A Career of Architectural Surveys

By Special Contributor posted 01-26-2018 11:18


By Richard L. Mattson

If medals were awarded for sheer numbers of historic buildings surveyed, I reckon I would make the podium. It has been quite a ride, taking off in a 1967 Camaro in 1979 to inventory farmsteads in Monroe County, Illinois, and landing in the 1990s in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I have a historic preservation consulting firm. Architectural surveys for academic research, private clients, and government agencies have taken me across the eastern half of United States, where I have pondered and recorded the stories of American buildings, from the bespoke to the run of the mill. But architecture aside, these surveys have told their own particular stories: of roads taken, destinations reached, and people encountered along the way.

Olymups OM-1, ready for action | Credit: Richard L. Mattson

I owe this career to an act of Congress. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) was the engine of the modern preservation movement. It created the National Register of Historic Places and directed states to open preservation offices and prepare inventories of historic properties. These architectural surveys continue on, updating the earliest accounts and organizing the latest ones around new topics. At the federal level, Section 106 of the act called for government agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties and archaeological sites. All federally funded or licensed work—from highway projects, to airport expansions, to the renovation of military bases—now trigger Section 106 review, which frequently requires architectural and archaeological surveys to identify potentially endangered resources. In 1980 Congress expanded the NHPA to bring city and county governments into the act as sponsors of architectural surveys for local purposes. Thus, with legal roles to play at all levels of government, architectural surveys became the bedrock of preservation planning.

In 1979 I was a graduate student in historical geography at the University of Illinois. I studied with John Jakle, who instilled in me an appreciation for everyday, human landscapes—what geographers call “cultural landscapes.” While I did learn about high-style architecture and designed landscapes, the focus was on the history of ordinary buildings and places. Commonplace buildings and landscapes reflect cultural, social, and economic patterns of events as well as individual actions. In his book of travels, The Old Ways, James Mcfarlane portrays a companion to whom “history and geography are consubstantial. Placeless events are inconceivable, in that everything that happens must happen somewhere, and so history issues from geography in the same way that water issues from a spring: unpredictably and site-specifically.” Mcfarlane might have been describing a historical geographer. So, within the bounds of government contracts with regulated scopes of work and tight deadlines, I have brought the perspectives of a historical geographer to architectural surveys.

While architectural surveys are usually conducted by trained professionals with academic bona fides and disciplinary points of view, the surveys themselves are inherently methodological. The work almost inevitably demands two machines—a car and a camera. The cars (one pickup, too) came and went, but the camera remained the same until the arrival of the digital age: an Olympus OM-1 loaded with Kodak film. Known for its warhorse dependability, gleaming metal top plate, and satisfying click, the OM-1, like all cameras of its day, operated with tangible levers, gears, and springs. More often than I wish to recall, it tumbled off the hood of my car as I pulled away from some surveyed farmyard. But not to worry, the OM-1 took a licking and kept on clicking.

Country store in Sandy Mush Valley, North Carolina  | Credit: Richard L. Mattson

During the 1990s, I gradually, and with some trepidation, embraced digital technology, which was changing architectural surveys forever. Digital cameras, websites, geographic information system (GIS) mapping, and cell phones all make fieldwork more efficient, less expensive, and safer. I put away the mechanical OM-I for an electronic Nikon and shelved the rolls of 36-exposure Kodak film for memory cards that stored many hundreds of photographs. The quotidian chores of survey photography no longer include that obligatory first shot on each roll of film identifying the specific project and roll number. The costs of buying and processing film are now erased from survey budgets and the burden of organizing stacks of contact prints is lifted. The planning and preparation for fieldwork has also improved, as I search friendly preservation websites for the locations of previously inventoried historic properties and download the maps of survey areas. I complete architectural survey forms electronically as part of a customized database, and the reams of survey forms that once filled office space have quit the scene. How times had changed since that first project in 1979, when I stapled thumbnail photos to 5 x 7–inch survey cards.

But no matter the perspective or online prep work, all architectural surveys are voyages of discovery, and every new project is terra incognita. The unknowns concern architecture and just about everything else—the people, the places to eat or stay, the roads, the weather. For instance, while conducting a survey of bridges in Minnesota, I quickly realized that I was in a distant land. I dined at the Sons of Norway Lodge in Fargo, North Dakota, where English was evidently the second language. Swedish bakery shops filled the Main Streets of southeastern Minnesota, and in Faribault, a sign told me that every Tuesday was “Cookie Day.” Another poster read, “Taxidermy and Cream.” Incongruously, along a lonely stretch of highway in the northern reaches of the state, a concrete bridge bore graffiti with a terse expletive about one “Gustav.” Our bridge survey concluded along the Lake Superior coast, where I was caught in a snow storm in the middle of May.

