Corps Values: How Youth Corps Are Saving Historic Places

By teaching preservation skills, youth corps across the country are passing down important knowledge — and saving historical places at the same time.

Jamal Banks leans in to study two pieces of rotted wood recently removed from the third-floor ceiling of historic Clifton Mansion in Baltimore.

"See how these pieces fit together? This is called a mortise and tenon joint," explains John Ciekot, special projects director of Civic Works, a nonprofit youth service corps headquartered in the mansion.

Banks' eyes light up as he runs his hand along the crumbling wood.

"I see," he says. "So it was put together like a puzzle." He studies it a second longer. "Wow," he adds. "This wood is old."

This is the sort of detail that excites Banks these days. Since February, the 23-year-old has been helping to restore Clifton Mansion as a Civic Works AmeriCorps member. He's been removing and saving floorboards that date to 1812 and tearing down drywall added in the 1960s, uncovering architectural elements and the bones of a centuries-old structure in the process.

Teaming with master carpenters, Banks and his fellow corpsmembers are preserving the local landmark that has served as Civic Works' headquarters for more than two decades. They're developing valuable construction skills that will give them an edge in the job market. And considering the delicate nature of working inside a house as old as Clifton Mansion, they're also receiving a crash course in historic preservation.

“You can really feel the age as you walk through the building. It’s like a time machine,” says Banks. When he’s done with his day’s work, he likes to wander through the mansion, exploring the original footprint of the Georgian-style house and its later Italianate-style additions. The house was built between 1801 and 1803 by Captain Henry Thompson, a merchant and ship owner. Philanthropist Johns Hopkins, who founded the well-known Baltimore university of the same name, made the additions in the 1840s and '50s.

Banks laughs as he points to the school across the street. “That's where I went to high school,” he says to Ciekot. “I always used to see this mansion. I walked by it every day, but I never knew what it was. Now, here I am working on it.”

More than 25,000 young people each year, including Jamal Banks, benefit from job and leadership training (and, in some cases, academic programming) in service corps programs like Civic Works. The 21-year-old nonprofit is a member of The Corps Network, a national association that advocates and provides support for more than 100 youth development programs modeled after the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. These organizations engage young people, ages 16 to 25, across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. (For veterans, the age limit is 35.)

“Some of our young people come into corps with maybe a high school diploma or GED, some come in at the third-grade reading level, or from foster care or incarceration, and some come in having graduated college,” says Mary Ellen Sprenkel, president and CEO of The Corps Network. “So the corps try to address a wide range of needs for a diverse set of young people.”

The scope of work undertaken by the corps programs is just as wide-ranging as the young men and women who enroll. They tackle projects ranging from trail building and habitat restoration to community gardening and disaster response.

Preservation work has entered the repertoire of some member corps, like Civic Works. For instance, five young members of the Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa helped restore the icehouse at the 1912 vacation home of architect Charles Buechner on Lake Superior's Sand Island last summer. And in 2011, the Southwest Conservation Corps received The Corps Network's annual Service Project of the Year award for its Tribal Preservation Program. Located at Acoma Pueblo, which is part of the National Trust Historic Site Acoma Sky City in New Mexico, the program trains young Native Americans to preserve historic and prehistoric sites.

But many corps programs simply don’t have the time, the resources, or the know-how to take on these sorts of large-scale preservation projects.

Enter the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Working with The Corps Network, the National Trust recently launched its Hands-On Preservation Experience (HOPE) Crew. This new initiative connects with The Corps Network's member groups to teach young people skills they can use to save historic places.

“The goal of the HOPE Crew is to engage a new set of future preservationists,” says Monica Rhodes, the National Trust’s manager of volunteer outreach, who has taken the HOPE Crew from concept to reality. “And in doing so, we're opening up the field of preservation to an audience that might not get exposure to it.”

On March 10, the HOPE Crew broke ground on its very first project: the restoration of Skyland Stable, a rustic wooden structure built in 1939 near Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park. The HOPE Crew teamed young corpsmembers from the Citizens Conservation Corps of West Virginia with Fred Andreae, a preservation architect from Front Royal, Va., who served as the group's preservation adviser. David Logan of Vintage, Inc., a building company that specializes in historic restoration, joined Andreae on the project to teach corpsmembers the ins and outs of preservation construction as they restored the deteriorating stable.

“The students already have experience with construction, but just not on historic sites,” Rhodes explains.

The HOPE Crew allows The Corps Network to expand the scope of the job training its member corps can offer. It also increases the number of projects each corps can tackle. And the more work the various corps can take on, the more young people they can engage.

“It's a win-win for everyone,” Sprenkel says. “There’s obviously no shortage of historic sites that need work, so making sure there's a new generation of workers who can take care of these places — and making sure there's a new generation of people who care about them, period — I think is pretty important.”

