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Architectural History 101

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

Hey there, Xplorers!

Our apologies for not posting the last couple of weeks — we fell too far down a rabbit hole and were wandering around Wonderland. Yes, we made it back safely! But, unfortunately, it was too late to write up our post for last week. Oh well!

Hey, we’re back this week anyway, right?! And the whole team here is extra excited about his post because we’re finally bringing you a little introduction to one of our most important and least well-known departments — architectural history!

When we talk about cultural resource management, a lot of people picture archaeologists, and that’s totally fair. It’s true that a lot of our work involves sending field crews out into project sites to dig shovel tests, recover artifacts, and bring them into the lab for analysis. But there’s a whole other side to CRM that hasn’t gotten nearly enough love here on Dig Deeper, so we think it’s high time we rectified that situation.

Architectural history truly is a HUGE part of what we do. Half of every report we write is the architectural history section! We have a whole team of architectural historians led by the brilliant Briane Shane who perform all of our architectural investigations, and you better believe they have their hands full. Think about it: The American southeast alone has way too many historical buildings to count, and that’s not to mention all the other things that fall into the architecture category — things like railroads, bridges, trails, cemeteries, canals… it’s a long list.

Ready to dive into Architectural History 101? We are too. Let’s go!

What Is Architectural History?

terraxplorations, architectural historian, field work, NHPA, Section 106

That’s the central question, isn’t it? Well, thankfully, we have Briane here to explain it to us. She says, “We investigate, evaluate, and document all above-grade resources that would fit Section 106 of the NHPA.”

Hold on, back it up a little bit. Think back to our original “What is Cultural Resource Management?” post. Do you remember when we talked about the National Historic Preservation Act of 1967? To recap, the NHPA was the original act that basically invented cultural resource management. One particular section of the act — you guessed it, Section 106 — is what requires the survey and evaluation of all project areas for archaeological resources before any projects can proceed. Well, Section 106 also applies to architectural resources. That’s why architectural history is half of every investigation we do.

That’s also why it’s important to have archaeologists and architectural historians working together. After all, they’re pulling toward the same goal — historic preservation. That’s the whole point of cultural resource management! We’re trying to recover and protect as many things as we can find that have something to tell us about history, and architectural resources can hold precious data just as much as buried artifacts can. In fact, it’s not too often we come across a project area that contains just one or the other, archaeological or architectural resources. It’s essential to have teams ready to evaluate both.

Okay, so to sum up: You already know that when we complete a Section 106 review for a client, we go out to their project area and dig for *under*ground archaeological resources. The other half of that process is when we investigate the area for *above*-ground resources like houses, barns, railroads, bridges, or other constructed resources.

We Really Do Mean Just About *Anything* Above Ground

Okay, you may be thinking, I get that archaeology is underground and architectural history is above ground, but when I think of “architecture,” I think of buildings. You’re saying there’s more to it than that?

You’re exactly right!

We brushed over it a minute ago, but it’s true. Houses, warehouses, barns, sheds, offices, apartment complexes, skyscrapers, theaters, stores… of course all of the above fit into the category of architectural history, and our architectural historians have plenty of experience evaluating them. However, architecture is a much wider world. It helps to think of it this way: Architecture is anything that humans have constructed. So, yes, buildings fall into that category, but those aren’t the only things humans construct! We construct bridges, canals, roads, railroads, and other things too, right? So, it makes sense that structures like those also fall under architectural history.

Let’s take it one step further. Sometimes humans create things *using* the actual ground. Cemeteries, trails, parks, planned landscapes — all of these have more to do with the land itself than with any literal structure built by people. But think about it — they were planned, shaped, and maintained by people, right? That makes them architecture, too.

Okay, now we’re clear on what qualifies as architecture, so let’s take it one step further. You already know that different kinds of projectile points, pottery types, and glass bottles are full of clues to tell us when, where, and why they were made. We know you’re going to be super surprised to hear it, but the same thing applies to architecture. Buildings, cemeteries, bridges — all have styles, characteristic features, materials, and variations that we can recognize. Architectural historians study those styles and features, notice their patterns, and use that information to help us learn more about the history of the people who lived — and built — before us.

Let’s look at a super simple example: Vinyl, which is a kind of plastic, hasn’t been around forever. So, when we find a house with vinyl window frames, we know for sure it isn’t a super old house. Of course, architectural history isn’t always that cut-and-dry. After all, vinyl window frames could have been added to a much older house. Nevertheless, we think we’ve illustrated our point!

Think You Might Want to Be an Architectural Historian?

You may never have considered that question before. It’s fair — architectural history is a pretty niche little field. However, the cool thing about being a lesser-known facet of cultural resource management is that people find their ways to it from all different directions.

Brianne Shane, Architectural historian, TerraX

Take our own Briane, for instance. Throughout her life, Briane as moved around a lot — she’s lived in 22 different homes! The funny thing is that she remembers the floor plans of every single one of them. She’s always had a great memory for design and layout, so when she reached high school and started considering options for college, Interior Design seemed like the way to go.

There was just one problem… as Briane progressed through high school and college loomed closer, she started to realize… Interior Design firms are pretty competitive corporate spaces, and she started to sweat a little anticipating the toxic work environment she might be getting herself into. On a whim — and to relieve a little of that stress — Briane dropped a math class and added a class that would teach her a little bit of philosophy, a little bit of art history, and a little bit of — you guessed it — architectural history. That was the first spark!

Briane did go on to get her degree in Interior Design, but she added a minor in Art History, which is how she learned about the world of historic preservation. Briane found old buildings fascinating, and as she learned more about cultural resource management, and the pieces started coming together — she could build a career she loved and contribute to the rich cultural history of architecture.

Briane found her way to the field in a roundabout way, basically by taking the right classes at the right time. However, that’s not the only way people become architectural historians. Some don’t fall in love with historic preservation until much later. Some back into the architectural world through art or archaeology or anthropology. Still others know they want to be somewhere in the history world, and they may even enjoy the travel involved with archaeology, but they don’t want to be digging in the dirt all day. If that sounds like you, architectural history just might be the right fit.

You Can Become an Architectural Historian!

So tell us — are you interested in design? Do you find it easy to memorize floor plans like Briane? Do you get excited when you visit a new park or walking trail? If so, architectural history just might be the field for you.

You — yes, you! — can become an architectural historian if you want to. It’s true! Whether you’re just starting out in school or you’ve been in the working world for a while, you can get into this fascinating field.

Resource Management, Architecture, Cultural Resources, Preservation

If you’re interested in becoming an architectural historian, you’re likely going to need some type of formal education within the realm of architecture and history to make it happen. Look for programs in architecture, interior design, and historic preservation. It’s a great idea to start getting some experience working for CRM firms too — familiarizing yourself with the laws and and standards regarding important elements of your future career like site forms and NRHP recommendations in

reporting is essential.

Of course, you can also keep checking back here, where we’ll be posting more about our adventures in architectural history very soon!

Architectural history is a broad field, and the jobs you can do are just as varied. Some work in CRM, others work for State Historic Preservation Offices, and plenty others work in historic preservation in completely different ways. However, all have an interest in design and structure and a passion that’s definitely worth exploring.

As always, remember that you can leave a comment with any questions you may have. We love hearing from you, Xplorers!

We’ll catch you next time, everyone! Until then —

— The TerraX Team


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