Image by NCinDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Historic preservation is constantly battling a reputation for being low-tech, but two weeks ago, DC’s Historic Preservation Office took a major technological step forward. HistoryQuest DC, an interactive map from HPO, provides detailed and valuable information about more than 125,000 Washington buildings.

Historic preservation is essentially the act of protecting the built environment and human-altered landscapes for posterity; it is a way of making history tangible and relevant as well as adding variety to the streetscape. It includes maintaining the appearance of buildings as well as adaptively reusing them for contemporary needs.

The Historic Preservation Office (HPO) department in the city’s Office of Planning is tasked with overseeing historic preservation in Washington. This includes nominating buildings to preserve, issuing recommendations at historic designation hearings, and enforcing regulations for maintaining old architecture. Local preservation regulations offer buildings some protection against dramatic alterations and demolition.

HPO staff recently revealed HistoryQuest, a multi-layer geographic information system (GIS) map that allows users to learn when a structure was built, who the architect behind it was, and, in some cases, details like its construction cost, building materials, and permitting information.

You're probably familiar with this building, but did you know the name of its architect? Image by DC Historic Preservation Office.

Additional layers show which buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, part of a historic district, or individual historic landmarks. Other layers include the L’Enfant Plan boundary and ward boundaries. The color-coded map shows construction decades at a glance.

A building off of Pennsylvania Avenue SE that's on the National Register of Historic Places. Image by DC Historic Preservation Office.

How can you put this map to use?

The new map is intuitive and easy to use. You can browse buildings or search for an exact address, which means that learning about your own home or a building you frequently pass isn’t difficult.

Users can also harness the map’s information for activism. For example, if residents see that their neighborhood has many new structures and some vacant space but little affordable housing, they can lobby their ANC to advocate for and support more mixed-income development.

A developer looking to avoid hurdles posed by preservation issues might seek property in an area with limited historic buildings. A firm that specializes in converting historic buildings would do the opposite. Preservationists, meanwhile, can see where new development is encroaching on valuable historic resources.

Also, preservationists and developers often need to know buildings’ permitting numbers, original owners, and historic designation information, all of which used to be spread out over multiple government databases; HistoryQuest DC puts it all in one place.

Finally, seeing where the densest cores of historic buildings are can be useful for both real estate and preservation professionals.

The map is basic, but it serves a great purpose

The design is not slick, and its measurement tools are somewhat rudimentary, but it provides more information than almost any other city’s comparable map. HPO calls the map a work in progress and is soliciting feedback.

Preservation suffers from the impression that it is backwards, anti-progressive, and an enemy of affordability. Yet many studies demonstrate that preservation can be a sustainable and accessible community tool, but its public image remains poor. Recent digital projects by DC preservation organizations seeks to make the field more inviting to residents.

The DC Preservation League recently released the DC Historic Sites mobile application. The GPS-based app allows users to browse historic sites and learn about them through narratives and photos. It is part of a historic sites app collection developed by History Channel that includes New York City and Baltimore.

The app, like HistoryQuest DC, is a step in the direction of engaging people with local history. Helping the public realize that they gravitate towards neighborhoods with distinct architectural characters – think 14th Street rather than K Street – is one way of demonstrating the value of historic preservation. The next step is increasing dialogue about preservation’s potential to contribute to affordability, sustainability, and a better life in Washington.

What do you think of HistoryQuest DC’s usability and promotion of preservation? Tell us in the comments.