Though significant, the work undertaken by young corpsmembers is hardly glamorous. At San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in Texas, members of the Texas Conservation Corps (TxCC) have been hard at work repointing the mortar on the stone walls of 18th-century missions. They have performed the same task on the Espada Acequia, a Spanish Colonial irrigation ditch built by Franciscan friars in the 1740s and the oldest Spanish aqueduct in the United States. The corpsmembers mix mortar while sweating profusely under the boiling Texas sun, hauling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of the material over to the missions' walls. They chip out the old mortar and replace it with a fresh batch. Repeat.

“It was grueling,” says Josh Conrad, who served in the TxCC (then called Environmental Corps) back in 2008. “We're talking manual labor to the max. It was great.”

Conrad was an inaugural participant in TxCC’s masonry apprenticeship program. Young corpsmembers there train alongside master stonemasons, which have included the just-retired, Scottish-born John Hibbitts. (Hibbitts worked on the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the world's sixth-largest cathedral.) The veterans teach their apprentices the masonry techniques needed to preserve stone structures throughout Texas' state parks.

Hibbitts and masons from the National Park Service are more than eager to pass on their rare and highly specialized skills — skills they fear are being lost with each successive generation.

And for Conrad, who had taken a year off from architecture school at the University of Texas at Austin, the experience was eye-opening. When he returned to UT-Austin the next year, he began pursuing a second graduate degree: a master's in historic preservation.

“When you're in architecture school,” Conrad says, “you're working on paper, working on a computer, and you don't really get to deal with the actual building as much as you might want. So I took to this masonry internship as a way to explore that idea, that need I had to work on buildings and understand them. And when I was out there working, I was like, 'This is great. This is what I want to do.’ So I went back to school and really focused myself.”

Today Conrad, 32, is a preservation specialist at Hardy Heck Moore Inc., a historic preservation and cultural resources management consulting firm in Austin. He also maintains the Austin Historical Survey Wiki, a historic properties database he helped create as a graduate student that is now in use by the city of Austin.

And many of Conrad's fellow TxCC members also have found their professional calling through the masonry program. Some have gone on to take jobs with the National Park Service or with stonemasons in Austin. Others have joined the staff of American YouthWorks (TxCC’s parent organization, in conjunction with AmeriCorps), continuing their commitment to service.

In fact, corps all over the country are jump-starting careers. In Charleston, S.C., 28-year-old Kedrick Wright found a new calling of his own: making homes more energy efficient.

Though he now works as a firefighter for the city of North Charleston, Wright spent more than two years serving with The Corps Network member Energy Conservation Corps (ECC). This AmeriCorps-affiliated program of the Charleston-based Sustainability Institute trains and certifies young men and women to retrofit low-income homes with energy-efficient systems.

Despite his demanding schedule, Wright also continues to work part-time with CharlestonWISE, another energy auditing and contracting program within the Sustainability Institute. After all, he says, “There's still more I want to learn. I want to grow as an energy auditor and get [further] certification.”

Listening to Wright rattle off the different options for insulating historic homes, or the step-by-step process of conducting an energy audit, or even the differences he notices between the construction of Charleston's newest houses and its oldest ones (“Those old houses are made to endure the weather here,” he marvels), it’s hard to believe that when he entered the ECC just three years ago, he had no experience in either construction or weatherization. But with a toddler to support and few job prospects, Wright signed up to work with the ECC and got hooked. He found he especially enjoyed his work on Charleston's many historic homes.

“It's considerably more difficult,” he says. “These homes were made to breathe and made to swelter in the South with the high humidity here. So when you change the dynamic of a house, you can run into problems like mold, or things like condensation in areas that weren’t sweating before, because you sealed it up too tight. We have to come up with innovative ways for dealing with these old houses to make them more energy efficient without changing their overall character. It’s really cool.”

Beyond inspiring new career paths, the years these young people spend serving in corps programs build pride and confidence. The work provides a sense of accomplishment that they carry with them for life. “It may not seem that significant while you're doing it,” says Parc Smith, CEO of American YouthWorks in Austin since 2010. “But then you step back a minute, and you realize, wow, the work you just did was on one of the oldest buildings in Texas, and maybe one of the oldest in the country. What [the corpsmembers] are doing today is going to be here for the next hundred years or more for future generations to enjoy. They're going to take their children back to see the projects they worked on across the state.”

The communities benefit, too.

“Most of our members grow up here, they stay here, they'll raise their families here,” says Jay Bell, program manager of the ECC. “So they’re doing work that will impact their families and their community for many, many years down the road. They'll always have that. Having a program like this [in Charleston] is, I think, one of the best things to happen here. We're preserving our communities.”

John Ciekot at Civic Works seconds that notion. “When you walk in the door of Clifton Mansion,” he says, “you're going to be hit with not only history, you're going to be hit with the future: Here's what you can do to serve and improve the community.” He sees the young corpsmembers’ role in restoring Clifton Mansion as a catalyst for a larger transformation in Baltimore.

It's impossible to say who gains more: the corpsmembers, who learn new job skills and find new directions in life, or the communities that see their historic properties cared for by the next generation of stewards. To many corps leaders, this question is beside the point. “Young people are so rarely asked to do anything significant,” Parc Smith says. “And here, we're asking them to take care of some of the nation's oldest buildings. That's an important job.”

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