David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
It took the city’s office of historic preservation more than 15 years to make, covers 127,000 buildings, and it’s still not quite finished.
If you like history, maps, weird old buildings, and killing time on the internet, you, my friend, have come to the right place. This week, Washington, D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office flicked the switch on their latest project—HistoryQuest DC, a truly magnificent interactive GIS map stuffed with info on some 127,000 buildings in the District, from the White House and the Capitol on down to the funkiest little alley rowhouse.
Here, for example, is the Smithsonian’s “Castle,” built in 1851.
Users can zoom in to individual blocks and get a house-by-house accounting of when each building went up, plus details like foundation and roof materials, builders and architects, and the names of the original owners. Toggling the map’s operational layers reveals historic district and ward boundaries, the location of landmarked buildings, and all manner of other intel.
The age of buildings is color-coded, with the older structures in dark browns and more recent ones in shades of yellow and orange. The project reflects more than 15 years of work, says the State Historic Preservation Officer David Maloney, who’s been fielding inquiries about the map since it went live on Monday. “Had I known we were going to get so many comments, I would have made more of a media splash,” he says.
Much of the data used to create the map came from the D.C. Historical Building Permits Database, a vast index compiled between 2000 and 2010. This database spans buildings that were constructed between 1877 and 1950, which turns out to be about 85 percent of the city’s current stock. For older and newer structures, the team dug into tax records and other sources. It took them another six years or so to build the GIS map itself, and they’re still filling in gaps and extending the coverage. But the wealth of information available here is enough to keep D.C. history wonks and armchair preservationists busy for a long, long time.
That was the idea, says Maloney: “You can’t get the same feel for the information by looking at a database. This has been a goal of ours—to get people to explore historic places and have fun with it.”
One thing the map exposes very dramatically is the extent to which the heavily touristed and monument-laden areas in the city’s downtown area are bright yellow with modern development; zoom out and the 19th century re-appears in a dense residential fabric of smaller homes and businesses. Many of those buildings, Maloney notes, aren’t considered officially historic, but they’re important nonetheless to maintaining the District’s distinctive mix. “We’re trying to get people to think less in terms of what’s historic and think more broadly—what properties are valuable to the city regardless of designation?”
Similar maps exist for other cities—check out Los Angeles Conservancy’s interactive map of L.A.’s historic places, for example. But few, if any, have HistoryQuest DC’s level of detail.
To help the Historic Preservation Office fill in the gaps and add more information, users are invited to chime in with updates and changes via a form on the map itself, or contact the office directly at email@example.com.