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How do you go about managing hundreds of Cold War-era historic resources in arguably one of the most significant military facilities in the United States? You start with a highly qualified and talented team, add in extensive background research, and spend a whole lot of time in the desert armed with tablet computers.

The result? A historic context statement and survey approach streamlining the identification, recordation, and management of a diverse group of historic resources representing some of our nation’s greatest technological innovations.


Located in Southern California’s western Mojave Desert, Edwards Air Force Base is a U.S. Air Force installation with a mission of supporting the research, development, testing, and evaluation of aircraft and weapons systems. Its roots date to the late 1920s when the recently established U.S. Army Air Corps (precursor to the U.S. Air Force) began using the area as a bombing and gunnery range. Development of the facility increased rapidly following the United States’ entry into World War II in 1941, and it soon became a major hub for reconnaissance and bomber groups, with nearly 90 percent of all Pacific Coast patrols flying out of the airfield by the following year.


The Ideal Locale for Aircraft Innovations

However, it wasn’t until America entered into the Cold War that the facility would move towards its true calling. Recognizing the area’s surrounding natural features, officials took the facility in a new direction. Isolated but still within a few hours’ drive of Los Angeles and its burgeoning aeronautical industry, the location of what would become Edwards Air Force Base was determined to be ideal for the development of experimental aircraft. Largely influencing this decision was Rogers Dry Lake, a dry lakebed adjacent to the base that has an extremely flat and hard surface, providing one the finest landing fields conceivable.


In the years following World War II, development of Edwards increased dramatically and it became one of the most influential Research, Development, Test and Evaluation facilities in the country. During its nearly 80-year history, Edwards has been the location of numerous “firsts.” It was here that Chuck Yeager and the Bell X-1 airplane first broke the sound barrier in 1947, the North American X-15 craft first reached the outer thresholds of the Earth’s atmosphere in 1962, and the first space shuttle launched into orbit — Columbia — landed following reentry in 1981.


Managing Historic Resources

In an active military facility where nearly every building has some association with a significant aircraft, technological advancement, or other “first,” it was not easy to develop a historic resources management strategy in accordance with National Historic Preservation Act, Department of Defense, and U.S. Air Force guidelines while meeting ongoing project objectives. The first step was knowing what resources exist, where they are located, and whether or not they are historically significant. Although numerous cultural resources studies of Edwards had been completed dating to the 1990s, many focused only on specific areas of the base or earlier periods of its development, such as the World War II era. As a result, they did not provide a complete picture of the base’s resources relating to the Cold War period from which the majority of Edwards’ properties date.


The Background Research

SWCA was retained by JT3, LLC in 2012 to develop a comprehensive Cold War historic context statement that would guide the identification and evaluation of Cold War-era properties at Edwards. The first step included a significant amount of background and archival research. To accomplish this, SWCA reviewed previous studies and evaluations of properties at Edwards, examined the broad property types previously developed for other Air Force installations, and performed an independent survey and evaluation of select properties across the base. From these efforts SWCA identified themes to provide a focused analytical discussion of historical patterns and significant events. At Edwards, themes such as Advanced Propulsion Development and Aircraft Testing and Training provided a framework for understanding why properties are significant and how they are related to one another.


Next, SWCA examined the associated property types conveying the significance of the theme. Property types can be defined as buildings, structures, landscapes, sites, districts, and objects associated with one another by common attributes, including style, design, architectural details, or methods of construction. At Edwards, these included everything from airplane hangars and runways to static test stands and observation bunkers. Even properties as ordinary as administration buildings were considered to determine significant themes. SWCA was then able to develop a list of registration requirements for those properties.


Where the Rubber Meets the Road

While SWCA completed the Cold War historic context statement in April 2013, it wasn’t until the following year that the project team had the opportunity to apply the historic context statement. Following a second phase of funding, SWCA was retained to conduct a facility-wide historic resources survey of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), an independent research facility within Edwards focused on propulsion development. Its roots date to the post-World War II expansion of Edwards. It was here that the elements of the Saturn V rocket engine were developed and tested, huge improvements in liquid and solid fuels were made, and a number of other advancements in propulsion systems were completed that remain top-secret to this day.


Faced with the monumental task of identifying, recording, and evaluating more than 230 properties at the AFRL for historical significance, SWCA first had to put together the right team for the job. This multi-faceted group included qualified architectural historians and other cultural resources and GIS specialists. With backgrounds in context-driven evaluations, Department of Defense regulatory framework, and database development, each of these team members brought unique skills to the effort.


Gearing Up for Field Surveys

The next step was meeting with Edwards’ cultural resources staff to identify project objectives and develop work plans. These efforts established a clear communication protocol, timetables, and milestones to ensure the project’s success. In addition to completing SWCA’s own pre-field safety procedures, the team also met with Edwards staff for base-specific safety and security training.


Armed with GIS-enabled tablet computers — and copious amounts of water and sunscreen — the team then set to work documenting, photographing, and recording the properties. The tablets were preloaded with a customized operating. Using a single device, buildings and structures were photographed, tagged with GIS locational data, categorized by property type, and noted for individual characteristics from a pre-populated drop-down menu.


Because the AFRL is an active testing facility with ongoing security concerns, team members were accompanied by a dedicated escort throughout their fieldwork. An AFRL veteran of 40-plus years, this escort not only ensured confidential facilities weren’t captured in the background of a photo, but also provided the team with valuable insight into the AFRL and its history.


Putting the Properties in Context

After returning from the field, the information collected with the tablet computers was offloaded into a database that was developed in line with an existing format used by Edwards personnel. It was then that the previously developed historic context statement was truly able to shine. The team quickly determined if a property was associated with significant themes, and if so, if it possessed and retained the characteristics required for National Register of Historic Places eligibility as outlined in the historic context statement. Buildings were grouped into applicable historic districts based on those significant themes.


Subsequent to these efforts, SWCA summarized the results in a report that provided Edwards staff with a concise rundown of the historic properties and districts — and provided measures for their protection — while still allowing the AFRL to continue its mission as an active research and development facility. The final document was eventually submitted to the California Office of Historic Preservation, where it was reviewed and received concurrence from the State Historic Preservation Officer, confirming the success of the project.