JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. 113 to 119)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. 113 to 119)



ABSTRACT—The Historic House Trust of New York City, a nonprofit organization that manages the 22 historic sites owned by the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation, has turned to technology to facilitate the preservation of these resources. An extensive information system, or collection of databases, tracks data pertaining to or about the structure; digital cameras provide documentation and imagery; and a geographic information system combines the data and images for analysis and visualization of the issues affecting the structures. This article will describe the different technologies and how the Trust uses them to effectively manage cultural resources.

TITRE—La technologie dans la gestion des biens culturels: le syst�me d'information du Historic House Trust. R�SUM�—Le Historic House Trust (Trust pour les maisons historiques) de la ville de New York, une organisation � but non lucratif qui g�re les 22 sites historiques appartenant au service des parcs et de r�cr�ation de la ville de New York, s'est tourn� vers la technologie pour faciliter la pr�servation de ses biens. Un syst�me d'information tr�s �labor�, qui consiste en une s�rie de bases de donn�es, capture les informations concernant chaque structure; des appareils photo num�riques fournissent la documentation visuelle et l'illustration; enfin, un syst�me d'information g�ographique combine les donn�es et les images pour l'analyse et la visualisation des probl�mes affectant les structures. Cet article d�crit les diff�rentes technologies et comment le trust les emploie pour g�rer efficacement ses biens culturels.

TITULO—Tecnologia para el manejo de los recursos culturales: el sistema de informacion del Historic House Trust. RESUMEN—El Historic House Trust de la ciudad de Nueva York, una organizaci�n sin fines de lucro que maneja 22 sitios hist�ricos que son propiedad del Departamento de Parques y Recreaci�n de la ciudad de Nueva York, ha recurrido a la tecnolog�a para facilitar la preservaci�n de esos recursos. Cuenta con: un sistema de informaci�n extenso, o recopilaci�n de datos, que ubica los datos que pertenecen a la estructura o est�n relacionados con ella; c�maras digitales que proporcionan documentaci�n e im�genes; y un sistema de informaci�n geogr�fica que combina los datos y las im�genes para el an�lisis y la visualizaci�n de los temas que se relacionan con las estructuras. Este art�culo describir� las diferentes tecnolog�as y c�mo las usa la fundaci�n para manejar eficazmente los recursos culturales.


Managing a collection of 22 historic sites operated by nonprofits would be a challenging matter for any organization. On a daily basis, numerous issues affect the sites, from minor maintenance to major conservation and preservation issues. There are the challenges of working with the nonprofit stewards of each individual site, as well as with the legal owner of all the sites, the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). To manage all these responsibilities, the Historic House Trust of New York City has implemented an extensive collection of databases, or an information system (IS). Building on the data in the IS, a geographic information system (GIS) component has been implemented for additional analysis and informational display. Information systems, GIS, and other digital media have resulted in more informed and efficient management of the sites.


Located throughout the five boroughs of New York City are 22 historic sites owned by the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation. DPR, with more than 28,000 acres of parkland, is faced with an immense management task in operating the many different aspects of an urban park. DPR routinely licenses the use of specific properties for park-related activities, and the historic properties are no different. All 22 sites, a collection consisting of more than 80 historic structures, are licensed out by the city to separate nonprofits. In 1989, faced with a massive park system, declining resources, and the specialized needs of historic properties, DPR realized that its management of historic sites and these licensees would be greatly improved with the creation of a nonprofit professional preservation organization to oversee the entire collection, working in collaboration with DPR. Thus the Historic House Trust of New York City (“the Trust”) was formed, with the mission to preserve and promote these historic houses.

The Trust fulfills its mission by providing a number of services for the sites on a regional, borough-level, and site-specific basis. The Trust has several divisions dedicated to this task, including development, marketing, property management, GIS, curatorial, and architectural conservation. These divisions provide a wide range of services to the houses: advertising and marketing of the sites and events; technical assistance in preservation, conservation, and curatorial and programmatic issues; coordination with DPR to ensure that maintenance and capital projects are provided to the houses in an appropriate manner. The Trust provides a unified voice for the houses not only to the public at large but also within DPR.

