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They Came, They Saw, They Surveyed

by Ann V. Swallow

One of the directives of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was that each state establish a historic preservation office and prepare comprehensive surveys of historic properties. Such surveys, it was believed, would make available information on places of historical, architectural, or archaeological importance, enabling a preservation office to make informed decisions about the protection of the state's important resources. 

Illinois, the historic preservation office, at its two locations in state government (the Department of Conservation's Division of Long Range Planning, 1969 to 1975, and Division of Historic Sites, 1975 to 1985, and the Preservation Services Division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency since 1985), has either funded or conducted surveys since its inception in 1969.

The initial focus of Illinois' survey program was a selective inventory of the entire state accomplished in three surveys conducted between 1970 and 1975: the Illinois Historic Structures Survey, an inventory of places of purely architectural interest; the Illinois Historic Landmarks Survey, an inventory of places of historic importance; and the Illinois Archaeological Survey, an inventory of historic and pre-historic archaeological sites.

It was quite an accomplishment for a state encompassing more than 56,000 square miles. The Structures Survey was conducted in communities of more than five hundred people, and individual survey cards were completed for more than 50,000 architectural properties. "Architecture" was broadly defined to include resources other than buildings; for example, sculpture, monuments, and bridges were recorded.


Each 4-by-6-inch card included a small black-and-white photograph, the name, address, and a brief description of the property. Not all architecture was surveyed, only those places evaluated by architectural historians as having "some architectural interest."

THe Landmarks Survey was conducted on a county-by-county basis, and surveyors first researched the history of each county to search for references to buildings or other landmarks associated with important events and people. Surveyors enlisted the assistance of local historical organizations in identifying and locating the county's important resources. Each site was then visited, and if the building was still standing, a two-page inventory form was filled out and a 5-by-7-inch photograph taken. The kind and amount of information collected on each property varied; some inventories recorded only the location, ownership, construction date, and a short entry on a structure's history, while others included in-depth histories provided by the local historians. Some 12,000 properties were inventoried in 102 counties.

In 1971 the state historic preservation office contracted with the Illinois Archaeological Survey, a statewide association of professionals, to identify Illinois' vast number of archaeological sites. Consequently, sixteen universities and museums were involved in the cataloging of more than 25,000 properties of varying importance and size. Although the location of the sites is not available to the public for security reasons, survey data is used daily by the office archaeologists in the review and compliance program.

The statewide surveys of the early 1970s have provided a sound basis for the work of the preservation office. It aids in the evaluation of individual properties and districts for National Register designation, the review of grants-in-aid applications, and the review of thousands of federal and state funded projects each year. However, it became evident that many resources in the state had not been covered by the surveys, most notably rural and small community properties, vernacular buildings, and archaeological sites unidentifiable through surface survey. To fill that information gap the preservation office has, since 1975, awarded dozens of contracts and federal grants-in-aid to individuals, communities, and preservation organizations for survey work.

A major step forward in the documenting of rural structures-the Illinois Rural Survey-was taken in the summer of 1979 when the first counties were surveyed in a pilot project conducted by the state office. All structures built prior to 1945 in unincorporated areas of St. Clair, Madison, and Monroe counties were photographed and their physical characteristics recorded. A total of 4,619 sites were identified.

This building-by-building approach ensured that all historic properties were evaluated, not just a select group as in the earlier surveys. Structures were classified according to vernacular and high-style building types developed especially for the survey. Small black-and-white photographs were attached to 5-by-7-inch cards that recorded basic information on building materials, function, alterations, and construction date. Since 1979 rural properties in a total of 24 Illinois counties have been surveyed.

Rural surveys are a high priority in counties where resources are being lost due to development, or where the majority of the historic resources are in rural areas. Counties in the St. Louis and Chicago metropolitan areas were targeted first, and in the early 1980s, surveys of Illinois' five southernmost counties were completed by the Southern Five Regional Planning Commission. The most comprehensive rural survey was of Kane County, where information on more than 5,500 sites was collected in 1986 and 1987.

Many farmsteads were individually mapped, and the settlement pattern of the unincorporated areas of the county was researched through historic plat maps and atlases, county histories, and interviews. Archaeological data were collected on known historic sites, and the survey results were computerized. Through partial funding by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the Kane County Development Department has just published the survey results with helpful pictures, graphs, and locational maps in Built for Farming: A Guide to the Historic Rural Architecture of Kane County. A preservation ordinance has been passed in Kane County, and the information from the survey is providing guidance in the designation of landmarks and preservation of its rapidly disappearing rural properties.