The inaccessibility of a survey site heightens the sense of exploration. I have been lowered under a Yadkin River bridge on a crane called a “hydra platform” and have ridden in an SUV rigged with steel wheels along an abandoned rail line in the Smoky Mountains. During one prohibitively hot July afternoon—before cell phones—the truck I was driving became embedded in sand far off the beaten path at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After fruitless attempts to gain traction for the wheels and some professional soul-searching about architectural integrity, I finally freed the pickup using planks from a ruinous tenant house.

Shotgun  ("Endway") house in East Wilson, North Carolina | Credit: Richard L. Mattson

Architectural surveyors are outsiders with cameras. John Stilgoe, in his collection of essays, Outside Lies Magic, describes the “dark curiosity” of locals who are suspicious of strangers taking pictures. Not long ago, a resident followed me down the street threatening to “call the law” as I inventoried a textile-mill village. I was taking photos from a public street, so my actions were entirely legal. Yet, as Stilgoe notes, people often feel confused and threatened when an outsider starts documenting as significant something that they take for granted. Locals, like the mill-village resident, can also harbor suspicions about possible criminal activity as well as legitimate feelings of helplessness and anger toward agents of impersonal authority.

Depending on the scale of the project, our surveys may be announced in local newspapers and involve formal letters of introduction as well as appointments with police and other government officials. Few large inventories go by without my attending a delicious church barbeque to introduce myself and earn trust. Architectural surveys usually call for get-togethers with property owners to gain historical information; access to private property; and, ideally, views of interiors. The great majority of such meetings have been positive—many remarkably so, given that I may have arrived on the doorstep unbidden. I am reminded that once, during a survey of a pristine antebellum farmhouse in the North Carolina piedmont, an especially cordial owner greeted me at the door with a silver salver of Bloody Marys. It was 10 o’clock in the morning.

Although I start each architectural survey as an outsider—at best as a guest—I might finish with a familiarity that borders on intimacy. A 1987 survey of East Wilson, North Carolina, a historic African American community, brought out the local press, which branded the scores of shotgun houses as “neo-slave cabins” and “sad throwbacks to an era of legal and social inferiority.” However, the oldest inhabitants of East Wilson disagreed. Although the label “shotgun house” defining the traditional, narrow, three-room dwelling is part of the Southern idiom and scholastic architectural literature, long-time residents of East Wilson found it disparaging. In fact, they had invented fresh, descriptive labels, calling the gable-front houses “endways” (facing gable end to the street) and the later, 1920s models with low hip roofs and exposed rafters “bungabuilts” (after the popular bungalow style of the time). These houses had not been rude shacks for the downtrodden. In the face of Jim Crow and obdurate racial discrimination, residents had raised families and built lives that pulsed with purpose in these endways and bungabuilts.

Abandoned farmhouse in the North Carolina Coastal Plain  | Credit: Richard L. Mattson

 Familiarity with a place is also captured in moments or impressions that linger in memory from a survey long ago: the bittersweet landscape of empty, half-remembered farmhouses; the ubiquity of basketball hoops on small tobacco farms in the North Carolina coastal plain; the smell of wood smoke from a tenant house in December; treasured encounters with folks who recollected the old ways. Among the most profound changes in architectural surveys since I began my career in 1979 has been the loss of those treasured individuals. How many souls can now recall working a tobacco farm with mules or living in a cotton-mill village that was owned by the mill?

While searching the files of early architectural surveys, I have occasionally come across penciled notes from interviews with people who have such memories or who have deep and abiding attachments to places now lost or forever changed. Such files are valuable primary resources, not just for these occasional transcripts, but for the site plans and photos that offer rare historical and architectural information. Modern architectural surveys often play different roles. When performed to update previous inventories, they reveal how specific properties have changed over time and the efficacy of preservation initiatives. When recording new properties, they are unprecedented accounts of resources that were categorically excluded from surveys when my career began, like the Midcentury Modern ranch house and postwar suburb. The field notes from these surveys await the next generation of investigators.

I do understand that I will never receive a medal for the thousands of properties I surveyed. The reward, in large measure, has been a sense of professional accomplishment: the gratification of successfully completing architectural inventories that have advanced the mission of the NHPA. There have been the personal rewards, too. The work itself has cultivated ways of seeing, questioning, and listening—what folklorist Henry Glassie calls “habit of attention”—that inevitably deepen my encounters with places and those who inhabit them. The prize has never been about the numbers. 

Richard L. Mattson, Ph.D., is a historic preservation consultant based in Charlotte, North Carolina.


Get Connected

Discuss this blog post and more on Forum’s new online community. Sign up now.