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Teaching History with Architecture

Paul Clifford Larson
Research and Narrative

We're Rich in Architecture


In the last twenty years the study and teaching of history has become increasingly holistic, while the study of American architecture has struggled to keep pace with varying degrees of success. In this country, architecture still tends to be valued principally for its association with famous people or events or, in the case of public buildings, for its artistic pomp. But we learn very little about our past that is new or not readily attainable from standard histories if we confine our attention to mementos of early Americana or monuments to wealth and grandeur; those are the artifacts of political position and economic power, belonging to a segment of American society that already overpopulates our histories. In contrast, the way each city and countryside developed, how neighborhoods and business centers and farmsteads grew up, what their people were like at various periods, where they came from, how they lived, worked, worshiped, and had fun — this is the stuff of history that embraces all social and economic classes, finds meaning in the ideals, folkways, and manner of life of all regional or ethnic groups, and treats every individual life as an important moment in the story of the human race. All this is imbedded in buildings approached with an open mind and studied with the proper tools.

Uncovering the pieces of history hidden in each building's story can be as exciting as a treasure hunt. In fact it adds a layer of suspense and surprise, for the aim is not to find something we already know but to lay bare facts and associations that may be utterly lost to current record or memory. As in an archaeological dig, we can only make educated guesses about the nature or the significance of what we will find; the actual discovery may lead us somewhere else altogether. Being open to where the discoveries about a building and its history might lead is essential to the study of local architecture. We might think we are researching a site of early black settlement, only to find that the extant structure was built by a white merchant who eradicated all traces of his predecessor's occupance. Or in looking into the chain of occupancy of a sophisticated Federal Period store we find that it originated as a furniture factory powered by horses. Those are the sorts of discoveries that change the way we look at things.


The unexpected findings described above are both actual discoveries, made by the author during far-ranging historic neighborhood surveys in Quincy, Illinois. Few American cities its size (40,000) contain a richer architectural heritage or so varied a set of historical resources. It is, therefore, an ideal place to construct mini-examples of historical research through architecture. These are offered simply as samplings of the kinds of historical issues that can be

Courtesy of the Historical Society
of Quincy and Adams County
Map of Quincy


Quincy in 1888

Bird's-eye view of Quincy, Illinois, in 1888 Large-scale lithographs such as this were a frequent means of advertisement for up-and-coming cities. A crowded riverfront, signs of industrial waste on the banks, and black clouds belching from every smokestack were all selling points.

Woodruff's map of Quincy

Issac Woodruffs map of
Quincy, Illinois, c. 1838
The two illustrations suggest that
Quincy was a town of architectural
distinction belying its youth, when in
fact the buildings shown here were all
that downtown had to offer above
simple brick and frame shop fronts.

Photos courtesy of the
Historical Society of
Quincy and Adams County

raised and partially resolved through a study of local architecture. Firmly establishing the conclusions suggested by the examples would obviously take considerably more research.

EXAMPLE A: How a building teaches us about the surrounding culture

Quincy is the focus of one of the largest intact clusters of German immigrant housing in the nation. Most of the houses are vernacular, meaning that their design and construction is based on regional building traditions; yet they are also microcosms of the typical German immigrant's life. Hints of artistry in the structures echo then-current American styles, showing that the Germans willingly assimilated some of the most visible aspects of their new culture. Staggered setbacks from the street, many so shallow as to put the house on the eventual public sidewalk, point to a variety of prior rural and urban living experiences. The great number of two-room cottages also reveals the limited means of many of the immigrants, who often crowded large families into those two rooms.

