by Douglas Nelson, ASLA
The following article highlights the importance of documenting historic landscapes for perpetuity. For the 14th annual HALS Challenge competition, the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) invites you to document Working Landscapes. Historic “working” or “productive” landscapes may be agricultural or industrial and unique or traditional. Some topical working landscapes convey water for irrigation or provide flood control. Please focus your HALS report on the landscape as a whole and not on a building or structure alone. For this theme, the HAER History Guidelines may be helpful along with HALS History Guidelines.
I have participated in eight HALS Challenges and was fortunate to have won first place in the 2021 and 2022 Challenges. If you have an interest in historic landscapes, you should consider submitting an entry. Although you might think it is intimidating to enter a national competition, it is best to think of your entry as a way of documenting a landscape that is meaningful to you. All Challenge entries become part of the permanent record for the Historic American Landscapes Survey that is maintained by the Library of Congress. The 2023 HALS Challenge theme is Working Landscapes. This can be interpreted broadly to include many types of landscapes of industry, commerce, agriculture, infrastructure, and other purposes.
Preparing a HALS Challenge entry does not necessarily require a major effort. You can work with one or more partners. My entries have typically been done within spare time over a week or so. From my experience with previous HALS Challenge submissions, I offer the following advice in preparing a successful entry:
Find a Landscape of Interest to You or One that you Already Know
Your interest and passion in the subject landscape should be reflected in your writing. Landscapes that you know well and have experienced will be easier for you to write about. It also helps if the landscape is geographically near you to allow you to visit, study, and photograph it. For the 2022 Challenge theme of Olmsted Landscapes, I chose California’s North Coast Redwood Parks. I thought that this would be a longshot entry because it is not a traditional Olmsted-designed landscape, but Frederick Olmsted, Jr. played a significant role in the planning and establishment of these parks. I know them well and had an interest in learning more about their establishment. To my surprise, it won first place.
Ability to Conduct Research on Your Subject Landscape
Before settling on a subject landscape, have an idea of what kind of existing documentation and research resources exist. If you have limited time to conduct historical research, knowing that you can easily find the historical information needed to support your submittal is important. Existing sources such as National Register documentation, written histories, and access to archival sources will allow you to collect the needed historical information to provide a basis for your statement of significance. I find historical research enjoyable. It is a combination of a treasure hunt and putting together a jigsaw puzzle. These days, much of the research needed can be conducted online or with remote help from archives. For my California’s North Coast Redwood Parks report, a few emails to the Olmsted Archives resulted in extensive correspondence and business records for my project.
Keep it Concise – Use the HALS Short Form History Template
Submittals are structured with the HALS Short Form History template, and as its name suggests, it should be a short, concise report. Follow the directions provided and keep your writing as concise as possible. It will help to look at past successful HALS Challenge entries that can be found on the NPS HALS Challenge and Library of Congress websites. As with any competition, the judges’ time is valuable, so I believe that the shortest entry that fully conveys the history and supports the statement of significance is likely to be judged favorably. The text portion of my last two first place winners were both approximately 10-11 pages of the Short Form template. The complexity of the landscape’s history and characteristics will affect the length of your report, but it is always best to strive for ‘less is more.’
For the HALS Challenge, the Short Form History template includes a judging and rating scale on the last page. This will show you where the scoring points are applied and how much each part is worth.
Focus on the Statement of Significance
The statement of significance is on the first page of the template, and I believe it is the most critical part of a successful entry. I usually skip over this and complete the rest of the report before returning to the statement of significance. It is the first text read by the judges and should make a strong case for why your landscape is significant. The rest of the report should support that conclusion. I believe that the statement of significance should be limited to one well-written, declarative paragraph outlining the who, what, and when of the landscape’s significance. Following are the statements of significance for my two winning entries:
“California’s North Coast Redwood Parks are significant for preserving the best examples of magnificent redwood forests and the world’s tallest trees. It took foresight and stewardship to recognize that these forests would be lost to logging if active conservation efforts were not undertaken in the early twentieth century. Conservationists, including the founders of the Save the Redwoods League, saw the immense value and benefits of preserving these extraordinary natural places for future generations. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. played a key role by providing recommendations for the acquisition, management, and conservation of these parks; and for preserving the economic vitality of the region through sustainable yield forestry practices in areas outside of the parks.”
“Golden Gate Village is significant as a post-World War II public housing project that was created with a goal of providing a racially integrated community based on progressive social and environmental ideals. It was created in response to a need for housing for a racially diverse population that was attracted to the area during World War II to work in the nearby Marinship shipyards. Because of racial covenants and social issues elsewhere in Marin County, Marin City, where Golden Gate Village is located, became the county’s only majority African American community. The landscape design for the campus is unique among public housing projects for its park-like setting in a suburban context, its use of natural topography, and its relationship to the adjacent open space lands of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The landscape design of Golden Gate Village is also significant for its association with landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. The architecture is associated with important mid-century architects Aaron G. Green and John Carl Warnecke. Aaron Green was a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright and this is reflected in the Prairie Style influence evident in the design of the distinctive high-rise residential buildings. The period of significance is 1955 to 1961, representing the period including the planning, site acquisition, design and construction of the complex.”
Describing Your Landscape
This section asks for a description of the physical characteristics of the site. I provide a concise factual description in a few paragraphs. For my California’s North Coast Redwood Parks submittal, I included a brief description of each of the six parks. For my other, more traditional landscape entries, I used an abbreviated cultural landscape report methodology of breaking down the site description into landscape characteristics such as spatial organization, circulation, topography, vegetation, views and vistas, buildings and structures, and small-scale features. The focus should be on the existing conditions today, but you can include a brief statement of how the landscape has changed or evolved over time.
Include a Chronology of Events
Although it is not formally part of the HALS Short Form template, I like to include a year-by-year chronology listing all relevant events and dates associated with the landscape’s history. As I am conducting the research, I build the chronology whenever I find a relevant date and find it useful to me in understanding the history. I think that it also helps the judges digest the history of the landscape without having to reference back to the text.
Document Your Sources
Proper documentation results in higher scoring. Provide footnotes and references for key information in your text and document your sources at the end of the HALS Short Form.
I am a graphic thinker and for me a measured or interpretive drawing is needed for a HALS submittal. This is an optional part of the HALS Challenge entry and is worth up to five bonus points. The HABS, HAER, and HALS programs have a tradition of beautiful drawings, so I have been inspired to include a drawing with each of my HALS Challenge entries. There is a title block and guidelines for drawings available.
For more information on the 2023 HALS Challenge, Working Landscapes, please see this previous post. Between now and the July 31 HALS Challenge deadline, we’ll be showcasing historic landscapes relevant to this year’s theme or documented for previous HALS Challenges. Stay tuned for more HALS posts!
Douglas Nelson, ASLA, is a landscape architect and principal with RHAA Landscape Architects in Mill Valley, CA. He specializes in cultural landscapes and projects in national parks.