Professions in Preservation: Architectural Historian/Preservation Specialist

Working under various titles and often defining their own roles, historic preservation specialists, architectural historians, and preservation consultants provide key services to the preservation field by helping to identify, research, and ultimately protect historic resources.  These versatile professionals often work for federal and state agencies, cities, consulting firms, or even themselves, navigating the highly region- and agency-specific processes that define the preservation field in the U.S.     

We caught up with three such preservationists in the diverse locations of Berryville, Virginia, Northwestern Wyoming, and Southwest Michigan.

1.    State your name and title(s).

KL:   Katherine Longfield, cultural resource specialist, Grand Teton National Park

MK: Maral S. Kalbian, architectural historian, self-employed historic preservation consultant for 22 years

PO:   Pam O’Connor, historic preservation consultant, opened Preservation Practice, in 1994. Immediate past president for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

2.   Describe your typical day as a preservation professional.

KL: Summer and winter tend to be very different as far as typical days go.  In the summer, I am often out in the field inspecting projects, working with concessioners and partners on preservation treatments and conditions assessments, and attending meetings on site or in the park with other park personnel. In the winter, I am usually researching or getting my ducks in a row for the upcoming summer season. A lot of planning and forward thinking happen in the winter and it is a relatively quiet time to get things done.

MK: I don’t really have a typical day as I am self-employed and my schedule varies. That’s the beauty of it. Generally, if I have fieldwork, I am out in the field from around 9 to 3:30 then return to the office and organize my notes and begin to process photos. I respond to e-mails and phone calls, although recently I have started doing that throughout the day. Since I don’t have a secretary or receptionist—these tasks can sometimes pile up at the end of the day.

If I am researching, I try to get to the library/archives/courthouse as early as possible and again try to work for most of the day but still allow myself time to get back to the office to organize what I have done.
I also spend a lot of time processing and writing the information I have gathered in the field and in my research. I try to work in two-hour increments and not get distracted by e-mail or phone calls. This is sometimes a challenge.

I am flexible as to when I schedule appointments to meet potential clients. Since I set my own schedule, this works out well.  

PO: I work from a home office, so four days out of five, my commute is about 20 seconds long, and if I have no appointments or field work (like today), I'm in my shorts and t-shirt!  I'm always in the office at 8 AM, and take a half-hour lunch break.

A typical office day usually begins, not surprisingly, with reading my daily FORUM digest. Then I move on to project or projects, depending on deadlines. Today, I worked on two different combined Michigan and federal rehab tax credit amendments, and then spent the afternoon formatting information for a large, mostly residential National Register of Historic Places nomination. If I'm doing field work, that has most often required travel outside Kalamazoo for the last several years, so I usually plan to be at the site for a couple of days at a time. (I stay with a friend to save both lodging expense and commuting time. It's 75 minutes each way.) Survey work can be slow when you're an independent—but I usually split field work days up into morning and early afternoon for sizing up buildings, etc., physically, and then the last half of the afternoon for local research.

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

KL: I needed a familiarity in the National Register of Historic Places and Cultural Landscape Inventory evaluation process and an understanding of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. My master’s degree in Historic Preservation from Columbia University gave me the training I needed to start the job, though I have learned a lot on the job while doing it.

MK: I have an undergraduate degree in art history and a master’s in architectural history with a certificate in historic preservation. When I completed graduate school I took a low-paying job to gain field experience in architectural survey. I thought I could do this for a while before going on for a doctorate. What ended up happening was that the work kept coming in and I was enjoying it and learning so much that I never went back to school. All the grant-funded projects I worked on required a master’s degree or two years of field experience, so that was no problem.

PO: I majored in art history, so I knew how to do the research and write critically—that was easy. I also did several independent studies in school that focused on historic architecture, including preparing a preliminary National Register nomination; and co-authored a book on local historic architecture. The rest I've learned o the job, so to speak. For me, the most special training required is to learn how to grasp that not every potential job turns into a real job—and to begin to be able to tell when something will develop. It's still not my strong point, but I'm getting much better at it. As well, because I'm also a preservation advocate (who of us is not?), I also have spent time honing my skills needed to convince people that it can be done, and how they can make it happen. A good deal of that came from my long-time association with the Michigan Historic Preservation Network!

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

KL: I found myself standing in a field trying to outsmart a herd of oncoming bison while inspecting a 1940s refrigerator with a visiting architectural conservator last week. Later that day, I was sitting through our monthly resource council meeting, thinking "all in a day's work." While most of our structures out in Grand Teton are log and our landscapes are mostly vernacular, you find yourself making decisions on modern masterpieces such as the Jackson Lake Lodge or funky autocamps too. I think it is the variety that keeps me interested.

MK: I initially started by conducting only county/city-wide architectural surveys and writing National Register nominations. I then expanded into rehabilitation tax credit applications and Section 106 projects. I also began to write histories, texts for walking tours, brochures, and books. I still prepare a lot of individual and historic district National Register nominations as well as the other types of projects listed.
The breadth of my work has expanded because I have been willing to develop my expertise into new areas. I have always been open to new trends in historic preservation and have been willing to learn how to do the required work. Every day on the job is a learning experience for me—that is the best perk I have! I look forward to new types of projects and learning from them.

PO: As indicated above, I'm doing National Register nominations and small, really difficult tax credit projects. (Talk to my SHPO, that office will confirm this—I always seem to get them!)

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

KL: Flexibility. You are working constantly with other resource managers and you need to be willing to look at their side of the issue. Anyone who came into this job with too much rigidity in their ideology would not make it very long. You are also often caught on your heels when things come up unexpectedly that affect historic resources. You need to be flexible in your timing. Though you would like a month to make a decision on a landscape treatment, you may only have a week. 

MK: I love historic buildings, but I love people more. I think it is important to have an open personality for this kind of work to be truly successful. Often historic preservationists are seen as either elitists or fanatics. I try to show that preservation is a logical choice where everyone can end up winning, especially if they use the tools available to them.

PO: Beyond the obviously required knowledge of how historic architecture, and how these major programs work in my state, patience, good communication skills, a sense of humor, and an ever-growing understanding and appreciation for the Secretary of Interior's Standards!

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

KL: The best advice I ever got from a veteran preservationist was "sometimes you have to write your own ticket."  If my career path proves anything it is that becoming a preservationist isn't like becoming a doctor or a lawyer, sometimes you have to write your own job description.

MK: It is critical to be open to new ideas and to be willing to learn with every new project. For example, the latest challenge has been the green/sustainability movement and its compatibility with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and its impact on rehabilitation tax credits. I am educating myself on the subject so that I can be part of the solution. 

PO: Lots of thoughts, but I'll only articulate four:

1)  It is essential.
2)  There are not enough of "us." By us, I mean preservation consultants who are also advocates.
3)  There are still far too many communities and rural areas that know nothing about designation, rehab incentives, or the economic and environmental benefits of preservation activity.
4)  Finally, there is not anywhere near enough funding to assist communities in getting themselves educated, and then getting the places that are important to them designated. Complicating this funding shortage is a new American cultural tendency to eliminate this kind of activity first from a municipality's budget—the very same kind of short-sided thinking that leads school systems to eliminate their art and music classes first.

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