PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Historic Preservation and Material Culture

Marshall Seaton McLennan, Eastern Michigan University

Unlike the traditional academic disciplines, historic preservation is an applied field. It is concerned with evaluating buildings and properties in terms of criteria of eligibility and historic significance. At this point preservation has developed a limited theoretical foundation. It draws primarily upon the theoretical constructs of the academic disciplines. In essence it has a symbiotic relationship with the academic fields that feed properties to it for designation consideration.

By training I am a cultural geographer, having undertaken my doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley. As many of you are aware, Berkeley is where the eminent geographer, Carl Sauer, influenced the development of cultural landscape analysis as an important focus of study within the field of geography. Undoubtedly it is somewhat pretentious, but I occasionally enjoy making the claim, “I’m the last of the Sauerians.” I don’t make this claim simply because I went to Berkeley and approach geography and material culture studies from the perspective of the cultural landscape, but because I have a direct linkage to Carl Sauer through his protégé John Leighly. When Carl Sauer left the University of Michigan in 1923 to establish a new geography department at the University of California, Leighly followed him to Berkeley, where he became Sauer’s first doctoral student.

My interest in cultural and historic landscapes was first piqued by a seminar in settlement geography while I was pursuing a master’s in geography at San Francisco State University in the mid-1960s. The guest lecturer for the seminar was John Leighly, by this time an emeritus professor at Berkeley. Leighly assigned me to read, report, and critique Fred Kniffen’s classic paper, “Louisiana House Types” (Kniffen 1936). Today I look back and realize the naiveté I brought to my critique of that paper. I was fascinated by the concept of “house types” and the criteria by which they are identified and defined. But although captivated by the concept, I was frustrated by the many unanswered questions the paper raised in my mind about the specific house types Kniffen identified. As a green wet-behind-the ears graduate student new to the study of geography, I expected the paper to comprise a definitive piece of research. I failed to realize that the significance of Kniffen’s paper was that it pushed open the door to a research focus heretofore largely unattended by geographers, a paper setting the ground rules for fieldwork by which that research could be pursued. His paper is recognized as a classic because it legitimized house types as a focus for study and provided an initial methodology for field research. His paper was the “alpha;” I thought it should be the “omega.” Other students in the seminar had presented descriptive reports on their assigned readings; instead I castigated the deficiencies I perceived in Kniffen’s paper—and, as it turned out, John Leighly loved it. Subsequently Leighly proved instrumental in my obtaining a scholarship to attend Berkeley.

Among those who subsequently amplified my interests in cultural landscapes and material culture during my Berkeley years were James Parsons, J. B. Jackson, and an anthropologist, James Anderson. During my last year, Jan Broek, a geography professor from the University of Minnesota and a Berkeley alumnus, joined the department as a visiting professor. In his dissertation on California’s Sta. Clara Valley (now vernacularly known as Silicon Valley), Broek developed an analytical structural technique for the study of his region called “sequence occupance.” He described how a sequence of different culture groups made use of the same region over time. Each culture group perceived the environment in the Valley to offer distinctly different utilization opportunities.

Many years later (1978-9), for a project sponsored by the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), a colleague, Andrew Nazarro, and I used “sequence occupance” as the organizational tool to study the evolution of settlement patterns in Michigan’s Huron River Valley. The objective was to identify historic sites and relict features from past periods of occupance. Instead of a sequence of culture groups, “energy technology” provided our analytic variable. The sequential use of waterpower, steam power, and hydroelectric power gave rise to distinct settlement features.

Let me now turn to my involvement with historic preservation at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), and the interaction of that field with material culture. Faced with declining enrollments in the late 1970s, EMU began to encourage the development of applied academic programs. This shift in mission emphasis by the university coincided with a national blossoming of historic preservation activities and an associated need for preservation professionals. Only a handful of academic programs in historic preservation existed in 1978. The National Trust for Historic Preservation undertook to encourage the development of additional graduate programs to meet the need for professionals. My involvement with the previously mentioned Michigan SHPO-funded Huron River Valley project somehow led to my being placed on the National Trust’s mailing list, and I received notice of the competitive availability of seed money for development of a degree-granting preservation program. Nazarro and I submitted a successful proposal. The National Trust was intrigued with bringing a geography-based perspective to the training of preservationists. The historic preservation program that we developed offers a balanced preservation and architectural history curriculum, but the foundation courses draw from cultural geography—settlement geography, American cultural landscapes, American vernacular architecture, cultural landscape interpretation, and American material culture.

The objective of historic preservation in this country is to preserve properties of historical, architectural, archeological and cultural significance.

A property may consist of an individual building or structure, an associated set of buildings and/or structures, or an archeological or historic site. Clusters of contiguous properties sharing some thematic homogeneity may also be protected. These are called historic districts.

A governmental infrastructure for historic preservation practice and regulation exists at the federal and state levels, and in an ever-growing number of local communities. Property regulation is one of the responsibilities the Constitution reserves to the states rather than to the national government. Consequently, listing on the National Register for Historic Places gives legal protection to a property only from undertakings of federal agencies or projects involving federal funds. In other contexts, listing is simply honorific. Outside the context of the National Register, Congress has occasionally also designated “heritage corridors” and “heritage areas,” entities comprising a management partnership between the National Park Service and local governments and/or groups.

