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Southern Cultures 11.2 (2005) 108-112

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A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina By Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern University of North Carolina Press, 1996 483 pp. Cloth $39.95; paper, $19.95
A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina By Catherine W. Bishir, Michael T. Southern, and Jennifer F. Marti nUniversity of North Carolina Press, 1999 471 pp. Cloth $37.50; paper, $19.95
A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina By Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern University of North Carolina Press, 2003 596 pp. Cloth $39.95; paper, $19.95

Among the pieces of progressive legislation that marked the early years of Lyndon Johnson's presidency was the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. One of its key provisions authorized the Secretary of the Interior "to expand and maintain a national register of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology [sic], and culture hereinafter referred to as the National Register, and to grant funds to States for the purpose of preparing comprehensive statewide historic surveys and plans . . . for the preservation, acquisition, and development of such properties." As is the case with most such designs, exactly how this massive undertaking was to unfold [End Page 108] would take a while to determine. Within five years of passage, most states, with the support of the U.S. Department of the Interior, endeavored to survey and inventory their built patrimony and nominate parts of it for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Concerned about the literary quality of nominations from North Carolina in 1971, H. G. Jones, director of the (then) Department of Archives and History, hired a recent M.A. in English from Duke University to edit and refine nomination texts before their transmittal to Washington. That new employee was Catherine Cockshutt (now Bishir), and she quickly evolved from editor to student of architectural history.

In concert with her colleague of many years in the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, Michael Southern (and joined by another colleague, Jennifer Martin, for the Western volume), Bishir and company have recently completed a three-volume guide to historic places in their home state that is not only architectural history of a high order, but in the lengthy introductions to each volume and in certain of the site-specific entries, the most thought-provoking overview available of North Carolina's past.

The tools with which Bishir and Southern have constructed this three-book edifice were forged through years of fieldwork by a talented array of mostly young people, chiefly trained in architectural history at the graduate level. (Only they seem to have the energy and grit to endure the spartan environment and miniscule pay of months of inventory through the counties and towns of a state nearly 600 miles wide.) In the front matter of each volume of the Guide, Bishir and Southern list the names of those surveyors, and their bibliographies cite inventory reports, many of them now published as stand-alone volumes themselves. Most of those books are the direct result of community-driven fundraising efforts in counties and towns, across the state, which are proud of their built heritage and grateful for the careful attention of a capable "outsider"—as nearly all of the National Register surveyors were. One clear advantage of an observer working in unfamiliar country is a freshness of vision uncompromised by years of easy familiarity with sometimes remarkable sites that may seem commonplace to longtime locals.

The Guide series is intended to lead us county by county through representative remains, some elegant, some plain, but all relevant to a better understanding of their region. The books are designed for easy transportation in backpack or backseat, and the authors have organized nearly all entries to begin at the county seat's courthouse and to spiral outward from that landmark...


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