Paul Dolinsky – Four Decades of Preservation Through Documentation

by Christopher Stevens, ASLA

Dumbarton Oaks Park recording project
The Historic American Buildings Survey conducted the Dumbarton Oaks Park recording project (HABS DC-571) as part of an ongoing effort to create standards for documenting historic landscapes in 1989 (NPS HDP, 1989). Paul Dolinsky, HABS principal architect, served as project leader. Thomas Ford on bridge; Paul Dolinsky, Jakub Zemler, and Andrew Wenchel (behind). / image: NPS HDP

On Friday, April 12, 2019, Paul D. Dolinsky, ASLA, retired from an almost 40-year career with the National Park Service (NPS) Heritage Documentation Programs (HDP), where he served as Chief of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) from 1994 to 2005; Chief of the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) from 2005 to 2019; and Acting Chief of HDP from 2018 to 2019.

HDP administers HABS, the Federal Government’s oldest preservation program, and its companion programs: the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS). Documentation produced through HABS/HAER/HALS constitutes the nation’s largest archive of historic architectural, engineering, and landscape documentation. Records on more than 40,000 historic sites (consisting of large-format black and white photographs, measured drawings, and written historical reports) are maintained in a special collection at the Library of Congress, available to the public copyright free in both hard copy (at the Library of Congress) and via the Library’s website. It is the most heavily used collection at the Library of Congress’ Division of Prints and Photographs.

Paul Dolinsky and Andrew Meessmann (2009 HALS Intern) conduct field reconnaissance at North Family, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village HALS NY-7 / image: NPS HDP, 2009

Paul was born at Coaldale State Hospital, one of many historic Pennsylvania hospitals established for coal miners, and raised nearby in Nesquehoning, a small town at the base of the Pocono Mountains. Paul graduated from Panther Valley High School in 1972. He then obtained a bachelor of science in landscape architecture from Pennsylvania State University in 1977.

Paul first joined the HABS program on June 6, 1979 as a summer intern in the Washington office. He stayed on and became a permanent government employee in 1984 and Chief of HABS in 1994. As it was stated in the 1933 tripartite agreement between the American Institute of Architects, the Library of Congress, and the NPS that formed HABS, “A comprehensive and continuous national survey is the logical concern of the Federal Government.” As a national survey, the HABS collection was intended to represent “a complete resume of the builder’s art.”

The government began to catch up with academia’s recognition of cultural landscapes in 1985 with the NPS Landscape Initiative. With an increased interest in documenting landscapes, the HABS program hired additional landscape architects. Paul was instrumental in establishing the first two HABS landscape pilot projects. The first was Meridian Hill Park (HABS DC-532) in Washington, D.C., a neoclassical park with an architectonic landscape constructed of exposed aggregate concrete. The National Capital Region later used the HABS plans to produce a Cultural Landscape Report with Treatment, and the park underwent rehabilitation in 2010-2011. The second pilot project, Dumbarton Oaks Park (HABS DC-571), is a 27-acre meadow and forested area in Washington, D.C., with bridle paths. Beatrix Farrand designed it as a naturalistic component of the famed formal Dumbarton Oaks Garden.

Catherine Lavoie, Chief of HABS, and Paul Dolinsky, Chief of HALS, at the 2018 HABS/HAER/HALS Summer Intern final presentation / image: NPS HDP, 2018

As documentation expanded from strictly buildings to engineering sites and processes, it was natural to broaden recording efforts to include landscapes. In response to this need, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Historic Preservation Professional Interest Group—now the Historic Preservation Professional Practice Network (HP-PPN)—worked with the NPS to establish a national program. After years of public advocacy, NPS Director Robert Stanton signed a memorandum establishing HALS as a permanent federal program (with no funding) in October 2000. That same month in St. Louis, Missouri, ASLA, NPS, and the Library of Congress hosted a joint presentation announcing the organizations’ cooperation to develop HALS.

The HALS mission is to record historic landscapes in the United States and its territories through measured drawings and interpretive drawings, written histories, and large-format photographs. The NPS oversees the daily operation of HALS and formulates policies, sets standards, and drafts procedural guidelines in consultation with the ASLA. ASLA provides professional guidance and technical advice through their Historic Preservation Professional Practice Network. The Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress preserves the documentation for posterity and makes it available to the public.

