Professions in Preservation: Architectural Conservator

Designed to help the preservation community learn more about the scope of careers in the field, this article is the first in a series of profiles of careers in preservation.  We begin the series by asking four professional architectural conservators about the work they do, the education they received, and their perspective on the field of preservation. 

Architectural conservators fulfill a critical and sometimes overlooked role in the heritage preservation field by physically caring for decayed and aging artifacts and building materials such as stone, wood, metal, and architectural finishes.  Some conservators also contribute to the research and testing that develops new techniques and products to serve the profession.     

We spoke with the following conservators:  Dr. George Wheeler, of Columbia University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, et. al,;  Lurita McIntosh Blank, of Walter P. Moore and Associates; Mersedeh Jorjani, of Architectural Conservation, Inc.; and Mikel Travisano, of the Historic House Trustof New York City.

1.    State your name and title(s).

Dr. George Wheeler, Director of Conservation, Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture Planning & Preservation, Historic Preservation Program
Consulting Scientist, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of Scientific Research
Director of Research, Building Conservation Associates
Consulting Conservator, New York University’s Villa La Pietra, Florence, Italy
Consulting Conservator, Isamu Noguchi Foundation, Long Island City and Mure, Japan

LMB:             Lurita McIntosh Blank, Materials Conservator, Walter P. Moore and Associates
MJ:                Mersedeh Jorjani, Architectural Conservator with Architectural Conservation, Inc.
MT:                Mikel Travisano, Architectural Conservator at the Historic House Trust of New York City

2.   Describe your typical day as a conservation professional.

GW:  In a sense there is no typical day. My main focus is teaching architecture conservation in the masters degree program in historic preservation, which includes course work, field work and supervising thesis work.

The course work and thesis work encourages student to explore the properties of materials of architecture and architecture conservation in lecture, demonstration, and laboratory formats. The field work emphasizes documentation and monitoring.
My work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art focuses on the development and evaluation of conservation treatments.
My work for Building Conservation Associates focuses on field documentation, materials analysis, and treatment specification and evaluation.
My work for Villa La Pietra and the Isamu Noguchi Foundation focuses on the conservation of outdoor sculpture in garden settings.

LMB: I typically spend about half my time in the field and the other half in the office.  My mornings usually start off with an email frenzy, then I bounce from project meetings to site visits through most of the rest of the day.  Right around 5:00 PM seems to be when I can actually sit down, focus, and get some work done.  Field investigations and conditions assessments are a large portion of projects with which I am involved, particularly for facades repairs, cladding issues, and moisture infiltration problems.

MJ: It really changes day to day. Some days are spent responding to RFPs and RFQs, while others are spent in the field, doing things such as surveying buildings or historic sites (like cemeteries) or taking samples for materials testing (to see what material a historic substrate is made of to understand how and with what it can be repaired). And then there are days devoted just to report writing: summarizing the treatments on a building or site for the client's reference. It's a good mix of field work and office work.

MT: I work at a small nonprofit so my typical day can vary greatly.  During the spring and summer I spend more time out in the field managing projects and working with volunteers.  I also spend quite a bit of time in the office coordinating projects and attending meetings.

3.   What special training did you need in order to do this job?

GW: I received a Masters Degree in Art History, a Graduate Certificate in Conservation from the Conservation Center of New York University, and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from New York University.
All three have been fundamental in developing both my thinking and my skills in architecture conservation.

I received a MS in Historic Preservation with an emphasis in Conservation from Columbia University in New York City.  My undergraduate degree was a BA in Art History focusing on history of the built environment.  Even though my Masters program was focused on historic architecture, I received a very strong foundation in forensic methodology that is not normally available in traditional architectural or engineering programs, which put me far ahead of the curve than many of the younger engineers in my company.  However, formal education is just the start; nothing can replace the hard-earned, firsthand experience in the field.

MJ:  An MS in historic preservation with an emphasis on architectural conservation. Having a little bit of chemistry also helps (I took it as an undergrad).

MT: I have a Masters in Science in Historic Preservation.

4.   What range of projects would/has typified the work you do?

GW: Teaching, research, field work (including conservation treatments) (see question 2 for details).   

LMB: I am very lucky in that I actually work on a wide range of projects related to the building envelope—historic preservation and restoration, of course, but I am also regularly involved in roofing and waterproofing projects, cladding issues with new construction, and the occasional peer review for projects during design.  A professional who works mostly in the sphere of repairing buildings has a unique perspective on detailing for new construction, especially for waterproofing.

MJ:  I generally work on large sculptures/monuments.

MT: It can vary greatly depending on the job.  My last position required extensive travel all over the United States and significant amounts of writing. Travel for my current position is only within New York City and requires more project management and coordination skills.

5.   What personal qualities and skills would be useful for a person in this kind of role?

GW: For teaching, communication skills – writing, speaking and listening – are vital, particularly the ability to present the same ideas or information in more than one way.
Research requires focus and clarity of thought, as well as persistence and imagination in the laboratory.
Field work requires the ability to make do with limited or imperfect resources.

LMB: For anyone interested in pursuing a career in restoration, being detail-oriented, even to the point of retentive, is a must.  Historic buildings are very quirky, and often a detail that should be same throughout a building has a number of variations.  Slapping together a sheet full of “typical details” just does not work; restoration takes more critical thought, technical knowledge, and organization than some new construction.    You also have to be comfortable working in the unknown. 

MJ: Flexibility and versatility. The role is really multidisciplinary, so you have to wear many different hats.

This job requires excellent organizational and management skills.  You also need patience to see a project through from beginning to end, because in many cases a complete building restoration project can take a few years.

6.   Any other thoughts on the preservation field or the work you do?

GW: Preservation is a young profession in the United States and is young as an academic discipline. It has undergone development and growth in the last 45 years and has much more to go.

LMB: I find “problem solving” very rewarding, and luckily, that is what I do every day.  I also like to give contractors a hard time; luckily, I do that every day, too.

MJ:  I find my work, and the field of preservation in general, quite interesting; it keeps me on my toes and learning at all times.

MT: I really enjoy my work as a preservationist and believe it’s important work.


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