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Students work to preserve a piece of Missouri's history

Saturday, February 18, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:11 p.m. CST, Saturday, February 18, 2012
Students, teachers and volunteers associated with Southeast Missouri State University's historic preservation program work on removing a collapsed porch Saturday at a home built in the 1840s in Bloomfield, Mo. The home is the oldest in Stoddard County and is undergoing restoration.

CAPE GIRARDEAU — Several hours into a blustery, ice-cold February afternoon of tearing shingles and carrying heavy, rotted-out pieces of a decades-old porch, Chris Kinder took a short break and explained a few things he's learned during many weekends since September.

He said he knows how to tell worn but newer, bricks from the old and can tell which structural features of a building are causing more or less deterioration. He now has more of what he calls a "critical eye" when it comes to restoring historic buildings like the Miller House in Bloomfield where he and 10 other students in Southeast Missouri State University's historic preservation program worked Saturday to remove a sagging porch.

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The students aren't receiving credit from the university for their role in the 170-year-old house's restoration, but they volunteer their time for projects they know how to do because they have what recent historic preservation graduate LaDonna Garner calls "house hugger syndrome."

Each project the students involve themselves in is unique, and there is much to be learned, Kinder said, even if they are spending their free time in "really crappy old houses."

Kinder is president of the Historic Preservation Association, a student group at the university.

Frank Nickell, a professor of history at the university, introduced Kinder to the Miller House and was on site Saturday watching the students' progress. According to Nickell, the house is the oldest in Stoddard County. Troops fighting in the Battle of Bloomfield during the Civil War stood lined up ready for action in the house's front yard, Nickell said. But no one has been known to live there since sometime in the 1980s, and over 30 years the exterior of the house fell into disrepair.

The project to restore the house is financed by a $200,000 National Scenic Byway Program grant managed by the Stoddard County Development Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, and administered by the Missouri Department of Transportation. Nickell said Kinder is working toward having the house placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Steven Hoffman, the university's historic preservation program coordinator and a professor of history, said he has noticed in recent years that more students want to be engaged by working in the community and do that by using projects like the Miller House restoration.

Communities can benefit, Hoffman said, by using the work of the students to identify and document local historic resources, and students benefit in courses by work they do in communities. An example is the upcoming historic resource survey students in Hoffman's Legal and Economic Principles of Historic Preservation course will conduct this spring in Cape Girardeau neighborhoods south of Highway 74.

The university began partnering with the city for the surveys about 1996, Hoffman said, and one has been completed most years since in different areas. The surveys began in neighborhoods starting near the university's main campus and expanded toward the Mississippi River. Two-person teams of students record buildings in the designated survey areas with photography and by completing Missouri Department of Natural Resources Historic Property Inventory forms. When students are finished surveying the area, the city receives a copy of the project report, and another is placed in university archives. The original report goes to the DNR's Historic Preservation Section. The city pays the university $500 for the survey, which includes costs of developing photo prints, reproduction of survey reports and other related materials.

According to the DNR, the surveys are useful in community development and planning projects because the surveys make cities aware of historic resources and therefore better equipped to plan around those resources for economic and environmental benefits. The DNR estimates about 10 percent of the state has undergone an architectural survey.

Hoffman said the experience the students gain during the surveys qualifies them to work as an architectural surveyor in the field.

"It's a process of learning what to look for," Kinder said, who will participate in the survey.

This year's survey area is bound by Beaudean Lane on the west, the highway and Willow Street on the north, South Fountain Street and Gibboney Avenue on the east and Hackberry Street on the south. In most surveys, only buildings appearing more than 50 years old are included.

In addition to the survey, historic preservation students are conducting feasibility studies of two empty downtown buildings, the building that formerly housed Jeremiah's at 127 N. Water St. and the building that formerly housed River Nick's at 1 N. Main St., for an unrelated course project.

Another upcoming project for historic preservation students this spring will include redesigning exhibits at the Stars and Stripes Museum in Bloomfield.


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