Chris Pattillo, FASLA, and Paul Dolinsky at the 2012 ASLA Council of Fellows Investiture Dinner in Phoenix, Arizona. Chris was invested as a Fellow for her vision and advocacy in the service of HALS. / image: NPS HDP, 2012

In the spring of 2001, Paul hired a temporary HALS historian to begin background research on existing landscape records in the HABS/HAER collection. The prolific landscape documentation recorded for HABS under the Historic American Landscape and Garden Project was rediscovered. The project, funded by the Works Progress Administration, resulted in documentation of many historic Massachusetts gardens between 1935 and 1940. In the summer of 2001, ASLA received a $20,000 National Center for Preservation Technology and Training grant, and planning began for the HALS Landscape Documentation Guidelines Symposia in three venues: New Orleans, LA (March 2002); Philadelphia, PA (May 2002); and San Francisco, CA (October 2002). In 2003, consultants were hired to prepare Draft HALS Landscape Documentation Guidelines. The guidelines were completed in 2005 and released to the public. Paul became the first Chief of HALS that year, and the NPS HALS Program hired a staff landscape architect, Christopher Stevens, in 2008.

During the summer of 2006, Paul initiated one of the largest projects of HALS’ young tenure. Conducted in coordination with the National Capital Region of the National Park Service, the pilot project of the Witness Tree Protection Program aimed to identify and document twenty-four historically and biologically significant trees in the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Previous efforts both inside and outside the NPS had focused on recognizing outstanding specimen trees for either their historical or biological significance, but rarely both. By defining a Witness Tree as one that incorporated historical criteria, such as an association with an important historic figure or event, as well as biological components, including remarkable age, exceptional size, and disease resistance, HALS succeeded in identifying the Washington-area trees with the greatest amount of overall significance, and those that should be of keen interest to the historic preservationist and the plant physiologist alike.

In September 2010, ASLA, NPS, and the Library of Congress signed the Tripartite Agreement to make HALS a permanent federal program. That same month, Paul led a popular one-day HALS Documentation Techniques and Standards field session at local historic landscapes as part of the 2010 ASLA Annual Meeting in Washington. The winners of the first annual HALS Challenge competition, a popular competition for HALS short format written historical reports, were announced and celebrated then, too.

Jon Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service; C. Ford Peatross, Director of the Center for Architecture, Design and Engineering, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress; and Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, American Society of Landscape Architects, Executive Vice President/CEO; renew the Memorandum of Understanding and sign the Tripartite Agreement to make HALS a permanent federal program. / image: ASLA, 2010

For Paul’s final year at the NPS, he served as Acting Chief of the Heritage Documentation Programs in addition to his regular HALS Chief duties. During his long and distinguished year, Paul was a constant champion of heritage documentation. Always an eternal optimist, Paul helmed the ship through good times and through bad. He helped train a generation of architects and landscape architects in heritage documentation. Paul nurtured a close relationship with the critical HALS partners, ASLA and the Library of Congress. He especially appreciates all the years of service and dedication by the ASLA HP-PPN HALS Subcommittee and HALS Liaison Network. This army of cultural landscape enthusiasts has promoted the HALS mission and produced HALS documentation of landscapes across the nation.

Paul Dolinsky presents Marion Pressley with the Third Place award for the 2014 HALS Challenge: Documenting Landscapes of the New Deal for her team’s HALS short format historical report on Mount Greylock State Reservation HALS MA-2 / image: NPS HDP, 2014
Paul Dolinsky congratulates Helen Erickson on her team’s First Place award for the 2016 HALS Challenge: Documenting National Register Listed Landscapes for their HALS short format historical report on Empire Ranch HALS AZ-19 / image: NPS HDP, 2016

Some of Paul’s favorite documentation projects in which he participated:

Asa Packer Mansion HABS PA-5330

Death Valley Ranch, Main House (Scotty’s Castle) HABS CA-2257-A

Kenmore HABS VA-305

Lincoln Memorial HABS DC-3

White House HABS DC-37

Meridian Hill Park HABS DC-532

Dumbarton Oaks Park HABS DC-571

Missouri Botanical Garden HABS MO-1135

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park HALS VT-1

North Family, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village HALS NY-7

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery & Memorial HALS US-2

Christopher Stevens, ASLA, is Landscape Architect, Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS), National Park Service. He is also Past Chair of the ASLA Historic Preservation Professional Practice Network (PPN), and current ASLA HALS Subcommittee Chair / Coordinator.

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