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CHAD Receives Grant to Digitize Archives of Lost and Disappearing Mid-Atlantic Architecture

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Historic commercial building in 700 block of King Street, Wilmington, Delaware, now demolished but represented in the CHAD Archives.

By Chandra L. Reedy, Catherine Morrissey, and Michael J. Emmons, Jr.

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) recently announced that the Center for Historic Architecture and Design (CHAD) was chosen as one of only 17 projects to fund from over 100 applications to the 2018 Digitizing Hidden Collections program. 

With this grant, CHAD will undertake a major two-year project to create an online database, where researchers and members of the public can access CHAD's expansive collection of architectural documentationfeaturing about 5,000 historic properties in the Mid-Atlantic. Catherine Morrissey, CHAD's assistant director, will serve as principal investigator for the grant.

This exciting new digitization initiative will make the CHAD resources widely available to students, scholars, historic preservation and planning professionals, and the general public through an open access, searchable database on the University of Delaware's Library, Museums and Press website. The digitized collection will also be hosted by the Library of Congress in the Historic American Buildings Survey collection, searchable by a variety of descriptive metadata. These two highly visible online locations will draw national attention to CHAD and to its architectural documentation programs.

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Catherine Morrissey, CHAD assistant director, project PI.

The CHAD archive consists of 35 years of field documentation, photographs, and reports on historic structures, with a focus on the Mid-Atlantic region (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Washington, DC). Since historic buildings and landscapes cannot always be saved, the last resort in the face of demolition and new development is to record these places in photographs and measured architectural drawings, preserving them at least on paper and film for future researchers. Structures documented include a wide array of building types including private residences, commercial structures, and agricultural complexesas well as unique resources such as canal locks, historic gardens, cemeteries, and even a historic oyster barge from New York City. In many cases, CHAD's hand-drafted measured drawings and photographs are the last surviving record of long-since-demolished historic propertiesand an estimated three-quarters of these documented resources are now gone.

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Print from large format negatives in CHAD archives showing Oliphant House exterior (left) and interior (right), Laurel DE.

Since the early 1980s, CHAD has been documenting historic structures threatened by development through its Mid-Atlantic Historic Buildings and Landscapes Survey program. This core research activity of CHAD is responsible for survey and documentation of historic properties and landscapes, including cultural resource survey, nominations of buildings and historic districts to the National Register of Historic Places, and the creation of historic zoning overlays. The CHAD collection is thus the largest repository of architectural documentation of vernacular buildings in the Mid-Atlantic, making it an invaluable resource for outside researchers from Delaware, the Mid-Atlantic, and beyond. However, since very little of the collection is in digital form, the materials currently can only be accessed by visiting the collection in UD's Alison Hall.

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historic house drawings

Scan of ink on mylar, Oliphant House drawings in CHAD Archives, Laurel DE.

Providing digitized versions of both finalized drawings and fieldnotes will provide researchers with the full range of information captured by CHAD. Accompanying photographs and negatives, along with final reports incorporating oral histories and archival research, provides a complete package of information useful in understanding the physical aspects of historic places. Finding aids and descriptive metadata will facilitate use of the collection materials to explore a variety of chronological, regional, stylistic, and material themes. Examples of such themes might include searches for timber frame construction; agricultural outbuildings; or the chronology of Greek Revival style buildings in the Mid-Atlantic.

As part of the grant-funded project, an engaging online exhibition using newly digitized materials will be featured on the CHAD websiteserving to draw attention to the digitized archives, while ultimately directing more potential users to explore the CHAD collections at the University of Delaware and the Library of Congress. As a result of this new grant, important and unique resources reflecting 35 years of CHAD fieldwork will no longer remain "hidden" in Alison Hall.

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