Each state has identified an agency responsible for overseeing jurisdictional preservation initiatives, however the preservation powers and responsibilities of these agencies vary in terms of state-legislated mandates. The individual states also have the power to delegate property regulation, including preservation responsibilities, to local governments. Using these delegated powers, local governments utilize a variety of mechanisms by which to identify, designate, and regulate historic properties and districts.

Let us return to the federal role. To be listed on the National Register, properties must be determined to be of local, state or national significance. The key word here is “significance.” The National Register has established a sweeping set of criteria by which to evaluate the significance of a potential historic property. To mention just two criteria, one asks “is the building located on its original site,” and “has the architectural integrity of the building been maintained?” While state and local preservation agencies and commissions can establish their own criteria of significance, most closely model their criteria list after those of the National Register.

Many properties have been listed on the National Register because their significance is in some way unique. A historic event may have occurred at the site, such as Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Grant in the courthouse at Appomattox. Alternatively a building’s significance may lie in its having been designed by an architect of some stature.

Material culture scholars, however, are concerned with what is “representative” of a culture. Fortunately, the National Register does provide for listing properties with “representative significance.” Individual buildings or even aggregate urban neighborhoods or farming communities may exemplify cultural landscapes that are representative or homogenous in a time-specific way, or they may be buildings that are associated with the material culture of specific ethnic groups. Still another link with material culture may be that an individual dwelling, barn or bridge may possess significance because it illustrates a method of construction technology characteristic of a bygone time. For such material culture artifacts to bear significance sufficient for historic designation, their cultural and physical integrity must be as little compromised as possible.

Historic preservation may be narrowly defined as the preservation of historic properties, or we may more broadly define the field to include the preservation and interpretation of material culture artifacts like those typically on display in historic museums. Our preservation program at EMU embraces the latter view of preservation and offers a concentration area in historic administration and interpretation as well as a more traditional concentration in preservation planning. Many of our graduates have been employed by or become managers and directors of historic museums and historic houses with their artifact collections. I like to think of this more inclusive approach to preserving material culture artifacts as “cultural resource management.” Admittedly this term has been preempted by archeological conservation programs.

Architectural conservation is another area in which preservation interacts with material culture. The EMU preservation program also offers a concentration in preservation technology. In addition to appropriate conservation courses, the program offers a summer field program in which students learn restoration skills. For several years students restored buildings at Fayette State Park, the site of a nineteenth-century pig-iron manufacturing company town on the Big Bay de Noc in the Upper Peninsula, then at Bayview, an historic resort community on Little Traverse Bay, and more recently, the farmstead of a nineteenth-century German immigrant in northwestern Ohio.

I would like to finish by making a few comments upon the material culture/popular culture architectural dichotomy. Material culture comprises the physical products of a people sharing a common culture. In practice scholars have generally limited material culture studies to culture groups adhering to traditional folkways.1 Conversely, popular culture encompasses cultural fads and fashions in modern societies. If we set aside the one-of-a-kind architectural creations of architects, structures we identify as “high style,” the bulk of fashion-oriented buildings constructed during the twentieth century can be construed to be products of popular culture. Much of the nineteenth century may be characterized as a transitional period between folk and popular architectural expression. Before the Civil War, fashionable interior and exterior moldings embellished domestic structures laid out with traditional floor plans.2 It was only late in the nineteenth century that home designers realized that the combination of balloon-frame construction and new heating technologies freed them to innovate new and varied floor plans.

Although both traditional and popular forms of domestic architecture qualify under the aggregate term, “vernacular architecture,” since they both serve the common population, only the former is derivative of material culture. For preservationists, analysis of popular architecture demands a paradigm shift in how to evaluate architectural significance. House types and traditional farm buildings derive their significance because they are “representative” of a material culture tradition. This is not the case with popular vernacular buildings.

The usual threshold age criterion for listing a property on the National Register is fifty years. Today a great deal of extant popular architecture exceeds this age threshold. Except in the case in which one of these buildings can be argued to possess significance because of association with a famous historical figure or some other “unique” circumstance, there is no basis for historic designation. The primary way by which examples of popular architecture fifty or more years of age have been successfully designated is by aggregation in a “historic district.” Geographers are familiar with the concept of the tout ensemble. Neighborhoods possessing a high degree of architectural homogeneity and integrity can be evaluated as significant because they comprise a domestic landscape visually representative of a particular period of time and architectural fashion. Again we come back to the notion of “being representative” to justify National Register listing.

Although “material culture” provides the organizational focus for the Pioneer America Society, we have not been steadfast in our resolve. Our Society has occasionally accommodated papers devoted to some expression of popular culture. Historic preservation straddles both manifestations of vernacular architecture. We the PAS, have always been characterized by an informal membership and continue to tolerate and enjoy the occasional presentation venturing into the examination of popular landscapes. I anticipate that as time goes by, our annual conferences will see more such papers.


1 This is not the place to undertake a discussion of the nature of folk culture and its architectural expression, but the curious reader is encouraged to consider Redfield (1956) and Glassie (1968) as good entry points to the literature.

2 The intermingling of traditional spatial organization with contemporary decoration is a major theme in Marshall McLennan, “Common House Types in Southern Michigan” (McLennan 1987).

References Cited

Glassie, H. 1968. Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kniffen, F. 1936. “Louisiana House Types.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 26:179-93.

McLennan, M. 1987. “Common House Types in Southern Michigan.” In C. K. Dewhurst and Y. Lockwood, editors, Michigan Folklife Reader. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 15-45.

Redfield, R. 1956. Peasant Society and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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