The sites represent a rich and diverse collection of structures. They include the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House, built ca. 1652, the oldest remaining wood structure in New York state; and the Little Red Lighthouse, a late-19th-century lighthouse located under the George Washington Bridge. The greatest massing of structures is Historic Richmond Town, featuring 30 historic structures on Staten Island. A diverse group, the houses are operated as museums, exhibit space, or even, in the case of the Queens County Farm Museum, an early-20th-century working farm. While important to the history and development of New York City, the structures also represent state and national significance, with 20 structures on the National Register of Historic Places and 10 National Historic Landmarks.

The Trust oversees the collection, but the daily management of the sites is in the hands of an equally diverse group of nonprofit stewards. The National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York, operating Van Cortlandt Mansion since 1896, and the International Garden Club, operating Bartow-Pell Manor since 1914, are examples of the oldest of these groups. Some organizations, like the Bronx County Historical Society or the Queens Historical Society, have a broad mission dealing with borough-wide historical resources. Regardless of their missions, all these organizations serve an important role: they are at the sites on a daily basis and provide the site-specific tours, the educational programming, and special events.

The Trust, then, is immersed in the macromanagement of the houses on behalf of DPR but also provides individualized technical preservation assistance to the individual sites. Looking for methods to efficiently manage all its responsibilities with the resources available, the Trust created the Historic House Trust Information System.


The Historic House Trust Information System (HHTIS) is a Microsoft Access database designed for multiple purposes. Property management was the impetus for the system; however, more uses were envisioned and designed. For the conservation division, assessment surveys were added and then a project management system. Finally, an attendance-tracking database was created for analysis of site visitation. These systems are all linked together and create a robust IS for the management of historic resources. Easy-to-use switchboards and data entry screens were designed to facilitate its use by those not familiar with the technology. Two additional systems are being used by the Trust. The first predates the HHTIS and is used for membership and development, and the second is a commercially available collection-management software purchased to standardize each site's software and enable the Trust to assist with the management of the site's collections. The property management and conservation aspects will be discussed below.


The property management portion of HHTIS was designed to provide quick answers to routine and not-so-routine questions. More than 400 unique pieces of information about each structure are stored in the system in a number of categories. The system tracks such basic information as current names, historic aliases, addresses and other geographically sensitive information, as well as license and licensee information. For historical information, the system contains construction dates, alteration dates, a chronology of building campaigns at the structure, the different levels of historic certification, and other crucial pieces of information about the history of the site and structure. The system stores the structure's base information regarding the exterior envelope, including materials and conditions of the structure, roofing, flashing, chimneys, and water dispersion systems. Additionally, mechanical system and utility information are included with information about electric, heat, HVAC, water, sewer, fire, and intruder alarm information and the structure's history of pest infestation. A section has been included to aid in the management of the cultural landscapes surrounding the structures, and another to log work orders generated for DPR by the historic houses to better track the progress of work.

To access these data sets, an easy recall system has been created to answer basic questions. From the name of the caretaker at the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage to which structures need an oil delivery in preparation for tonight's blizzard, the answers to all categories of questions are easily accessible. Of course, this information does not just appear in the database; it must be gathered and entered, but this process is a valuable exercise. Site visits, archival research, and interviews with the site stewards all create powerful insight into a structure and its maintenance needs.


The conservation division's demands from this system are different from basic building maintenance information. The HHTIS was developed to assist the conservators with planning and tracking conservation, restoration, and capital improvement projects. A number of systems were developed to facilitate these tasks. The first is a facade-by-facade survey of all the structures in the collection, the second is an interior room-by-room survey, and the third is a project management system that enables Trust staff to track all the concurrent projects at the sites.

3.2.1 Facade-by-Facade Surveys

A facade-by-facade survey of each structure, modeled after the Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) assessment, was integrated into the HHTIS. Three categories of information—materials, conditions, and condition comments—are collected for the following features: overall wall structure, materials and finishes, cornices, windows, shutters, doors and door surrounds, water dispersion, porches, decorative features, foundation, and bulkheads. Site visits are required to gather these data, and, again, interviews with the site staff help provide a more complete record of the issues affecting the structure. The data are then entered into the system and are categorized, under the appropriate structure, first by date and then by specific facade. Future and past surveys can be entered in the same manner.

