HARGIS--It is NOT A Scottish Delicacy!

by Martha L. Benner

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency is now offering Hargis--not the traditional Scottish delicacy--a computer database that serves up a full plate of information about Illinois' historic resources. The mission to restore, retain, and document the state's built heritage has yielded many visible results in the form of thoughtfully restored and adapted historic structures. But managing the documentation has been a bigger challenge--until now. The Historic Architecture and Archaeological Geographic Information System--Hargis, for short--is a new tool that has been developed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) to manage information about the historic and prehistoric properties that it is charged to protect. And there is an abundance of data on the state's historic resources.

While the preservation of our nation’s cultural resources is a rewarding task, managing the pertinent information can be daunting. As the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), the Preservation Services Division of IHPA oversees the various federal and state initiatives and laws regarding historic preservation in Illinois. One of these laws requires that the State Historic Preservation Office maintain an inventory of properties with historic, architectural, and/or archaeological significance. As a result, three statewide surveys were conducted in the 1970s, and until just recently, that survey information was retrievable only in its original paper form. (See Ann V. Swallow, "They Came, They Saw, They Surveyed," in Historic Illinois, October 1991, for a description of the Illinois Historic Structures Survey, the Illinois Historic Landmarks Survey, and the Illinois Rural Survey.) Communities also conducted surveys over the years and filed copies of their results with our office. A single property may have been picked up in several surveys, and may also have information from a nomination and subsequent listing in the National Register of Historic Places. As a result, staff members and the researching public spent a tremendous amount of time locating information on properties in order to make informed decisions about preservation efforts.

Some questions could not be answered realistically using the paper survey forms: How many brick Queen Anne style houses are there and where are they located? What buildings in Illinois were built during the Lincoln era? How many old railroad stations still exist, and what are they used for now? What National Register properties are located within a floodplain?

In 2000 the Preservation Services Division initiated a project to computerize survey information about Illinois’ historic architectural and archaeological properties in response to these needs. Its main objective is to provide rapid access to survey data so staff members can more easily and efficiently use this information as the basis for decision making in managing preservation programs. With funds provided by a special legislative initiative in 2001, the project expanded to include a geographic information system (GIS) component, and Hargis was born. The new database includes not only the survey data about properties and historic districts, it also puts the location of those properties on a map. And it identifies on the same map other spatial features that place historical properties in their geographical context. These spatial features include streets and roads; county and municipal boundaries; section, range, and township lines; waterways; railroads; floodplains; high probability archaeology areas; federal lands; and House and Senate district boundaries. Accompanying topographical map images and aerial photographs can be used as a background to those map features. It is the next best thing to being there!

To date, data and scanned photographs and background documentation for almost 78,000 buildings, structures, objects, sites, and districts in Illinois has been logged into Hargis. These properties were surveyed either as part of a National Register nomination, or through the Illinois Historic Structures Survey, the Illinois Landmarks Survey, the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Historic Bridge Survey, and the Chicago Historical Resources Survey. This phase of the project should be completed by July 2003. Remaining tasks include entering information from the Illinois Rural Survey and from ninety-five separate “community” surveys done by local preservation groups. The program is accessible now, though, and new data will be added continually.

Hargis Three Ways

Three applications of Hargis have been created for varied users: a Web application on the Internet for the general public; a Web application on our local area network for our staff users; and an enhanced application utilizing ESRI’s ArcGIS software for staff who require advanced spatial analysis capabilities. These applications all draw from the same geodatabase (a database that includes map features, or spatial data), but each one is customized for its intended audience.

The Web application on the Internet gives users a map of Illinois and a map tool to zoom into an area for a closer look at the properties that have been identified as historically significant. Properties that are on the National Register are red; properties determined eligible for the National Register are blue; properties within a National Register historic district are orange, and properties that do not have formal National Register status are green. NRHP historic districts are identified as a green hatch polygon. Other map tools enable the user to zoom out, and to pan (move the map around to get a better view). There are shortcut tools to jump to the full statewide extent, and to return to a previous extent. The “select” tool highlights a property or properties for further study.

Selected properties appear in a list below the map display. They are arranged first by county, then by city, then alphabetically by street name. If a property has a name by which it is known, that name is listed as well. The “ID” link on the left of the row places a star on the map to identify the property if necessary. The “Report” link opens another window and contains collated survey information about the property, including photographs. The following list describes the type of information that is contained within the report:

  • name(s) of the property
  • location—address, city, and county
  • local tax ID number
  • National Register status, and if listed, additional details about its listing
    • Certification number and date
    • Significant criteria and criteria considerations for listing
    • Multiple Property Listing, if applicable
    • Area of significance, and dates
    • Number of contributing and non-contributing buildings, sites, structures, and objects on the property
    • Acreage
  • Information about the surveys in which the property was reviewed (name, surveyor name, date, and their opinion of significance, condition, and integrity of the building). For properties with National Register nominations, Landmarks surveys, and Community surveys, we have scanned the applications into Adobe Acrobat (pdf) format and made those available from the report through a hotlink.
  • Details about each individual item on the property. These details include the following:
    • Category (building, structure, object, site, district)
    • Architectural class
    • Current and historic functions
    • Wall, foundation, roof, and other materials used in construction
    • Architect and builder
    • Significant dates (construction, renovation)
  • A sampling of photos contained in our files, including the location of the original, and the date of the photo.

Users can use shortcuts to jump to a specific county or municipality. Another shortcut selects National Register properties within a county or municipality. The Advanced Search dialogs help users identify properties based on the characteristics that we have entered into the geodatabase. A query builder gives users the flexibility to create their own queries, which gives them unlimited searching capability.

The version of Hargis that is available to Preservation Services staff includes all of the above features, plus it links architectural site visits, grants received, covenants, tax freeze or tax credits received, and other programmatic reviews to a specific property. Staff no longer must chase each other down in the halls to tap “institutional memory.” This version also provides a vehicle to store staff comments about a property to further help in coordinating our efforts.

Hargis and Local Preservation Efforts

With Hargis, the IHPA can also serve as a state-wide repository for local preservation efforts by making their data available on the Web. There are fifty-three Certified Local Governments (CLGs) in Illinois that have passed preservation ordinances. The IHPA is currently working with CLGs to include their local landmarks and historic districts in Hargis. Many of them lack the resources to computerize their surveys or to make them available to those who would benefit from them-—local historians, educators, community planners, local commerce leaders, builders, and developers. Others have them in electronic form, but there is no uniformity between municipalities. By adding the local landmarks, districts, and full community surveys into Hargis, we will not only help preservation on a state-wide basis, but on a local level as well.

Maintaining Hargis

While building Hargis has been an enormous effort, maintaining it will be an enormous and continuous effort. We know that the data entered from the surveys done in the 1970s is out of date. We also know that some of the properties we have included are probably gone now. In a perfect world, we would have completely resurveyed the state and built Hargis using only the most current information. In our real world, where we have to factor in time and money, however, we entered the best data we had--and now we must take steps to correct it as we can and add to it as new data becomes available. The software we are using is coming out with a “disconnected editing” feature, so we can extract a geographical piece of the database onto a portable computer and Global Positioning System (GPS) unit, and take the data into the field to update it. When finished, we can bring it back to the office and feed the updated version back in the database. We hope to get local groups involved in this effort and provide grants to CLGs to do this updating. Like all information management systems, it will only be as good as the data it contains. As such a critical tool to our preservation programs, though, the effort is well worth it.

Originally printed in Historic Illinois, April 2003; reprinted here with permission.

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