As the red SUV prowls the Camden section of north Minneapolis in a seemingly aimless fashion, the only clue that it's not casing homes is the orange light rotating on its roof.

Inside, passenger Brian Schaffer and driver Heather Goodson pore over a map and take notes. She works for a preservation consultant; he's a city planner. They're scrutinizing most of Camden for potentially historic buildings or areas that represent an archetype.

This year, Minneapolis planners hope to wind up a 10-year-long citywide update of historic sites and places. It's the first such survey since the 1970s. On this recent day, Schaffer and Goodson examine a collection of snug Tudors just off Victory Memorial Parkway, some brick storefronts, a pair of rooming houses, a grain elevator, a century-old factory, a 1950s school and other potential treasures.

Many folks think of historic preservation as saving buildings that were sites of historic events or associated with famous people. That's part of it, but properties as mundane as a collection of relatively intact homes from a period not so long ago can get Goodson and Schaffer's juices going, as well.

"We use 30 [years old] as a guide," Schaffer said. "That captures most of the things in Minneapolis."

One thing that excites them this day is the Mereen-Johnson Machine Co. on Lyndale Avenue N. near Shingle Creek, a 1906 brick factory that curves along a railroad spur. The fabricator of woodworking machines is a vestige of the sawmill industry that once lined the nearby Mississippi River. They also get interested in two buildings across Lyndale, one dating to 1892.

Schaffer and Goodson also check out two former rooming houses that most likely housed sawmill workers in the area, as well as a remnant collection of old worker homes from the mill era.

"There's five homes there," Schaffer pronounces. "That doesn't seem like much of a district."

A property's importance also depends on how much integrity it retains from the period of its significance. Moving a property, substantially altering it or making it unrecognizable to a person from that area would work against its significance.

Delights, disappointments

Newer areas of the city, including postwar parts of Camden, didn't get as much attention in the 1970s survey. That gives Schaffer and Goodson, who works for the Mead & Hunt firm, the first chance to weigh in on significant features. Last year in the Nokomis area, for example, they were intrigued by a collection of mid-20th-century churches.

Mead & Hunt serves as the advance scout, scrutinizing old maps and property records to gain a sense of development patterns. Buildings are color-coded by date of construction. Pioneer properties like an old farmhouse can show up as one color in a sea of another tint.

Goodson and co-workers drive the streets to confirm or disprove hunches and to look for unexpected treasures. Then she and Schaffer do another "windshield survey" of the more promising properties or areas. That is followed by field research, record searches and the creation of files on each property or area.

With owner cooperation, some properties may go on to win local or national designation as significant. City planners set priorities to help determine which priorities are targeted. Records on some properties may linger in files for years, serving as a resource if someone seeks a demolition permit on the property.

Architecture idol?

Designation isn't a guarantee against demolition; it may not make economic sense to rehab some designated buildings. But they'll at least be documented in photos, drawings or reports before they're razed.

As Goodson and Schaffer wend through Camden, they sometimes sound a bit like judges on "American Idol." Schaffer gets enthusiastic about a home with clipped gables, then expresses disappointment over the "unfortunate infill" -- a newer house that doesn't fit those around it -- nearby.

They search in vain for relatively intact business corners. Sometimes, they're disappointed to find disfiguring storefront modifications or parking lots where buildings once stood.

"Oh, there's a big house coming up on the right," Schaffer pipes up. But as they draw closer, the siding modifications disappoint them. "They've done a lot of things to it," Goodson laments.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438