3.2.2 Issues with the Survey

The HHTIS was created for ease of use and for simplicity in querying data. However, when the conservation system was being designed, a number of issues had to be confronted, including standards for condition assessments and the level of detail in the surveys.

To create a reliable system, a set of standards for determining the condition of a material or set of materials had to be created. Each material's condition potentially could be based on a different set of criteria, creating a complex set of relationships in the database among materials and condition fields. Since standards would help ensure consistency and also make the database easier to use, the solution was to use the terms “Excellent,” “Good,” “Fair,” and “Poor.” These terms do not stand for a specific material condition (e.g., spalling brick) but rather represent a time frame for failure. “Poor” implies that the feature requires immediate attention, or failure of the material is imminent. “Fair” indicates a six-month-to-two-year time frame. “Good” implies that the feature may need attention within two years, and “Excellent” indicates there are no apparent issues with the material.

Certainly, a condition field that references a time frame for failure rather than an actual material condition is incomplete. In the office, it is barely sufficient to know that the material is in “fair” condition because it does not help one plan for the actual treatment of the material or feature. Comment fields adjoin every feature's material and condition fields in order to qualify and describe the conditions affecting the material in question. So, if a brick wall was in “poor” condition, the comment field would contain the specifics such as “spalling due to improper mortar, rising damp” and, conclusively, “major brick damage.”

The second issue concerns the level of detail in the survey. Planning discussions covered both ends of the spectrum, from a bare-bones survey that, for example, gave one condition to all the windows of the structure, to a detailed survey of each window. The middle ground was chosen, a facade-by-facade survey, as the most reasonable solution. In the facade-by-facade survey, windows and their condition are grouped by facade. Certainly, with 12 windows on a facade, the ability to accurately analyze and define conditions is compromised. In line with the aim only to identify analogous problems with the structure and not treatments, a facade-inclusive condition provides a look into the trends of a structure. Once a trend has been identified, the Trust will send staff to perform an in-depth survey of the features in question or, depending on the scope or complexity of the issue, hire a consultant.

3.2.3 Room-by-Room Surveys

In the same manner that the facade-by-facade survey was developed, a room-by-room survey was integrated into the HHTIS. The same categories of information collected for the features on a facade—materials, conditions, and condition comments—are collected for the interior architectural details of the structure. These features include floor, ceiling, and wall materials and finishes; information about the different wood elements that may be in the room; the different decorative details in a room; the interior condition of the windows and interior shutters, including their operability; door conditions; and information about fireplaces and mantelpieces.

3.2.4 Project Planning

After the data from the surveys are entered in the system, they are available for analysis and printed reports. Many questions can now be answered without relying on memory or requiring a site visit—for example, the windows on the east facade are in poor condition, a structure requires a new paint job, or site drainage is not sufficient. As the database grows, comparative analysis can occur: the windows on the east facade have become progressively worse in condition since the 1985 survey (entered into the system) or the pointing problem highlighted in 1980 has yet to be resolved.

Priority lists and project wish lists can now be generated with an understanding of the issues at the site. The Trust is continually juggling different potential sources of funds for projects. Major restoration projects often occur through the City of New York's capital process, and small projects are often funded on a case-by-case basis. Trust staff use the surveys and the time frames that the condition fields provide to assess the urgency of different projects, allowing priority lists to be generated with respect to actual known conditions. From a small project to a large project, the overall information required to create a prioritized project list is in the HHTIS.

3.2.5 Future Improvements To Survey Database

There are several functions not currently built into the current system. The ability to forecast cost implications, while an incredibly useful tool for project planning, has not yet been incorporated. The integration of an estimator's guide for preservation projects would allow basic cost estimates to be generated by linking a digital form of the guide with the known material conditions in the HHTIS. In addition, the system does not include detailed surveys of individual features, the type of survey that would be appropriate for inclusion in a detailed project scope. As is the case with determining cost implications, this function has a potential future application and would expand the utility of the system.

