Member Profile: Jennifer Baughn, VAF Board Member

02 Feb 2020 3:15 AM | Christine R Henry (Administrator)

Using her vernacularist skills, Jennifer surveys outbuildings near Natchez. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Baughn.I’ve served on the VAF board since 2016, but my “real job” is as Chief Architectural Historian for the Mississippi SHPO, where I’ve worked for 23 years. I love the variety each day in survey and National Register-world brings; just in the last year—bowling alleys, African American boarding schools, tenant houses, free-range homesteads with tick dipping vats, suburban slave quarters, Elvis’s Circle G Ranch, 1960s apartment buildings, Freedom Summer sites, motels with fabulous Polynesian rooms, even a gas compressor station!  

I came to historic preservation rather roundabout, but my love of common buildings goes back to my childhood in the red-dirt piney woods of the Florida Panhandle. My civil engineer dad spent two decades, beginning the year I was born, creating our house from decommissioned World War II triplexes moved from the nearby Navy air station. I enjoyed “helping” him as he laid up the brick veneer walls (using brick salvaged from the original chimneys) on homemade scaffolding.

Only as a graduate student studying southern history at Florida State University did I hear about historic preservation. When I became Survey Manager at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, a colleague introduced me to the VAF, pulling out a conference brochure and remarking, “You need to go to this—they are hard core.” I had my first hard-core experience at the Columbus, Georgia conference in 1999. On my first VAF bus tour I came to realize this was a group of friends and colleagues setting out to see interesting places that included buildings that I could relate to in Mississippi and Florida. Suddenly I realized that architectural history could be about those buildings too; it wasn’t just about expensive, architect-designed buildings in big cities.

In June 2000, I attended the VAF Field School called “Building Archaeology,” led by Myron Stachiw at Roger Williams University. This was my first formal education in how to examine and describe a building, with sessions on materials—nails are worth documenting! who knew?—structural systems, and floor plans. We learned about architectural photography and perspective control from David Ames, longtime HABS photographer, and we enjoyed visits from other VAF luminaries such as Orlando Ridout—it felt like a master’s program in architectural history crammed into three weeks. I returned to Mississippi to a statewide survey of historic schools that I had begun in 1999. Our office previously approached schools through the lens of architectural style, but the lens of vernacular studies highlighted the floorplans as the most significant feature. This vernacularist approach allows these common buildings to tell important stories about education, racial segregation, agriculture, rural culture, and progressivism in a southern context. In 2019, with the help of several VAF members including Carl Lounsbury,  Ed Chappell, and Brent Fortenberry, we began a survey of 19th-century outbuildings around Natchez, one of the wealthiest districts of the Cotton Kingdom in the antebellum period, using methods I learned in VAF Field School to work out the evolution of these deceptively simple buildings, which taken as a whole inform the study of slavery and class in the Deep South.

Although a rural state with little political power, Mississippi is at the center of the national conversation about race, slavery, and civil rights. Working at the SHPO has given me access to the buildings that tell these stories; attending VAF conferences and field schools gives me the skills to analyze and interpret the stories they tell.

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