describes the site's history and explains how the landscape came to be as it is today. Hope this clarifies.