3.2.6 Project Management

The third portion of the conservation IS is the project management database. This system was developed to track all aspects of each conservation, preservation, or facility improvement project monitored by the Trust, including any Trust-sponsored project, projects funded by the individual sites or through grants, or DPR capital improvement projects. Each project is entered into the system with such key information as budgets and funding sources, contractors and contact numbers, and project descriptions. The database also features a log sheet that displays phone calls, conversations, and meeting notes entered by the conservators. In the system, the conservators can review their project notes and conversations and then print out reports when problems arise or the project has been completed. The ability to view these project screens has also enabled Trust staff besides the project manager to be kept up-to-date on a project without having to attend the site meetings.


Digital photography has been found to be a key tool in the work processes of the Trust. Digital images provide the Trust with an additional method to track issues and concerns with each property and project. Extensive documentation of conditions using digital photography provides instantly accessible current images of the issues affecting a structure. Storage is handled through the use of network storage drives, individual hard drives, and CD-ROMs. The images can be quickly integrated into planning documents or project scopes or even linked into the HHTIS or GIS to provide meaningful visual backup to the data sources. Though not archivally stable, digital photography provides the means to maintain a large, easily accessible photographic inventory of condition photographs with no cost for film development.


The HHTIS is then integrated into a larger geographic information system. GIS is a method to display information in a geographic output or to link information to an actual location on the earth. Unlike a paper map, where what you see is what you get, a GIS map can instantly combine or hide layers of information to provide greater analysis capacity and instant access to details about the features on the map. Working with DPR and the City of New York, the Trust has access to the GIS base-map layers developed for the management of the city. These layers of information include such typical map sets as streets, buildings, topography, zip codes, political boundaries, census information, and tax parcels. Using data from the HHTIS, GIS provides a whole new context in which historic resources can be analyzed. Whether the scale is citywide or site-specific, a broader understanding of resources can be attained. The Trust is using the GIS software ArcView created by ESRI.


Managing cultural resources on a citywide scale is a challenge, but using a GIS provides clear trends and a new context for stewardship. GIS is more than just locating a structure on a map. It is the comparison of that structure to other historic houses; it is the analysis of the structure and how the structure relates to its neighborhood, city, history, and environment. Citywide analysis can take many forms, including visitation and community demographics, membership analysis, inventory management, and analysis of structures and conditions based on different geopolitical areas.

The interactions of political districts are quite complex, and funding can come from any level: community boards, city council, borough presidents, citywide offices, and state and federal districts. Geographic analysis of resources and districts plays a vital role in the Trust's work processes. For example, GIS allows the Trust to analyze the number of National Historic Landmarks with wood-shingle roofs in poor condition in a certain city council district or state representative district. Then, when additional information is needed, a click of the mouse brings up data from the HHTIS or even digital photographs. This flexibility provides the Trust the ability to work with multiple political entities for the protection of these resources.

A number of scenarios of citywide analysis are possible. Structures requiring oil deliveries can be identified, and physical maps and directions to the houses can be created. Membership campaigns can be enhanced through a geographic understanding of where current members are located and where members are absent. In a similar manner, the Trust can analyze school visitation and participation in programs at the houses to determine which school districts are or are not responsive to house programming. These examples just scratch the surface of how the Trust uses GIS for citywide management of the historic sites.


Site-specific analysis is also enhanced as GIS provides a framework for understanding the site. Currently available information provides such data as topography, structures, and building heights. Data from the HHTIS are available for analysis so facade conditions can be viewed in correlation to a building's physical environment. Through a method known as “hotlinking,” any digital file can be accessed with the click of a mouse: digital images, digitized historic images, or even digitized Historic Structure Reports or other important planning documents.

The study of cultural landscapes and archaeological sites continues to be advanced through the use of GIS. Features in the landscape, whether historic or modern, are identified and integrated into the system. Historic data about these features, entered into the HHTIS and available through the GIS, provide a deeper understanding of the evolution of the site. Digitized historic maps are then used as base maps for further analysis of these features to continue to study the evolution of the cultural landscape. Using the historic base maps and the GIS, potential archaeological exploration can be identified and integrated into the management plans for a site. The location of previous excavations can be entered as well, allowing the Trust to assess the archaeological impacts of site improvements and maintenance on the grounds.