Man pointing

EXAMPLE B: How the evolution of a site teaches us about urban change

The first building on the northeast corner of Fifth and Hampshire was a crude split-log county courthouse that also served as school and church. In 1840, the year when Quincy became a chartered city, local land speculator and merchant Timothy Kelly built a three-story brick block that sprawled across the courthouse site. It was the largest retail building in the city as well as the first structure of any kind to boast a tin roof. The city's need for expanded office space as the century neared its close led to the replacement of the Kelly Block by the five-story Dodd Block. With the exodus of business to the suburbs after World War II, the Dodd Block was largely vacated. A realty company now occupies the ground floor, which has been updated with aqua facings and Colonial Revival detailing.

EXAMPLE C: How a succession of buildings teaches us about a person and his work

A simple Federal Style brick building on Maine Street, one of the oldest surviving

John B. Schott, House,
Quincy, Illinois,
an example of a
German immigrant

Courtesy of
Paul Clifford Larson

John B. Schott House


masonry buildings in Quincy, housed the first furniture factory of Frederick Jansen. It was powered by horses. A store building erected on the town square in 1854 shows that Jansen's business soon expanded enough to separate production and sales operations. In 1874 a much larger factory, this one powered by steam, was built just above the river; Jansen continued to expand his store and warehouse on the square, first by erecting an adjoining building, then by adding a floor to the original structure.

EXAMPLE D: How historic building patterns teach us about the ebb and flow of subcultures

Quincy has had a sizable and vital black community since the 1850s, well before the Civil War and its aftermath drove thousands of African Americans across the Missouri border into Illinois. Using city directories as a key (several years indicate black residents by "c" or "col"), several areas of dense settlement on the north side can be identified. One clustered around the local African Methodist church; another stretched out along an east-west axis on land belonging to abolitionist Willard Keyes. Many houses in the area date to the 1870s, but unlike the German immigrant-dominated south side, few or none can be traced to the first generation of occupancy. This suggests that the early black population survived largely in makeshift shelters. As those gave way to more permanent houses, the pools of black settlement tended to disperse through a larger area.

SAMPLE E: How the growth of a farmstead reflects changes in agriculture

The earliest standing artifact on the Henry Clark farm in Liberty Township (Adams County) is a porch barn erected in 1889. (A porch barn is distinguished by a shed-roofed attachment to the rear offering partial shelter to livestock.) That single structure housed cattle and horses, provided the threshing and winnowing floor, stored hay and grain, and, in the winter, stored the major farming equipment. Twenty-two years later, Clark's son erected a much larger barn in which to store hay, reflecting an expanded operation and, possibly, the use of regional terminals for grain storage. The farmhouse has been rented out for many years, a mark of the contemporary trend toward farm consolidation.

These examples illustrate a few of the many ways that studying buildings teaches us about history. Buildings can inform us about the culture that gave rise to them, the people who constructed and used them, and the continuous adjustment of neighborhoods to new subcultural groups and shifting economic realities. There is no better index than buildings to that rich historical tapestry we identify as the American experience.

Farmstead and African Mehtodist Church

Henry Clark Farmstead, Liberty Township, Adams County, Illinois

Photo Courtesy of Paul Clifford Larson

African Methodist Episcopal Church, Quincy, Illinois
Constructed in 1873 for one of the first African-American congregations in Illinois (organized in 1863), the building was enlarged and given a new facade in 1893. A tornado and successive remodelings have taken their toll on the structure, but it remains a vital component of northside Quincy.

Courtesy of Paul Clifford Larson and the Gardner Museum, Quincy, Illinois


Volunteer Help


Resources for the study of local history
Every community offers many kinds of resources for studying its history through its buildings. The most important resource is the buildings themselves. But learning how to read a building, that is, to extract all of the information presented by its physical structure and appearance, requires a good deal of training and experience.

