Gardens to Gables

I’ll be in the Field: A Short Explanation of Historic Survey

I did not enter into the field of architectural history and historic preservation for the money (I know this comes as a shock). In addition to the oft-paltry salary endured by many of my colleagues, the most interesting projects in our field are usually the least well-funded. Money is always in short supply (at least in Kentucky, where funding historic preservation is not viewed as a priority by the majority of lawmakers), and thus many ambitious projects run out of funds well before the work is completed.

This is why I always have at least half a dozen old projects (the oldest started in 2006) in various stages clamoring for my attention in my free time. (I also maintain this blog and its associated social media platforms in my spare time – oh, this is making my head hurt …) The cruelty of all of this hits home when I find myself with a few moments to tend to paperwork on one of these neglected projects, and realize that in the ensuing years, so many historic buildings I documented are now gone.

This late-19th century house in the Bath county community of Bethel is gone.

This late-19th century house in the Bath county community of Bethel is gone.

Let me address the documentation effort first. In 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act mandated that states and territories across the nation “conduct a comprehensive statewide survey of historic properties and maintain inventories of such properties.” Each state has a State Historic Preservation Office; in Kentucky, this is the Kentucky Heritage Council.

Yay! I found a root cellar. In the field, Franklin County, Kentucky.

Yay! I found a root cellar. In the field, Franklin County, Kentucky.

So by federal mandate, each state is supposed to utilize professionals to examine historic resources (buildings, structures, sites, and objects), conduct related research, and maintain records associated with each property.

Sounds easy, right? Send out some folks to each county (120 in our fair Commonwealth), armed with clipboards, paper, and cameras (some folks now use iPads…in addition to not be able to afford such a luxury, I stick with my legal pad of paper, which can’t be broken, and if it gets wet, will dry out) to drive each and every road in a particular geographic location, looking for historic resources. (This is what we call fieldwork.) That’s the FUN part!

Fieldwork takes place in all kinds of weather ( we tend to avoid heavy rain) - and while sometimes you hike a couple of miles to get to a site, sometimes you get to ride in the back of a truck!

Fieldwork takes place in all kinds of weather ( we tend to avoid heavy rain) – and while sometimes you hike a couple of miles to get to a site, sometimes you get to ride in the back of a truck!

Of course, this takes time. You add in talking to property owners (and I love talking to property owners, but in addition to collecting valuable background information, you also find yourself explaining why on earth you are doing this, and you that are NOT from the government, and you have no interest in raising their taxes or what they might be growing on the back 40…), the logistics of navigating a site with many, many buildings, getting lost, your car breaking down – and often, your entire tiny budget for the project is blown on field work alone.

This is page one of a Kentucky survey form - there are 14 more pages, with maps, photos, and about 1,500 words of narrative. This is just for ONE site - imagine doing this 300 times.

This is page one of a Kentucky survey form – there are 14 more pages, with maps, photos, and about 1,500 words of narrative. This is just for ONE site – imagine doing this 300 times.

But the whole point of the survey is to collect the information and put it into a form that can be shared – not only lodged permanently with a state agency for future researchers and scholars, but shared with the community – because the story of a community’s buildings is the story of that place. I have stacks and stacks of field notes (on legal pads), and thousands of images of buildings scattered across the little grey cells of my mind – but they don’t do anyone any good unless I get that data onto paper. So after fieldwork, you have hours and hours of work on the computer.

I only discovered, as I was trying to get this form ready for submittal, that this antebellum side-passage dwelling has been torn down (courtesy Google maps). Sharpsburg, Bath County, Kentucky.

I only discovered, as I was trying to get this form ready for submittal, that this antebellum side-passage dwelling has been torn down (courtesy Google maps). Sharpsburg, Bath County, Kentucky. This house was documented in 2007 – and that was when the money for the project ran out. I am still trying to get the paperwork finished.

The third part of this equation should then be analysis of the data – looking over the results and inferring from the data certain patterns of development or economic booms in a particular locale. Back in good old days (this would be the 1970s and 1980s), once a county-wide survey was completed, and the survey forms finished, a book of all of the sites would be printed. These books are like gold now – and very hard to obtain in some cases. But federal funding for these projects dried up a long time ago, and the state agency charged with this federal mandate has had its budget slashed again and again and again, so that just keeping the doors open is a challenge.

Another lost building in Sharpsburg, Bath County, Kentucky.

Another lost building in Sharpsburg, Bath County, Kentucky.

And then there is the simple fact, that just like people – buildings age and become historic – meaning the inventory of historic resources is always expanding. I remember when I began work at the Kentucky Heritage Council – the director of the agency recalled his fieldwork days in the 1970s, and how he and his colleagues ignored bungalows and Foursquares and all of the Revival houses of the 1920s and 1930s. They weren’t yet historic and were considered unimportant. And his predecessors scorned the buildings of the late-19th and early 20th centuries…can you sense a pattern here?

Camera, clipboard, and floppy hat (plus numerous bottles of water): surviving fieldwork in Kentucky in the summer.

Camera, clipboard, and floppy hat (plus numerous bottles of water): surviving fieldwork in Kentucky in the summer.

I am well-used to the paucity of funds (and passion) for what it is I do. And even though I have had a few hours this week to tend to some dusty projects, and have mourned those buildings lost since I photographed them – I am glad that I was there, once. Perhaps one day there will be more money for the recognition, documentation, and preservation of the historic resources across the Bluegrass that tell the story of a diverse geography and peoples.

But until that time comes, telling the story of what it is that I do, and why I do it is even more important. One of the best overviews of survey and fieldwork comes from my mentor, who introduced me to the study of historic buildings, and made me realize it was possible to make a passion my career. I’ll close with his words:

“Fieldwork is an essential part of the process of our appreciation of historic sites, but it is just the start of that process, not its completion. Survey is a great learning experience that all historic preservation professionals should have. The best way to learn about historic resource is to look at a lot of them, and the best opportunity to do that comes in the survey process. Survey tells us not only about the physical nature of historic resources – how they are built, how they are altered over time, how they deteriorate or are restored – but also about history itself. Careful examination of old houses and the organization of domestic spaces within them, for example, gives us details about daily life in the past that are not always available from written resources. When resources cannot be saved, survey documentation provides a record of that history for posterity.” William J. Macintire, 2009

And two more lost buildings - a bank and former hotel in Salt Lick, Bath County, Kentucky.

And two more lost buildings – a bank and former hotel in Salt Lick, Bath County, Kentucky.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

4 Thoughts on “I’ll be in the Field: A Short Explanation of Historic Survey

  1. Old Thompson Farm on June 30, 2016 at 7:38 pm said:

    but the rest of the story………….Sometimes your surveys start a spark and when tended to, create something wonderful.

  2. I write a column of local history for The Gleaner and am sort of Henderson County’s de facto historian. I have a thick file of information about old buildings here. Please contact me if I can ever be of use. Also, if you can point me toward resources about Henderson Couty I would be very grateful.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on July 3, 2016 at 10:47 am said:

      Thanks so much! Most of my information about buildings across Kentucky comes, if not from my own work, then from the files at the Kentucky Heritage Council. Henderson is a wonderful place – we were there in the spring of 2015 and had such a lovely time.

Post Navigation