MADISON – Their footprint on the land is distinct and alive with history: Defunct company towns, folk schools, massive industrial facades, Depression-era lodges, effigy mounds and churches on the hill.

These are some of Wisconsin’s “cultural landscapes” – places where land and buildings come together to tell a story about the state’s economic, religious, ethnic and political history. They are also the focus of a new preservation effort led by Arnold Alanen, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of landscape architecture who is volunteering his time to document these important places before they are lost.

Alanen serves as the state liaison for the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS), a national effort to give landscapes their rightful place in the nation’s historic record. The movement is less than a decade old, Alanen says, but has its roots in efforts during the Depression to document historically significant buildings and engineering structures.

What’s different about landscapes – as opposed to, say, buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places – is they represent a broader picture of how people lived, worked and worshipped.

“A landscape by definition goes well beyond the iconic landscapes that have come to define Wisconsin, such as dairy farms,” Alanen says. “They include vernacular or somewhat ordinary landscapes that were nonetheless shaped by our heritage. They represent a way of life in a particular area, or something that’s very evocative of a particular area or people.”

The HALS project is up and running in all 50 states and coordinated by the National Park Service, but is primarily a labor of love for folks like Alanen. His volunteer network includes several graduate students who have conducted research theses on interesting state landscapes. He also relies a great deal on town elders and community historians, the keepers of an historic connection that is disappearing quickly.

For Alanen, someone who has taught the history of landscape architecture to undergraduates for 33 years, he could pick a better state for the subject than Wisconsin. When he starts ticking off favorite places and hidden gems, he is clearly tapping into months of lecture material. “I could just go on and on …”

“Wisconsin has such a wealth of these places, it’s just incredible,” he says. “Immigration was a big part of it, but it’s also the physical diversity of the state. You have the northern lake country, the Driftless area, the central sands and the Lake Michigan coastline. We also have a strong Native American presence. The diversity in Wisconsin is the most impressive part of the story.”

Here are a few of Alanen’s favorites:

• Brussels, Wis., located on the southern portion of Door County below Sturgeon Bay. True to its name, Brussels has the highest concentration of Belgian-American immigrants in the nation in a rural setting. Several farmsteads today have features that look much like they did 150 years ago, Alanen says, where people “have maintained the integrity and authenticity” of the original buildings and landscapes.

Perhaps most unique are the small, wayside chapels that were constructed around the farming region, with each one commemorating a different saint. “They are about large enough so a small family could pray in them, and they were usually built at roadsides,” he says. “This is one of the few places in the United States where you will see such chapels.”

• Aztalan State Park, about halfway between Madison and Milwaukee in Jefferson County, the most outstanding example of the thousands of Native-American earthworks that once dotted the landscape of southern Wisconsin.

• The Ashland Iron Ore Dock, which Alanen calls “the Pyramid of Lake Superior.” Absolutely massive and imposing, the structure has not been used since the mid-1960s, and for several subsequent decades was thought to be too large to tear down. “Unfortunately,” says Alanen, “the structure is now scheduled for imminent demolition, despite its presence as a highly visible symbol of the mining industry that dominated the region during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

• Wisconsin Concrete Park, at the southern end of Phillips in Price County. This sculpture park has more than 200 concrete figures, all created by Fred Smith, a retired lumberjack. The sculptures reflect local and national history, as well as legends derived from Wisconsin’s Northwoods culture.

• The German Holy Land along the eastern shores on Lake Winnebago, in Calumet and Fond du Lac counties. “The Germanic influence here is so ubiquitous, you can’t escape it,” he says. The community names tell the story: Marytown, Jericho, St. Cloud, Mt. Calvary, St. Joseph. This was an area of intensive settlement of 19th-century German Catholic immigrants from the Eifel region of Prussia, and many of the group’s farming and religious traditions remained intact. “It’s one of the largest concentrations of rural German Catholics in the nation, and still very German in its appearance.”

• Greendale, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee. Alanen wrote a book about this historic town, one of three of the famed “Greenbelt” planned communities developed by the Roosevelt New Deal administration. “The plan was to develop 300 suburban communities throughout the country that represented the good life in America and provided employment opportunities,” he says. “That became 300 whittled down to three, with Greendale being one of them. It’s one of the genuine icons of town planning history in America.”

• Mineral Point, an Iowa County town that dates back to the 1820s and the beginnings of Wisconsin’s lead-mining era. Located in the diverse terrain of the Driftless area, the town’s sandstone commercial and institutional buildings, along with an array of residences that range from Cornish cottages to ornate residences, make Mineral Point one of Wisconsin’s most historic and distinctive places.

• Copper Falls State Park, located in Ashland County. Rugged and inaccessible terrain kept this thousand-acre swath of land from ever being logged. It became a state park in 1929 and buildings were hand-crafted by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) using only local materials. It is representative of several state parks in Wisconsin that reveal CCC influences.

• The Clearing, located in Ellison Bay, Door County. This is a folk school designed by famous landscape architect Jens Jensen, who modeled it after “schools of the soil” in his native Denmark. Alanen says that the sensitively crafted council rings, sleeping quarters, and educational facilities, along with the preservation of the native vegetation and limestone cliffs, still reveal Jensen’s philosophy that “work and play in the natural landscape afforded any visitor a ‘clearing of the mind.'”

• Henry and Bascom malls, UW-Madison campus. These two malls embody what historic designed landscapes are all about, Alanen says. Both have National Register buildings, but are distinguished more by their collective sense of place, one as the steep-hilled historic center of campus draped with towering elms; the other as the heart of the agricultural campus, where the mall served as a “divider between applied sciences and agriculture.”

Where is this project ultimately headed? Alanen says it is likely to conclude with a book project, but the current work is devoted to highly detailed assessments of each site, including photographic and verbal records, measured drawings, and inventories of what is – and was – part of the landscape. In addition to its historic value, the Park Service envisions this project feeding into the growing appetite for tourism based on historical and cultural interests.

Time is of the essence in the project, Alanen says. “We need the first-hand observations,” he says. “Landscapes are so ephemeral and can seem ordinary to most observers, so we need people who can see beyond the everyday and determine what’s important.”