Sunday, May 21, 2017

On Surveying Historic Buildings

Last summer, I started an ambitious and obsessive project of the sort only I could dream up: creating, with the aid of Google Fusion Tables, an extensive listing of historic rural residences — in effect, a lightweight alternative to the Ohio Historic Inventory (or any other state architectural survey, for that matter). Thus far, it's been a smashing success. One property owner even sent me a message after discovering that I'd given his home a rating of "1" — in my system, the greatest honor I could bestow. (Thanks, Mr. Mullenix!) That said, the project is far from complete, and I've little hope that it'll become a lasting record. Only publishing (or bureaucracy) can manage that.

I don't dislike the Ohio Historic Inventory. Quite the contrary. But it is hopelessly, infuriatingly, embarrassingly incomplete,* particularly in comparison to a few of its out-of-state counterparts. Indiana's survey program, for instance, is overzealous, if anything, and may include too many buildings; but better an excess of data than a dearth of it, I say!

The disparity between Ohio's and Indiana's programs flows from the states' radically different methodologies. After 1980s budget cuts closed Ohio's regional preservation offices, surveying became merely a matter of Section 106 compliance. A few exceptions notwithstanding, only structures endangered by publicly funded construction projects had (and have) any hope of appearing in the inventory. Indiana (and plenty of other states), by contrast, clings to the traditional model of surveying. Consultants or academics choose an area of interest — say, a township, city, or county — then scour that area for whatever strikes them as worth documenting. Their telos is the creation of an architectural, historical, or cultural portrait — an explanation of those features which define a locale as itself.

Enough philosophizing! It's time for examples.


To the left are Knox County's NRHP- and OHI-listed rural homes; to the right, homes I've identified as worthy of documentation — whether because they are (or were) intact, or because they're superlative examples of particular building-types. In rural Knox County, a measly 3.8 percent of structures worth including (I think) in any half-decent architectural survey are, in fact, included in existing surveys. The percentage is bound to drop; I've only partially explored Knox County. What's omitted? Well, these three buildings . . . and many more besides:

The 1838 John Schnebley House (?), a Federal masterpiece. Photo by Nyttend, August 2016, from Wikimedia Commons.
Vucry House (?). Image sourced from Google Maps.
Workman Log House. Now dismantled. Photo from the Mount Vernon Barn Company archives.

Elsewhere, the situation is similar, though less dire. In Champaign County, documented homes are confined to the county's center:


Highland County is nearly as ill-covered as is Knox County:


So is Madison County:


Portions of Pickaway County are well-researched; others, not so much:


After a bit of number-crunching, I managed to create this table. The rows highlighted in bold provide the best data points. (These counties, I've surveyed completely and independently of the Ohio Historic Inventory and National Register.)

County:
Documented Buildings:
Undocumented Buildings:
Percentage of Buildings Documented:
Adams
34
102
25.0%
Allen
40
110
26.7%
Athens
96
33
74.4%
Ashland
34
32
51.5%
Auglaize
94
22
81.0%
Belmont
98
144
40.3%
Brown
40
127
23.0%
Carroll
129
17
89.0%
Champaign
49
209
18.6%
Clark
96
193
33.1%
Clermont
137
259
34.5%
Clinton
57
167
24.6%
Columbiana
68
56
54.8%
Coshocton
10
90
10.0%
Crawford
43
185
18.9%
Darke
85
65
56.7%
Defiance
3
35
7.9%
Delaware
78
196
28.4%
Erie
31
73
29.8%
Fayette
23
82
21.9%
Franklin
269
122
68.4%
Gallia
73
84
46.5%
Greene
106
228
31.6%
Guernsey
36
88
29.0%
Hancock
15
71
17.4%
Hardin
39
48
44.8%
Harrison
56
75
42.7%
Henry
21
53
28.3%
Highland
28
230
10.6%
Hocking
27
48
36.0%
Holmes
7
28
20.0%
Huron
173
42
80.0%
Jackson
8
68
10.5%
Jefferson
38
88
30.2%
Knox
5
127
3.8%
Lawrence
70
36
66.0%
Licking
58
110
34.5%
Madison
18
162
10.0%
Marion
25
128
16.2%
Meigs
54
34
61.4%
Mercer
161
14
92.0%
Monroe
44
31
58.7%
Morgan
12
85
12.4%
Morrow
8
45
15.0%
Noble
29
84
25.7%
Paulding
20
15
57.1%
Perry
25
133
15.9%
Pickaway
97
208
31.8%
Pike
38
26
59.4%
Preble
77
216
26.3%
Putnam
47
13
78.3%
Richland
19
197
8.8%
Ross
93
305
23.4%
Scioto
21
118
15.1%
Seneca
85
121
41.3%
Shelby
142
22
86.6%
Tuscarawas
44
95
31.4%
Van Wert
11
16
40.7%
Vinton
52
34
60.5%
Washington
274
43
86.4%
Williams
29
156
15.7%
Wyandot
46
34
57.5%
Total
3,745
6,078
38.1%

Why does this matter? Because, in the world of surveying (and not merely building-surveying), accurate samples are a must; and because the public tends to make no distinction between insignificance and omission from a survey. If a building isn't listed on the National Register or included in a state inventory, it's not a landmark, so most Americans think. The public presumes comprehensive surveying. States would do well to confirm their assumptions.

* Urban areas tend to be better-surveyed than rural areas.

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