Mapping Downtown Honolulu's Urban Past: Exploring the Potential of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for Historic Preservation

Kodama, Mary
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Historic maps are a valuable resource for understanding our past. Historic preservationists, in their endeavor to conserve, protect, and preserve historic buildings and neighborhoods, use historic maps to gain a richer understanding of the places where we lived, worked, and played. This research explored the synergy of using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) with historic maps to achieve a greater appreciation and understanding of the past. The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are a set of maps that traced the growth and development of major cities and neighborhoods from 1867 to 2007. Developed as an aid for insurance companies in estimating fire insurance liabilities in urban areas, the maps not only provide parcel information such as property sizes, block numbers, street names and addresses, they also depict a wealth of building information, such as shape and height, construction materials, locations of windows and doors, uses and occupants. When viewed over an extended time period, these maps accurately document the growth, decline and changes in cities and communities over time. ArcGIS software was used to digitize and map the rich source of data inherent in the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for a 25-block area surrounding Fort Street Mall in downtown Honolulu, Hawaii. Seven time periods of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from 1914 through 1993 were digitized and mapped using GIS to demonstrate how urban areas could be studied and interpreted through this particular mapping method. The resulting methodology showed that by using GIS with historic maps to track and analyze urban changes over time, a wealth of information and insight about a community’s past is revealed, something that is not apparent when simply studying individual paper maps.
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