Architectural Fieldwork

By Allison Luthern, Architectural Survey Administrator

Architectural fieldwork is an important part of understanding and preserving historic places. When MHT staff investigate a site, we look closely at the historic fabric of the buildings to reveal clues about their history, changes over time, and significance. Many of these answers will be found in the building’s form, features, materials, and details. In addition to investigation, we document the built environment, analyze and interpret findings, and archive our discoveries. This process helps MHT’s architectural historians and preservationists to realize the types of historic places that survive or have already been lost. (In fact, past completed fieldwork is one of the only ways we have information about demolished historic buildings!) We use this information to create better plans and strategies for future preservation efforts. Fieldwork helps us to advance MHT’s mission of identifying, documenting, and evaluating Maryland’s diverse cultural heritage.

When possible, MHT’s Office of Research, Survey, and Registration conducts fieldwork at the request of people who want to learn more about their historic buildings. Earlier this year, MHT staff responded to one such request by a property owner in Washington County who had recently purchased a home and discovered that there were three small log buildings located on the property. Log construction was very common in western Maryland from its earliest European American settlement through to the twentieth century, and MHT hoped to help the property owner understand the age and significance of the structures on their property. 

Log buildings in Washington County. Source: MHT staff

On site, MHT staff closely investigated the log buildings, which consisted of one small story-and-a-half dwelling, one summer kitchen with a large stone chimney, and one very small storage building. Architectural historians refer to the form of these log buildings as “single pen” – they are one room enclosures with four walls. This form is associated with modest, simple structures. An important feature to consider when investigating a log building is its corner notching, or the way that the logs lock into place at the ends. Corner notching can reveal the complexity of construction as well as the builder’s regional influences. These buildings were constructed with “V” notching, as illustrated in the photo below. This was the most common notching technique.

A closer look at one of the buildings. Source: Staff photo

We also searched for nails used in the buildings. Because the form of fasteners changed over time with manufacturing technology, they are a very important way to help date a structure. We discovered that wire nails—widely used by the 1880s and still utilized today—were employed in the construction of these buildings. All of our investigation pointed to an early twentieth century construction date.

One of the log buildings examined by the MHT staff. Source: Staff photo

To document the buildings, we took notes, photographs, and basic measurements.

The next steps in fieldwork—analysis and interpretation—may not even occur in the field, but they are crucially important in giving meaning to our investigation. We used historic records to research the property, including land records, census data, maps, newspapers, and community histories. We also read through books, journal articles, and architectural survey reports in the MHT Library. From this research, we determined that the log buildings were constructed in the early twentieth century by a local family for residential use, given their small size and assemblage. The surrounding acreage was likely used for fruit farming around this time.

Fruit farming became widespread in western Maryland as refrigeration, urbanization, and transportation advanced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historic maps revealed that a trolley (or electric railway) line was located directly adjacent to the log buildings and would have assisted in transporting both people and freight until its dismantling in 1936. It is possible that these log buildings were occupied until the mid-twentieth century when a new, more modern house was constructed, probably by a different owner who used the surrounding land for recreation more than agriculture.

U.S. Geological Survey, Hagerstown [map], 1:62500, Topographic Quadrangle Map, Reston, VA, 1912 Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Our fieldwork will conclude with the creation of a Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties (MIHP) form for the log buildings. The MIHP is a repository of information on districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects of known or potential value to the history or prehistory of the State of Maryland. This final step will ensure that the findings of our fieldwork will be preserved and available to researchers or interested members of the public via our library and our online cultural resource information system known as Medusa.

Fieldwork is a very rewarding process! As time and resources allow, MHT staff would love to help others with their investigations. Please contact staff in the Office of Research, Survey, and Registration with any questions (including Allison Luthern, Architectural Survey Administrator at allison.luthern@maryland.gov).

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