Quality Infill Development: Begins in the Past

Last week kicked off a broad sweep through some ideas for conservation-based development. Quality infill development can certainly conserve resources. It can also break the cycle of disinvestment and build back the vibrancy and strength that was lost when the heartstrings of our towns were stretched out in all directions.

The heart of a Green Heart Town is its historic district, and quality infill construction is a primary tool for keeping them healthy and strong. The Main Street district and surrounding historic neighborhoods were once the seat of all town life, the best place to buy and trade for good and services and interact with others from the area. After a time of disinvestment in historic downtowns from the 1960s-90s, these places are again becoming full of vibrant new potential.

Infill development is the process of developing vacant or under-used parcels within existing urban areas that are already largely developed. Infill construction can be a building, city block, or neighborhood and include rehabilitation, new construction, or a combination of both.
— Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC)/ Unknown

1890 Map of the Oklahoma and Indian Territories

Research Your Town's Physical Development

As a younger architect, dreaming about new or innovative solutions seemed important, but I've found that true sustainability rests with those that understand a delicate balance. Preservation of culture and conservation of resources. When architects design a new building we are taught to build within context (while still being creative). Historic districts invite creativity and a good architect can have a lot of fun designing compatible (and innovative) infill development. Of course, not all our buildings have been designed by architects, and many fewer by architects with this sensitivity. 

Through my work in many Main Street America communities, I have seen all kinds of infill construction - both good and bad. Building quality infill in the historic core is not something that simply happens without much thought. Besides sensitivity, it takes some additional research. When considering work in a historic neighborhood or Main Street district is “looking back before moving ahead”.

Sanborn Maps

In combination with historic photos, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps can give you an excellent understanding of the initial development of your town. These maps were published at intervals, and contain details about the past land uses of each particular parcel of land within historic townsites. These and other historic maps may be available through historical societies, libraries or museums. The Library of Congress has an Internet database of them is available, plus there may be a collection of originals available locally. It is a treat to see the color versions in person. 

The maps below reveal the birth of the downtown commercial "Main Street" district in my hometown of Poteau, Oklahoma. Special thanks to the University of Oklahoma Libraries' Western History Collections for permission handling (with white gloves) and photographing these wonderful maps.

How Deep to Dive

Oklahoma’s history is tidy, as we are a relatively young state, and the physical development of most communities can be re-witnessed through the coordinated study of maps, historic photos, and writings. 

How far back to look and how deep you dive can vary depending on your interest, but I suggest scaling the level of research to the kind of project that you are planning. After all, a historic district is not defined by singular styles and elements. It should be seen as a collection of unique properties built in harmony with each other and with the natural surroundings.  

  • An addition or major renovation: study the neighboring historic elements you are reworking.

  • A new building: Zoom out further. You should be coordinated your building’s inner spaces, property setbacks, and overall massing to fit into the surrounding context.

  • A new block, PUD or subdivision of land: We must design with nature. In the surrounding context, count the natural world ahead of your own program. Think about the areas of the site that offer ecological diversity, and do not harm them.

Climate Shaped Early Vernacular Architecture

Researching the area’s climate is important too. We covered vernacular architecture and place-based design in a two-post series, previously. It will be important to understand why certain architectural features were constructed such as broad porches, rooftop cupolas, the salt-box house, earth-brick construction, double-hung windows, and many other details particular to your town's region.

Before Oklahoma was settled, and subsequently farmed, we had an hot-arid climate similar to New Mexico's. After the Dustbowl we began creating a lot more man-made lakes and ponds across Oklahoma - to support agricultural production. Today, it is rumored that we have the second largest volume of impounded water of any state (Texas being first).  Now we have hot-humid summers!

First know photo of "Poteau Switch" circa 1875. Notice rail-bed at bottom left. This original townsite area (aka. Old Town) was destroyed by fire in 1890. The downtown center moved to a new Main Street called Dewey Avenue. See the progression above.

First know photo of "Poteau Switch" circa 1875. Notice rail-bed at bottom left. This original townsite area (aka. Old Town) was destroyed by fire in 1890. The downtown center moved to a new Main Street called Dewey Avenue. See the progression above.

Image Resources 

This section and list courtesy of the Oklahoma Main Street Center.

A picture may be worth 1,000 words and their importance cannot be overstated in authentic historic preservation, rehabilitation, and adaptive reuse efforts. Historic photos do not force us to return to the past “look” of a property but serve to educate us as to how it was originally constructed and also how it changed over time. These images along with the history of what businesses occupied the property give insight into why physical changes may have occurred. The end goal of any historic rehabilitation or adaptive reuse is for the property to contribute to the historic district while meeting the desires of owner/tenant. As a preservation architect, my job is to help work that all out, in service to the local people and heritage.

Old photos of your Main Street district may not be readily available, so I put together this resource to help facilitate finding photos. This kind of research is an excellent way to learn more about your community. Good luck with your search. 

 Here are some of other places that we have found pictures before:

  • State Historical Society,

  • University Museums & Libraries,

  • Old High School Year Books,

  • Building Directories,

  • County Historical Societies,

  • Pictures on the walls of public buildings (courthouse, library),

  • Your local Library's Collections,

  • Local Historical Society or Museum,

  • Private Collections,

  • eBay (search for town name; postcards & old photos)

  • Looking in neighboring towns, in the same places might also yield something.

Dewey Ave, Poteau, OK (circa 1940)

Supplemental Resources from the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Photo by: Paul Hohmann/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

Photo by: Paul Hohmann/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

Thank You

Thank you for reading. If you found this information helpful or interesting, please smash the green heart "like" below.

I also hope that you will subscribe and share with others you know that love their communities. Let's all take part making our towns greener from the inside out! 

All the best,