A number of readily available histories and guidebooks can assist with such things as the dating and stylistic classification of a building. Such guides help set the parameters for additional research and examination. For example, if a house is Italianate, it was not likely to have been built more recently than the early 1880s; if it is Mission Revival, it was likely constructed after 1905. At the same time, guides to the styles and periods of buildings are seldom fine-tuned to the slow and often erratic dissemination of taste and technology from east to west and city to town. The absorption of new eastern styles into downstate Illinois building practice, for example, often lagged five, ten, or even fifteen years behind the seaboard, and local builders generally used heavy timbers for construction right up to the Civil War, although balloon construction (using evenly-spaced two-by-fours fastened by nails) was invented in Chicago in 1833. Guides to determining dates for buildings provide little help for hybrid or vernacular structures. To use as an example Italianate houses, a variant with a mansard roof sometimes appeared as the harbinger of the Second Empire style, but it was also occasionally all that was locally seen of the Second Empire. Or to use a rural type of building, only extensive local research can reveal when nails gradually replaced pegs as the primary fastener for barn timbers in a given area. Nationally the range could be anywhere from 1900 to 1925. So all generalizations about styles or building practices and materials have to be qualified by the understanding that they can only provide very broad chronological guidelines.

An increasing number of cities, even quite small cities, now have historic preservation or landmark commissions operating as a volunteer arm of city government. Generally placed within planning departments, the commissions have files on many of the cities' buildings. Copies of all historic site survey work and National Register nominations prepared with state funds must be kept by the local commission. In addition, the local commission itself often funds survey or registration work, and many cities now have locally designated buildings and districts as well. Since much of the work summarized in the final reports and nominations concerns historical contexts and developments, it is often useful to students of local building history even if the building, site, or neighborhood they are researching is not mentioned in the records.

Libraries and historical societies can be a very helpful resource, particularly for learning about the events and situations surrounding a building's erection or evolution and something about the people involved. In most Illinois counties extensive histories were published by subscription during periods of economic upswing, such as the mid-1880s, the early 1900s, or the years following the First World War. Adams County, where Quincy is located, published a history during each of those periods. Vanity biographies are generally a major component, and some subscription volumes contain nothing but biographical blurbs and photographic portraits.

In the late 1880s a Wisconsin publisher issued a number of folios of photogravures featuring cities in the middle states from Minnesota to Texas. Called either "[Name of City] Illustrated" or "Picturesque [Name of City]," these are a superb source of archival images both of individual buildings and of streetscapes for those cities enterprising enough to acquire that sort of coverage. Just after the turn of the century, cities of all sizes began producing their own pictorial brochures. Often published by the chamber of commerce or a local printer, these provide excellent period views, though the quality of reproduction tends to be uneven. In Quincy, such booklets date from 1914 to the 1950s; other downstate cities produced earlier self-advertising pieces, but most of them discontinued the effort after the initial wave of modernist enthusiasm ebbed.

City and county historical societies are also a rich source of documentary material such as early photographs, county plat maps, insurance atlases (which provide ground floor outlines or "footprints" of buildings at various periods), diaries, and




Man sitting in a chair

business records. Few local historical societies have the means to create extensive finding aids, so using these resources often requires a good deal of scanning and sorting. But the potential reward is worth the struggle, for primary sources often contain descriptive and interpretive material that is more specific and more colorful than published accounts. The libraries of smaller communities are by and large divesting themselves of primary materials, unless they have a special collections division prepared to archive manuscripts and photographs. But they often retain news clippings, in which building descriptions can figure extensively. Local genealogical society publications also find their way into library collections. Most importantly, microform technology allows all libraries to make available an extensive collection of newspapers, directories, atlases, and other local records.

Pursuing the history of an individual building requires research of a particularly dogged sort. Unless its history has already been delved into during a historic site survey, National Register nomination, or local designation, the researcher will have to deal with a number of city and county offices of varying degrees of friendliness and accessibility to researchers. For cities fortunate enough to have sponsored an indexing of their building permits with Works Progress Administration funding, the department of building inspection is the ideal place to start. Listings by address provide instant access not only to initial construction information (who did it, who paid for it, how much it cost, the size of the building and even who designed it) but to subsequent remodelings. Unfortunately, few cities of less than 100,000 possess such an index, and building permit records prior to computerization are more often than not stored with little regard to archival requirements or access, if they are even retained at all past the limited statutory requirement. At best, an unindexed building permit collection consists of chronologically arranged drawers or volumes, requiring extensive search for data on a particular building.