Communities have learned that the identification of resources must be a high priority when developing effective historic preservation programs. The state's selective surveys of the early 1970s have been supplemented by intensive community surveys where every historic property is studied. Preservation commissions, government entities, and non-profit organizations in twenty-seven Illinois communities and counties have conducted property-by-property

with the support of federal grants administered by the state. Many of those surveys have provided documentation for future National Register and local landmark listings. Six communities-Blue Island, Riverside, Rock Island, Moline, Nauvoo, and Evanston-have finished building-by-building surveys with grant assistance through the preservation office. The City of Chicago's survey program to record basic information on every building in the city limits is almost complete after nine years. The survey's most useful products are accurate maps of all standing buildings with an assessment of their integrity, photographs, and in-depth histories of the most important buildings. It should be noted that all Certified Local Governments (CLGs)-there are nineteen of them in Illinois-are required to have a survey program, and survey projects have been ranked one of the top funding priorities of the grants-in-aid program.

For the most part, communities first survey historic business districts and older residential neighborhoods. However, some have concentrated on other areas. Aurora, a Fox River city with industrial beginnings, completed a survey of every industrial, commercial, and institutional building, rounding out its earlier surveys of residential areas. But historic resource surveys don't necessarily focus solely on buildings.

Both the Chicago and Dixon park districts have surveyed their extensive historic city parks, and Highland Park studied all its designed landscapes, including many noteworthy private estates and gardens. The Peoria Historical Society conducted an archaeological survey of an area where it was believed an early French Colonial fort and village once stood. The entire campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was a top survey priority for the local preservation advocacy group in Champaign. Their concerns about the future development plans for the campus and the surrounding area were, in part, the motivation for recording and evaluating the relative significance of the buildings. The campus survey has fostered community awareness of the important historic resources of the university.

Occasionally, our office has directly funded surveys or studies, and most of the rural county surveys were completed by consultants paid by the State of Illinois. Other recent projects included a statewide cemetery project, a survey of historic lighthouses and navigational aids on Illinois' Lake Michigan, a thematic survey of limestone buildings in the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, and a study of early French architecture. The National Park Service provided funds for the study of lighthouses and other navigational aids in celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the nation's lighthouse system in 1989. Most of Illinois' historic lighthouses and beacons are located on the coast of Lake Michigan. Surveyors conducted a field study of 57 existing structures and investigated the sites of defunct buildings for structural or archaeological remains. It's safe to say that Lake Michigan's historic maritime resources have never received so much attention through a survey program!

A study of the quarrying industry and a history of the use of material supplemented the field survey of more than 150 buildings and structures in Lockport, Lemont, and Joliet, whose stone quarries were once a major source of building materials for the Midwest. One of Illinois' few known French vertical log houses, the Pierre Martin House in North Dupo (St. Clair County), was recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

A study of the French settlement of Illinois and French construction methods, including an overview of all known French-related buildings in Illinois, was conducted to provide a complete historic context for the future nomination of other buildings exhibiting French construction techniques. How does Illinois compare to other state survey programs? Its early statewide survey of tens of thousands of sites places it well ahead of many states, where, in some cases, entire counties remain unsurveyed. During the early years of the state's preservation program, when other states were completing hundreds of National Register nominations, Illinois was being surveyed. The data has served, and continues to serve as a good foundation for the assessment of properties on a statewide basis. Today, one of the priorities of many state's survey programs is to computerize the sites information. Data processing is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and as of yet Illinois has not made any final decisions about the most appropriate software program and equipment. Although it is a relatively inexpensive proposition to buy the equipment, the high cost of hiring and training staff to enter and update the information is a major budget item. (Note: Illinois launched the effort to digitize their surveys in 1999 and went online with the results in 2003. Click here to read about the HAGIS project.)

For the most part, Illinois' survey program is limited to the federal matching grants program that each year funds surveys at the community level. In 1991 four Certified Local Governments-Wilmette, Chicago, Quincy, and Carbondale-are completing building-by-building surveys. Next year only Certified Local Governments will be eligible to receive matching grants for survey projects.

Originally printed in Historic Illinois, October 1991; reprinted here with permission.