How I Ended up a Historic Preservationist

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When I was a child my mother bought a “School Memories” book that allowed you to record specifics for each school year. There were spaces for teacher’s names, student height and weight, and a place for the annual school photo – wallet sized.  There were also places where you wrote your favorite food, favorite subject, and other hopes and dreams for the year. In Kindergarten my mother dutifully interviewed me and filled in the blanks. In future years I took it over and filled in the blanks myself, giving great thought to my answers each year, if not to my penmanship.

I’m the blond on the top row. I probably wanted to be a teacher this year.

I remember coming across the book several years after I stopped filling in the blanks during my senior year of high school. I don’t remember most of the answers to the questions in the book, except for the one that asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I enjoyed reading as my aspirations went from Artist to Librarian to Teacher to Scientist and back again to Artist over the years. By this point in my life, I had decided that someone who that wanted to be a Librarian-Teaching-Scientist-Artist should study Architecture. What else could possibly blend all my interests?

I applied to architecture school and found that it stimulated all my diverse interests, except that I was missing one major element that seemed critical to my studies – I had no idea how to build a building. I didn’t think this would be a problem when I entered school, but surprisingly it’s the one thing they don’t teach you in architecture school – they teach lots of abstract theory of design (I had Freshman assignments to design “aleatory space” and to draw the inside of an egg), but not how to actually construct a wall. It turns out that I had a practical side that needed to know the nuts and bolts before the theory could interest me. This problem got worse each year in college, and even though I spent my summers working in the construction industry, I ended up switching from the 5-year full Architecture degree program to the (less abstract) 4-year Building Science degree program. This left me again with a blank line to fill in regarding what I wanted to be when I grew up – without the architecture degree I could not sit for my licensing exam and ever become a real Architect.

Freshman year of college posing with my roommate, Suzy. Not sure what the ball of wire was, but I’m sure it was one of my architecture projects.

When I graduated, we were in a building recession and jobs for my degree were few and uninspiring (one of my few interviews was for a construction manager position in a drywall company – even the interview was boring). So I did what most lost college graduates  do – I went to graduate school. During one of my summer jobs I had gotten access to some of the grand Victorian homes in my hometown and had been amazed at the architectural details (none of which were taught or even discussed during architecture school) and had gotten a case of Pretty House Syndrome. So I decided the next stage in life would be studying Historic Preservation. Now, I must admit, I had no idea what one did with a degree in historic preservation, but it seemed preferable to estimating endless sheets of drywall.

It turned out that while I didn’t love abstract architectural theory, I loved learning, studying and theorizing about historic buildings. I loved learning how preserving historic buildings  protected community identity, fostered good neighbors, was true sustainable building and made economic sense. And because I’d been so focused on learning the nuts and bolts of how to build during architecture school, I found that learning how to treat and repair historic buildings came naturally.

Since then, I’ve been able to use what I learned both in college and grad school to be a teacher, an artist, a scientist and spend lots of time in libraries. And it turns out that being a historic preservationist suits me.

This blog post is part of Let’s Blog Off, a twice-monthly event where bloggers from all aspects of life blog on a single post topic. This week’s topic is “What did you want to be when you grew up?

Posted on November 8, 2011 12:08 pm
  1. Suzanne Prieur

    I landed on this captivating article by poking around on the Historic Shed website after having received your lovely holiday newsletter.

    Your journey certainly prepared you to be the professional that you are today. You know your subject thoroughly, practice your craft artfully, and impart knowledge eloquently. I really enjoy knowing how you arrived at having the skills that you have!

    My love for preservation was inspired by my mother. She taught me the things that she experienced in her life. When I started school it was a surprise to me that my classmates couldn’t dance the Charleston, sing opera, or “Daisy, Daisy” nor recite the tale of how their great-grandparents met. It was not a huge leap from pouring over old family photos to being fascinated by the houses in which these beloved ghosts lived.

  2. Stephan Hilson

    This post reminds me that I didn’t have complete class picture compared to my batchmates. And it made me think of what are my aspirations would be in my earlier years. I remember that I wanted to be a doctor then lawyer. Since the 2 courses will take me a long time to study, I took different course, which I finished later on. Thanks for the interesting insights.

    1. Historic Shed

      Amy – I wonder if any child ever said, “I want to be a historic preservation consultant when I grow up”… I think many of us found our way a bit sideways. The great thing about that is that we bring so many other facets of learning that we gathered along the way with us, making the field richer for it.

  3. Melanie Barr

    I think I grew up to be a historic preservationist because my parents always moved our family to new, modern suburban sprawl subdivisions. The architecture was homogeneous, as were the people, and the trees were small, if there were any. When I saw beautiful downtown neighborhoods I knew this was where I belonged and the buildings had to be saved.

    1. Historic Shed

      I do think there’s a lot to that. Historic buildings and settings let us know what we’re missing. Yet somehow we don’t hold the bar high enough for our new buildings and developments. Makes what is left even more precious. It’s not that we can’t make them like we used to, but we don’t.

      BTW – I grew up in a 1970s subdivision, 4 models, 5 color choices for aluminum siding, 2 for the fake aluminum screw-on shutters. Not an architectural masterpiece. Probably has a lot to do with my attraction to preservation, too.

  4. Joe Freenor

    I found this blog to be most interesting. There have been quite a few in this thread that discuss various aspects of how they became architects, which I find intriguing, as I sometimes think I might well have gone into that field, had I not been so very dedicated to the idea of becoming a published writer. I never managed to pull that off, but I found myself getting into other things, most notably cabinetmaking, which has been very rewarding over the years. What you said about architecture and how it is taught was interesting, though, because I think that whole subject of how it is done is a most fascinating one. It’s more than just throwing up a wall, as you well know. There are all kinds of things a person has to know first: how tall, how thick, what supports it, what’s under it, what will be above it, what will be the stress loads? I don’t know why that sort of thing should be interesting, but to me it really is!

  5. Historic Shed

    Yes, Mrs. Handy at Lake Avenue School. These #Letsblogoff posts are lots of fun although I always have to scramble to write them.

  6. April Peterson Weygand

    Loved the article! Precisely why I tell people it’s ok if you don’t know what you want to be when you “grow up”. Often times, you must fall into it. Is that Mrs. Handy?


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