The Trust is also pursuing the use of GIS to synthesize many different types of information needed for the analysis of interiors. Using floor plans as the base map, the GIS can integrate current digital images, historic images, data from the HHTIS regarding interior architectural features and conditions, information from furnishing plans, and, finally, data from the collection management software. This tool would enable the Trust curator to sort through the different resources and information types, all in the GIS, to create a better understanding of the interior conditions and to analyze current furnishings versus historical furnishings.


The detailed line drawings of a computer-aided design (CAD) file can be easily integrated in a GIS. The benefit lies in the ability to combine the detailed CAD drawings with the analysis capabilities of GIS. In certain cases at the Trust, CAD drawings have been integrated with the GIS, most commonly in the form of site plans to fully document current conditions at the sites. CAD and GIS have been used for preservation planning for structures and sites to an increasing extent in recent years, enabling analysis of a full range of conditions and solutions or even predictive modeling of future deterioration. The Trust is moving toward the implementation of CAD-GIS for its advanced preservation efforts and surveys. This application is in development at the time of this article.


There are many plans for the future implementation of the GIS. The Trust will continue to share information with DPR, striving for the most efficient management of the structures. Sharing data with DPR connects the Trust to the citywide implementation of GIS for facility management. In this environment, for example, the Trust will work with the police and fire departments to improve emergency response. With access to GIS maps at the 911 switchboard, operators will be able to accurately locate structures and route emergency vehicles even if they are located within a park area. In the office, the Trust will continue to develop and use GIS for a number of different applications. Future implementation includes continued analysis of cultural landscapes, archaeological resources, exterior conditions, interior conditions and furnishings, and visitation and membership demographics. The Trust is planning for further integration with CAD for increased survey and analysis capabilities, three-dimensional modeling of the structures and sites, and Web-based formats for public access to certain aspects of the information.


In terms of the financial considerations required to implement this system, the Trust was able to create the entire HHTIS at little cost to the organization because the staff developed the database, and the computers and software were in hand. This will not be the case for all organizations; not all groups will have these tools and on-staff expertise. In the present technology market, however, the hardware and software can be obtained without a major financial outlay. Digital cameras are becoming cost-effective as prices decrease and quality increases. Though GIS is typically an expensive technology, there are a number of possibilities that can make it cost-effective for an organization. Database design is the only potentially expensive proposition, but a defined vision of the organizational needs can prevent major expenses. For a large resource or management problem, any expenses will be minimal when compared to the overall savings in time and resources created by the system.


The Trust has found technology to be a boon for cultural resource management. With a small staff, diminishing resources, and increasing responsibilities, it is easy to be overwhelmed. Time and resources can be better utilized with an information system that provides quick access to data—whether it is basic maintenance information or the condition of the windows on the east facade. All divisions of the Trust use an IS as a part of their work processes, so combining these under one umbrella, the HHTIS, means better efficiency and less redundancy. Digital photography brings additional capabilities to the Trust, as easily accessible photographs can be used in a number of different applications. Finally, the use of GIS provides a whole new format by which to understand trends, analyze data, or access information. Technology is becoming important in all facets of modern life and is proving to be just as essential in the world of cultural resource management.


BENJAMIN HAAVIK received his B.A. in American history from Haverford College in 1995 and his M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998. In that year, he began working for the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust Inc. of Philadelphia, where he directed the Fairmount Park Cultural Resource Inventory, a two-year project that used geographic information systems (GIS) to map all the cultural resources in the park system. In 2001, Haavik joined the Historic House Trust of New York City, where he created the Historic House Trust Information System. As deputy director, he oversees all property management, cultural landscape, curatorial, preservation, conservation, and capital projects. He is also working with the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation to inventory and maintain its cultural resources using GIS. Address: Historic House Trust of New York City, The Arsenal, Room 203, Central Park, New York, N.Y. 10021

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Copyright � 2003 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works