Architectural Mapping at the Buffalo History Museum by Cynthia Van Ness

House and architectural history is a specialty in the Research Library at the Buffalo History Museum.  Once or twice a year, I give a popular house history workshop, which introduces people to the basic sources needed to piece together when a Buffalo house was built, who the first owner was, what it might have looked like and, if possible, who designed it.

In our collection are business records from a few Buffalo architectural firms.  We also have some promotional brochures and publications from architects, showing off their work.  If you remember back to history class, these would be considered primary sources.  Our collection also has some solid secondary sources, such as scholarly theses and dissertations on local architects.

A few years ago, using sources such as these, I started an index of local buildings that can be reliably attributed to local architects.  I designed a Google spreadsheet for the project.  A series of interns, including Amanda Free and Kanisha Greaves, went through a series of publications and collections and entered each address, its architect, owner, date and the nature of the commission.  The resulting spreadsheet is sorted in A-Z order by address, with added sheets for FAQs and full bibliographic citations.

We were careful to identify the source for each address.  There’s a saying among genealogists:  “Without proof, you have no truth”.  We don’t expect you to simply take our word that X house was designed by Y architect; we show you where we found this information so that you can judge it for yourself.

It is worth explaining the limitations of the project.  We have been asked to “do” this or that architect next.  Unfortunately, we cannot add anyone’s work if we do not have something in our collection that identifies their customers and commissions.  Most architects come and go without their business records being saved.  Not everyone issues a brochure promoting their work.  We omitted name buildings that everyone already knows are designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and other out-of-town architects.

The result was a 1200 address spreadsheet, which we added to our website in its original Google Doc format.  Featured architects include Louise Bethune, Green & Wicks, Bley & Lyman and Esenwein & Johnson.  You can see that spreadsheet here:  http://tinyurl.com/BECHS006

Then I learned of a website, BatchGeo.com, that takes any spreadsheet of addresses and, using a simple copy-n-paste interface, automaps them in Google Maps.  So I turned it over to library volunteer Ron Schmidt.  He tinkered and tweaked and the result was exciting:  1200 Buffalo buildings, pinpointed by address and color-coded by architect.  We embedded the map here:  http://www.buffalohistory.org/Learn/Research-Library/Digitized-Materials.aspx

Not surprisingly, some neighborhoods are better documented than others.  Not everyone could afford a private architect.  Many ordinary, middle class houses resulted from commercial plan books.

So far so good, until BatchGeo decided to limit free accounts to only 250 addresses.  A paid membership is beyond our means.  We have other sources that we’d like to add to the spreadsheet but we cannot add new addresses to our map.  We’ve been searching for a free alternative to BatchGeo with comparable features, most importantly color-coding by architect and the ability to embed the map at our website.  Ron has been experimenting the tools listed here:  http://geoservices.tamu.edu/Services/Geocode/About/GeocoderList.aspx

We think we have found a comparable free alternative and are testing it now.  If you’ve had good results with a free mapping site, please drop us a line.
Cynthia Van Ness cvanness@buffalohistory.org

Related link:

House History at the Buffalo History Museum:  an online slide show/tutorial:  http://www.slideshare.net/BuffaloHistory/house-history-at-the-buffalo-erie-county-historical-society-12971295

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