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