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Historic Contexts and Surveys

Historic Preservation Planning Section



Historic contexts and surveys are critical tools for understanding, identifying, evaluating, and protecting the City’s historical resources. Historic contexts provide the foundation for preservation planning and successful survey work. They describe the broad patterns of historical development of a community or region that are represented by the physical development and character of the built environment. Historic Contexts are not intended to be a chronological recitation of a community’s significant historical events or noteworthy citizens or a comprehensive community history. Rather, historic context statements are intended to provide an analytical framework for identifying and evaluating resources by focusing on and concisely explaining what aspects of geography, history and culture significantly shaped the physical development of a community or region’s land use patterns and built environment over time, what important property types were associated with those developments, why they are important, and what characteristics they need to have to be considered an important representation of their type and context.

Historic resource surveys are performed to identify, record, and evaluate historic properties within a community, neighborhood, project area, or region. Surveys provide many benefits, including the information needed to make informed planning decisions, prioritize preservation goals and objectives, develop and implement land use policies, and educate the public and increase the understanding of and appreciation for the built environment as a tangible reminder of the community’s history. Surveys also assist in the identification of resources worthy of designation in the City of San Diego’s Register of Historic Resources, the California Register of Historical Resources, or the National Register of Historic Places.

Conducting a survey involves three sets of activities: archival research and development of a historic context, field survey, and recording of information. Although archival research begins before fieldwork, and much information is recorded as the result of fieldwork, all three activities will normally be going on at once. Archival research will indicate what to look for and what to record, and fieldwork and recordation will identify information needs to be pursued in archival research. Both the Secretary of the Interior's Guidelines for Identification and common practice distinguish between two general levels of survey: reconnaissance and intensive survey. Both kinds of survey involve background documentary research into the community's history, archeology and architecture, as well as field work, but they are different in terms of the level of effort involved.

A reconnaissance survey may be thought of as a "once over lightly" inspection of an area, most useful for characterizing its resources in general and for developing a basis for deciding how to organize and orient more detailed survey efforts. In conjunction with a general review of pertinent literature on the community's past, a reconnaissance survey may involve such activities as a “windshield survey” of the community noting the general distribution of buildings, structures and neighborhoods representing different architectural styles, periods and modes of construction; review of aerial photographs and historical maps; and detailed inspection of sample blocks or areas.

An intensive survey, as the name implies, is a close and careful look at the area being surveyed. It is designed to identify precisely and completely all historic resources in the area. It generally involves detailed background research, and a thorough inspection and documentation of all historic properties in the field. It should produce all the information needed to evaluate historic properties and prepare an inventory.

Detailed information on the purpose and intent of historic context statements and surveys, as well as how to conduct them, is available from the California State Office of Historic Preservation and the National Park Service:


National and Statewide Contexts and Surveys

The National Park Service has produced many Thematic Studies and Special Studies to aid in the evaluation of National Register Landmarks, many of which address themes and events relevant to San Diego. In addition, the National Park Service has undertaken a number of Heritage and History Initiatives with the intention of extending "the reach of documentation, listing and designation of historic places to better reflect the full spectrum of people, events, and experiences that have contributed to building the nation." The program has produced studies on American Latino Heritage, African American Heritage, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage, European Heritage, Indigenous Heritage, LGBTQ Heritage and Women's History.

In addition, the California Office of Historic Preservation (OHP) maintains a library of historic contexts produced across the state of California. Included in this library are Statewide Historic Contexts addressing various themes and property types found throughout the state, prepared either by CalTrans or OHP. While these contexts are often intended to assist in the evaluation of resources for their eligibility for the National Register, the information provided in the contexts is also useful for understanding statewide historical themes and events.


City of San Diego Contexts and Surveys

The City of San Diego maintains a number of historic contexts statements and surveys. Some contexts, such as the Modernism Context Statement and the LGBTQ Historic Context Statement, are more thematic than geographic in nature, and apply City-wide. Other contexts are focused on specific communities or Community Planning Areas. Some contexts were developed without subsequent surveys, and are used to evaluate individual properties and districts, and could be used in future survey work. The City has a number of finalized surveys, some contexts and surveys that are in progress, and several older, suspended surveys that are useful as a source for historic photos and basic property descriptions. Links to the City's archive of contexts and surveys, along with a brief summary of each document, are provided below. Staff is the process of digitizing and uploading additional documents, so check back soon.


Finalized Historic Context Statements (Without Surveys)

The following historic context statements, which have been finalized, were prepared as stand-alone contexts and did not include a historic resource survey:

  • PDF icon Ocean Beach Historic Context Statement (2015): Prepared in support of the comprehensive update to the Ocean Beach Community Plan, the Ocean Beach Historic Context Statement is intended to provide the historic context for the development of Ocean Beach and identify themes significant to that development.
  • PDF icon San Diego Citywide Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Historic Context Statement (2016): Prepared with funding from a Certified Local Government Grant, the San Diego Citywide LGBTQ Historic Context Statement is intended to provide guidance for identifying and evaluating potential historic resources related to San Diego’s rich LGBTQ history.
  • PDF icon San Diego Modernism Historic Context Statement (2007): Prepared with funding from a Certified Local Government Grant, the San Diego Modernism Historic Context Statement is designed to address the regional and local emergence of Modern architecture in San Diego; the architects, builders and other individuals significant in the development of Modernism in San Diego; as well as the property types and sub-styles which characterize San Diego Modernism and the criteria which should be applied to evaluate those resources and establish significance.
  • PDF icon Southeastern Historic Context Statement (2014): Prepared in support of the comprehensive updates to the Southeastern and Encanto Community Plans, the Southeastern Historic Context Statement (which also address the community of Encanto) is intended to provide the historic context for the development of the Southeastern and Encanto communities and identify themes significant to that development.


Finalized Historic Context Statements and Surveys

The following historic context statements included reconnaissance-level survey work to identify potential historic resources associated with the context. Please note that the survey forms and information associated with older surveys may be difficult to read, as a number of these documents are copies of copies. All versions posted below reflect the best quality and resolution available. The followng documents have been finalized:


Draft Historic Contexts and Surveys

The following historic contexts statements and surveys are currently in development:


Suspended Historic Contexts and Surveys

The following historic context statements and surveys were never finalized, for varying reasons. These surveys are useful primarily for historic photo documentation and basic building descriptions. Please contact [email protected] for more information.

(Updated December 2017)

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