Another governmental resource with a high potential for usefulness is tax records, specifically the annual tax rolls arranged by township or city and legal description. Accessing these records requires three things: a knowledge of the property's legal description, a friendly relationship with the county treasurer and his office, and the survival of early tax records. The legal description is accessible by means of the address from whichever city or county office handles property taxes. I have never encountered a county treasurer who was not friendly, helpful, and interested in the subject of my research into tax records. The sticking point is the third requirement. Saving early tax records is not legally required, and fires and basement flooding have taken a toll even in those counties where some pains have been taken to hold onto them. Their primary use for historical buildings research is their listing of property values. Generally speaking, large increases in the value of a lot from one year to the next indicate building activity in the earlier year. However, every county undergoes periodic years of across-the-board increases due to an assessment adjustment or a rise in the base tax, so tax research must be paired with other approaches to property history.

Deed research offers a sound basis for constructing a chain of ownership for a property. The county recorder's office holds copies of deeds as well as such other sorts of building-related documents as mortgages and liens. Each county has its own system of providing access to copies of the financial transactions concerning individual properties. In Adams County, a general index by division or subdivision is the starting point; this points the way to a more specific index volume providing a lot-by-lot listing of property transfers, mortgages, and liens; the last stage is looking for the volumes and pages that actually contain copies of these documents. Other counties have the detailed indexes in a huge catalogue or on computer, the last stage (the volumes actually containing the property records) on microfiche, or a hybrid arrangement that varies with the periods or city divisions being researched. The cooperation of office staff is obviously a prerequisite for beginning the process, but most staff personnel understand that helping the public is part of their jobs.

Construction documents such as blueprints and specifications are always treasured finds, as much for the rarity of their survival as for their usefulness in research. Architectural offices occasionally have


working drawings of old buildings designed by their firm or a firm whose practice they acquired. Few historical societies or museums retain this kind of document, as its friability and large size make it difficult to store. In the Upper Midwest, the Burnham Library in Chicago, the Chicago Historical Society, the Northwest Architectural Archives in St. Paul, and the Gardner Museum of Architecture and Design in Quincy all have extensive collections of construction documents, but in spite of the efforts of each institution to build a regional or even national collection, most of their holdings continue to be of local buildings and architects.

A final important resource is people who presently occupy or own the building, live in the neighborhood, or remember stories about the site or building under investigation. I have found oral history to be particularly useful in pointing the way to additional sources of information as well as for the interpretive insights it offers. For public buildings, custodial personnel are often more helpful than elected officials, just as long-term members of the office staff often take a deeper interest in the buildings where they work than the businessmen, ministers, or teachers they serve.

Ferreting out information about a building's origin or history can be intriguing work in itself. But the larger value of detailed architectural research is what it discloses about the people who built a building, owned it, and used it. The floor plan of a building, its use of materials, its landscaping and color scheme, the way it addresses the street or road, and its physical and chronological place in its neighborhood all have far-reaching implications about the way people live, how they spend their time, what they value, the extent of their ideals and ambitions, and with whom and what they associate themselves. Were we to have a precise record of all the redecoratings or remodelings of a house, no matter how minor, we would know as much about the families that occupied it as the sum of all their Christmas letters. Church congregations that stencil their sanctuary ceiling, then paint it over, then sheath it with acoustical material, then restore it to a semblance of its original appearance, reveal a great deal about themselves in the process—their aesthetic tastes, obviously, but also the evolving practice of their religion, their attitude toward the historical forms of their faith, and their degree of vulnerability to the surrounding culture. Buildings speak in consonance with those who use them; that is the secret to how much they have to tell us.

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man with Telescope

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