on Historic Preservation

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

Or “Why I want to go into Historic Preservation”
OR “Oh yeah, I’m applying to grad school”

written November 2010

Perhaps it was the heady scent of those design markers I played with on the floor of my father’s office at the Museum of Mississippi History, or maybe it is just the preservation gene that runs in my family, but as long as I can remember I have been aware of the significance of place, history, and the need to preserve and conserve both. I consider myself a conservationist in many aspects of my life and an advocator of conservation both for public use and for purely sentimental reasons. I have been blessed with a strong sense of place. I have a knowledge and awareness of my roots that not everyone can claim, but to me a sense of place also exists everywhere there is a depth of identity, of history. As Eudora Welty writes at the beginning of her essay “On River Country,” “a place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out. It flares up, it smolders for some time, it is fanned or smothered by circumstance, but its being is intact, forever fluttering within it, the result of some original ignition.” This, I feel, is the heritage that preservationists seek to retain and share with others.

My interest in pursuing a graduate degree in Historic Preservation stems from direct experience—confrontation in my own life with the value of cultural history, the knowledge and preservation of it. I have been immersed and participated in generations of archival, oral, artifact, and building conservation. My father combined architectural training, graphic design and a love of history into a specialty as a museum exhibits designer and later, a consultant/designer of small history museums across the South. He was instilled with the significance of family history by his mother who had been impressed upon by generations before her’s. In turn I have grown to accept these values as my own and aspire to preserve historical sites and knowledge for future generations.

That the preservation of historic buildings and places is particularly important to me is not surprising given my family’s track record. My grandmother was a bit of a collector of old houses. She saved and thoroughly restored an antebellum home in her hometown of Macon, Mississippi. She maintained her childhood home, Sunshine, and further encouraged the salvation of historic buildings across the county both personally and with the help of other passionate members of the Historical Society. Her key role in the revival of the county jail (a gorgeous three-story brick Romanesque building, circa 1907) as a library was a particular source of pride to her. I remember keenly hot summer days of my childhood spent exploring the still-barred upper floors, being in awe of the hangman’s trapdoor and the patched bars on one window, a feature that must have been retained for the single purpose of lighting children’s imaginations. To that extent, preservation was successfully and creatively utilized in this building to teach the history of a place even if only to one child.

Perhaps my most recent inspiration in the consideration of this direction in my life was my move back south in 2009. Feeling the pull of my roots, I left New York City and a promising position in graphic design to live in the 1901 farmhouse built by my great-grandfather. This house has always been a significant part of my life. Sunshine, so-called from the nickname the postman gave my great aunt as a child, is the embodiment of my sense of place in this world. It has always been a center for family gatherings and summer vacations, but it became home for me, and I became the first full-time resident Sunshine had seen since the early 1960s. With the death of my grandmother and my father during my time there, the fate of this house was suddenly in the hands of absentee owner cousins. How to save Sunshine, how to make it more useful, and how to preserve it for future generations are questions my family and I began to wrestle with.

Beyond my own roots, and true to Eudora Welty’s words, I have felt the need to find that “fire that never goes out” in every place I’ve lived. Digging for knowledge and delving into the history of a place gives me a sense of understanding, respect, and belonging to where ever I am. While in school at UGA, “Sunday drives” were a regular part of my life, to Elberton, Watkinsville, Madison, discovering and photographing all that caught my eye for no apparent reason other than to satisfy my sense of curiosity and adventure.

Not long after I arrived in New York and was working as a book designer at HarperCollins, I was handed the book of my dreams that, to this day, is still my favorite project. Forgotten New York was an aptly-named off-the-beaten-track guidebook to overlooked artifacts of the five boroughs’ history. I was in heaven. I used that assignment to begin my “discovery” of New York and each weekend found me at some new corner of the City, from Jacob Riis Park and Coney Island up to the Bronx, and later, stretching up into the Hudson River Valley which I reached by train, biking and hiking. Friends will tell tales of me dragging them into mysterious overgrown cemeteries along the A train, of arduous bike rides that took in the sentinel-like ventilators along the Old Croton Aqueduct, late night tromps along the same or another snowy trek to reach Lyndhurst. What is so incredibly interesting about most of these sites from Forgotten New York and beyond, is that the factory and hospital ruins, streetlights, gargoyles, alleyways and trails show a way in which history was not intentionally preserved but rather accidentally. Artifacts were overlooked but remained and now these bits of history are available for rediscovery. This book and others, websites, and the popular interest in urban exploration is yet another method of preservation.

As I think about studying Historic Preservation, and observe what is happening with my own family’s homes and other buildings, I know that the field must be continually evolving. It is no longer possible to save an old building without considering what time, money and energy must be expended to do it, now and in the future. Dwindling resources (i.e., funds) call for creative solutions. It is the historian/preservationist’s job to find that solution through preservation, teaching, adaptive reuse, etc. I am a natural and creative problem solver, which initially led me to graphic design, a field that, excepting architecture, emphasizes problem-solving more than any other liberal arts discipline I can think of. I studied, relished, and thrived in the pursuit of graphic design for the first years of my adult life. I know that my design and problem-solving skills will come in handy as I enter into this field. While I have been immersed in history and preservation my whole life, I feel there is much more I can learn through this graduate program.

As my Dad once said about designing exhibits, most people think about what you want the audience to do IN the exhibit, but real forward-thinking takes into account what you want the viewers to do AFTER they see the exhibit. Look further down the road. What do we want to convey to the public by imparting this information, preserving this building, establishing this neighborhood as historic, and otherwise sharing our passion? Maybe we hope that citizens will take pride in and respect their community, maybe we hope to inspire others to see the value in conservation that we see, encouraging others to maintain, preserve and protect. It is my hope that I can be so forward-thinking and inspire these ideals in the public through my life and work. I look forward to gaining the expertise and credentials to confidently carry out these ideals in practice.


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