In a response to the rapidly increasing loss of Charlottesville's architectural fabric, Preservation Piedmont runs a city-wide program called Document Before Demolish. The program aims to record jeopardized historic structures through photography, field notes, and measured drawings. Since initiation in 2004, this important program has led to the documentation of more than 80 threatened properties. Most of the buildings on these properties have been demolished but their documentation provides the community with a memory of the architectural and natural fabric of Charlottesville at various points in history. In 2012, Preservation Virginia bestowed a Community Preservation Award on Preservation Piedmont for this important program.

What we do

When our documentation project began in 2004, it had the ambitious goal of using the HABS documentation standards. We have discovered that meeting those standards was a very ambitious goal for an all-volunteer group with a variety of skill-sets. Over the years, we have scaled-back from such rigorous documentations but there are a few other lessons we have learned we would like to share.

  1. The #1 Rule: Always get the property owner's permission to be on the property! Yes, you are saving information for posterity but it is still someone else's private property. Pictures from public spaces, like the street or a sidewalk, are okay if you can't get closer.
  2. A picture is worth 1,000 words and digital pictures are easy to create. Take lots of pictures. You will get the best results if you have two very different photographers: one that focuses on up-close details and one that looks at the big picture.
  3. Measured drawings are great but very time-consuming to do well and they require volunteers with those skills. If you don't have someone who can do a to-scale, computerized measured drawing or don't have someone with that kind of time (yes, those drawings take a lot of time), a simpler alternative is to draw the floor plan and add dimensions, similar to what realtors do. A laser measurer is much better than a 100' measuring tape (says the voice of experience).
  4. Documentation teams work best when you have at least three people: one to take pictures, one to take measurements, and one to write down the measurements. It can work with more or less, depending on who is on the team and their skills.
  5. An experienced team of two can document a small house in less than an hour. The bigger the building, the more time it will take no matter how much experience your team has.
  6. Make an effort to standardize your filing system early on. Putting dates on files helps organize your materials. Keep in mind that many library and historical society collections are currently being digitized and, if you can, make an effort to digitize what you collect (i.e. scan what you write on paper and store it with the digital photographs). Be as consistent as possible.
  7. Decide what you are going to do with your documentation files as soon as you can: where will they live? will you provide public access? if so, how? If you will be depositing your files with a third party, say the local historical society or library, get their input on how you should structure your paper and digital filing systems.
  8. Digital information is easy to lose and hardware can break or melt. Always make at least one back-up copy of your files (we currently have two external hard drives).

Above all, do what works best for your organization.