In 2011, the ASLA Northern California Chapter’s Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) subcommittee started the HALS Heroes initiative. Their objective was to encourage more members to create HALS drawings of culturally significant landscapes in Northern California.
The HALS program was created in 2000 through a tripartite agreement between ASLA, the National Park Service, and the Library of Congress. The program is modeled on the Historic American Buildings Survey, which began in 1933, and the Historic American Engineering Record, which began in 1969. Northern California has had an active HALS group since November 2004 and since that time they have held quarterly meetings, given talks to educate people about the program, organized numerous tours to historic landscape sites, and directly or indirectly been responsible for creating documentation for at least 65 California sites.
The HALS Heroes program offers a $1,000 stipend to anyone who produces a minimum one sheet drawing of a cultural landscape in California. The selected site must be approved by the chapter leadership and the drawing must conform to the HALS Measured Drawings Guidelines. Fred Rachman, a HALS chapter member who is trained as an architect, was the first recipient of a HALS Heroes stipend for completing a measured drawing of Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach.
In June 2015, I was asked to give an annual report of the committee’s activities at a chapter board meeting. I brought prints of the HALS drawings that the committee members had created the previous year to the meeting. After my short presentation, I was taken aback when then-chapter president David Nelson, ASLA, proposed that the chapter provide up to five $1,000 stipends to support the program. The board members were enthusiastic and asked me to submit a formal proposal outlining how the program would work. David also stressed that the program seemed ideal for students and encouraged me to seek opportunities to engage students to participate.
I left the meeting both elated and anxious. While thrilled by the unexpected exuberant response to my report, I felt daunted by this new challenge. How would I find a group of students to engage in the program and how much effort would it take on my part to oversee their work?
A few weeks later, I gave a talk on HALS as part of the regular ASLA lecture series. I laid out several sets of HALS drawings for attendees to peruse before and after the talk, and made a point of approaching the young professionals who attended, telling them about the initiative and handing out cards. One of the attendees, Caren Yglesias, Affiliate ASLA, is an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley. We exchanged information after the talk. But, no one called to follow up and express interest in participating, so I decided to contact Caren myself. I also reached out to other professors at UC Berkeley and a few other schools with landscape programs. I was disappointed to learn that the landscape history program at UC Berkeley Extension had closed—I had expected it would be a good source of student applicants.
Fortunately, Caren said she was interested. She was teaching the class LD ARCH 170 – History and Literature of Landscape Architecture and one of her requirements for the course was to complete an independent study project. Caren invited me to visit her class and make a short presentation about the HALS Heroes program. I gave a mini HALS talk and again shared sets of HALS drawings—the latter captured the students’ attention. I’d like to think that it was my persuasive talk that impressed the students, but I fear it more likely that the promise of a $1,000 stipend lured about half the class to sign up for the HALS assignment.
So, suddenly I had five groups of students to work with. Next step—get help. I emailed chapter members explaining what had transpired and pleaded for mentors to volunteer. Fortunately, Sarah Raube, who works for NPS and worked with me and others to documents Sunset Gardens for the annual HALS Challenge volunteered, as did Fred Rachman, a veteran of the HALS Heroes program. I also coerced my business partner Cathy Garret, ASLA, to serve as a mentor. That left me to cover just two groups of students.
I quickly identified a shortlist of potential sites. My self-devised criteria were that the site needed to be worthy of documentation and had not already been done by anyone else, that it needed to be relatively close by and easily accessible by the students, and that it not be too large or complex so the work could be completed in a finite period of time. Preliminary investigation eliminated a couple of sites, leaving the Meyers Home and Garden in Alameda, Greenwood Common in Berkeley, the Potter’s Field at Alhambra Cemetery in Martinez, and two sites in Oakland—De Fremery Park and the Cohen-Bray House in the Fruitvale neighborhood.
Next came the questions. I had 24 students and one instructor that knew nothing about HALS except for what I’d explained and shown them in my 20-minute presentation, and I needed them to produce a HALS drawing that conformed to NPS requirements in less than 3 months. OMG—what had I gotten myself into? After a flurry of questions and myriad emails with attachments like a HALS title block, a correctly formatted metric/imperial scale, the HALS Measured Drawings Guidelines, and explanations of what was required, there was silence for a few weeks.
Wisely, Caren had scheduled me and the students for an interim progress report about a month before the end of the school year. I confess that I showed up for the student presentations with very low expectations. After all, what could I expect? It was an awful lot to imagine that in just a few days these newly formed groups of students would have organized themselves sufficiently so that they could schedule one or more site visits to measure and record the dimensions of their site, complete a CAD drawing in plan view with an annotated legend of materials, correctly identify the species of plants, create a plant list with Latin/Common names and manage to get all this onto the correct title block with a north arrow and scale.
The first group of students gave an animated PowerPoint presentation that explained the history of the site they’d done—the Potter’s Field at Alhambra Cemetery in Martinez. They explained how they had interacted with the local friends group; they had a CAD drawing of the cemetery, a detail showing each individual headstone, photos of the site and a spectacular hand drawing of the hillside with headstones beneath a canopy of live oaks. As they concluded their presentation, the room erupted in applause and I…exhaled thinking “well, at least we have one successful project.”
But the show continued with each group of enthusiastic budding landscape architecture professionals coming forward to present what they had accomplished. Though the level of work and extent of completion varied, I felt all five groups had accomplished the assignment and each had earned their $1,000 reward. And, I had fulfilled my commitment to ASLA…almost.
It took a few more emails to the student leaders of each group to assemble each piece of the required assignment—a CAD file, a PDF, a signed release form, a short written history, and contact info of where to mail the check. Previously I had received progress PDFs of each site, red-lined them, and sent them back to each group leader with specific instructions on what needed to be done to complete their assignment.
Since my interaction with the students was limited, I don’t know any details of how they worked together or how they approached the various tasks involved in the assignment. This project involved many skills that these students will encounter in their future professional careers, including how to measure and draw up a site, how to see and capture what is existing, how to research a site history to help understand what is important about that site, how to use CAD to produce an accurate drawing, how to compose a sheet with a drawing, title, legend, sketches with a title block, north arrow and scale, how to manage one’s time, and, most importantly, how to divide the tasks and work together as a team utilizing each individual’s talents wisely.
And, what did I learn? I learned that I need to be more specific about how the work must be completed and to provide a checklist of required components. I wish I had required each group to meet at least once with their mentor on site. As I’ve visited the sites to verify that the student work is accurate, I am finding where they cut corners in order to complete the assignment. I’m annotating the student drawings in the field and having PGAdesign staff fill in missing details before we submit these projects to NPS to be added to the HALS collection at the Library of Congress.
In July of this year, I again gave my annual report to the ASLA Northern California Chapter Board. Each of the student’s drawings was pinned up in the PGAdesign conference room and I talked about their work as well as the other achievements of our HALS membership. The board members seem keen to continue their support and plan to budget another $5,000 for this initiative—as before, I am both elated and anxious but I am also a bit wiser, for I, too, learned many valuable lessons during the process.