The Continuous Work of Historic Property Survey Through the Eyes of a Newbie

By: Philip Staffelli-Suel

Throughout the fall of 2023, THC Survey Coordinator, Peggy Nickell, and THC Technical Preservation Coordinator, Philip Staffelli-Suel traveled a 60-mile radius around Blue Oval City in Haywood County, Tennessee. While the city is striving to bring jobs to West Tennessee, the increase in development is beginning to threaten historic properties over 50 years old.

One mission of the Tennessee Historical Commission is to maintain and update an inventory of properties 50 years or older through survey. Many communities ranging in size from as large as Dyersburg to as small as Roellen were still in need of this. The historic property survey throughout the state is never-ending as properties age and get added every year. But how does one survey historic properties? 

Before traveling with Nickell, Staffelli-Suel had minimal experience with survey work. Along the way, he learned a fair deal about the process, saw the beauty of West Tennessee, ate some fantastic food, and became accustomed to sleeping in hotels. Survey work begins not in the field, but within the office. Before traveling, the first step is always to identify areas where the gaps in the historical record are by examining what has already been surveyed. Additionally, it is important to make note of areas where properties were not surveyed due to their age at the time. Through this, a list of the work ahead begins to form, communities are identified, and these historic properties are mapped out.

Once the THC team arrived in a city, they would scout the area for buildings within the commercial and downtown areas to be surveyed. From there, the team would duties for communities where the properties are more spread out, such as photographer and driver/photolog keeper. What is a photolog, you may ask? It is a document where you write down the photo number, property address, and any architectural details you can see. This log can also track information provided through conversations with property owners. These conversations are more frequent than one would think because people are concerned when they see a stranger photographing their property. Many people thought the team was a developer or property tax assessors. However, after explanation, the team was able to facilitate conversation and the properties owners began sharing the history they knew about the building or community.

Upon return to the office, these photos are labeled, and properties are assigned a unique survey ID. This ID will forever be associated with this property. Once completed, the properties and their photos are input into the Survey123 application. Within this application, one inputs the address, date of survey/photos, and architectural details such as style or roof shape. This data is then quality-checked by Nickell, who has over two decades of experience in survey work. It is then transmitted to Dr. Zada Law at Middle Tennessee State University’s Fullerton Geo-Spatial Lab. Dr. Law enters the information into a database and then prepares an update that for the Tennessee Historical Commission Viewer, a public platform to see properties surveyed throughout the state and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The viewer is available on the THC website.

During this past year, the THC survey team has enjoyed catching a glimpse of what West Tennessee has to offer. From beautiful landscapes to unique cuisines, such as “redneck eggroll” and “chuckwagon”. Through the team’s efforts, several new communities were added to the Statewide Survey data, with many more to come.