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Lost in America the new book by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams - Book Review

LOST IN AMERICA - Photographing the Last Days of Our Architectural Treasures

By Richard Cahan and Michael Williams –  Just published by City Files Press.

Lost In America Book in Slipcase
Lost in America Book in limited edition slipcase

 

Lost in America is illustrated with exceptional black and white duotones of photographs sourced from the public domain collections of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) at the Library of Congress. The book also features the research and writing of Cahan and Williams, the publishers of books on photographers Vivian Maier and Richard Nickel, and similar historical topics. 

 

Plantations and Slave quarters photographed by HABS
1830s slave quarters and a 1857 plantation home on a spread from Lost in America. Photos by E.H. Pickering and Thomas Waterman.

 

Lost in America was begun by the authors as a Covid-19 lockdown road trip of our great nation through the magnifying glass of the HABS collection at the Library of Congress. The survey photos included in the book focus on one hundred structures, some recorded by HABS photographers as early as 1934 when the Historic American Buildings Survey as we know it was first established. At first flip, the book clearly comes across as coffee table worthy in the premium tradition of much more pretentious publishing houses, then upon immersion, it surprised me with its actual content.

 

Methodist Church in Cahaba ALABAMA
1934 HABS Photograph of the Methodist Church in Cahaba, Alabama burned to the ground in 1954. Photo by W.M. Manning

 

Publisher/writer/historians Cahan and Williams, have crafted a book that's an engaging foray through the demise of lost architecture while at the same time the book is a celebration of the Historic American Buildings Survey itself. The Survey, celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, was a Civil Works Administration endeavor implemented as a make-work program for unemployed architects and photographers in the Great Depression.

HABS was imagined as a way to record vanishing American heritage before significant examples were lost to “The ravages of fire and the natural elements, together with the demolition caused by real estate 'improvements'...” as stated in the original proposal to form HABS in 1933. 

The HABS collection is by far the world's preeminent archive of architecture, engineering and landscape documentation and its continued existence makes it the longest running federal preservation program in America (and the only WPA program still in existence). Lost's narrative tells a hundred compelling stories about the missing places pictured, but also weaves in sketches on contemporary American culture, American architects, our fascination with progress and renewal, and vignettes of some of the HABS photographers who criss-crossed America recording our inherited environment.

 

Parker Center Police Headquarters
Parker Center Police HQ 1955 - 2019. Recorded in 2018 Parker Center is the last demolition documented in the book Lost in America. HABS CA-2923-13 by Stephen Schafer

 

I'm honored to have a spread featured in such a serious book about American architecture along side my HABS photographer peers and some of my architectural photography heroes like Jack Boucher, Jet Lowe and Marvin Rand. The authors cover the documentation program itself with a forward by Catherine Lavoie, Chief of the HABS program at the National Park Service. Lost in America highlights the life and death of some of America’s architectural and historic treasures, “We didn’t just pick pretty buildings, but structures that play a part of U.S. history: slave quarters, plantations, Indian dance halls, ballparks,” say Cahan and Williams.

 

Jet Lowe, HAER photographer for Historic American Engineering Record
One of a few HAER photographs in the book, Jet Lowe's photo of the Bellows Falls Arch Bridge for the Historic American Engineering Record.

 

At the same time, Lost holds up a mirror to some of the questionable decisions that brought about the demise of the places presented. Bluntly put into perspective by Richard Nickel's quote, “Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.” Meek or magnificent, many of the lost structures pictured in the book (and in the HABS collection at large) had no chance when confronted with America's march of progress. This book in particular, and the Historic American Buildings Survey in general, try to countervail some of our disappeared heritage and transform them into art, knowledge and memory.

As Charles Peterson concluded in his original 1933 HABS proposal, “... if the great number of our antique buildings must disappear through economic causes, they should not pass into unrecorded oblivion.” 

Through Lost in America, these hundred shan't. 

 

-Stephen Schafer

September 29, 2023

 

 


Lost in America is for sale on the CityFilePress website. As hardcover and as limited edition signed copies in a slipcase available here: https://www.cityfilespress.com/books/lost-in-america/

(Full disclosure, this is an independent, unsolicited review. I have a photo included in the book, but that photo (like all HABS photos) was used for free in the public domain and I receive no payment or affiliate compensation for this review or link)

 


 

HABSPHOTO.com

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