Can we see our Conservation Goals when we are Focused on the Distractions?

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One part of my work, a very enjoyable part, is doing structural and condition assessments on old buildings. I talked about the time traveling aspects of this in a recent post, but another curious aspect of this work is how hard it is sometimes, seeing what is right in front of me is. I get caught up in looking at some curious joinery decision made by a builder many generations ago, or by some less than appropriate "repair" that the building has survived. But normally these things become inconsequential when I finally stand back and take in the picture as a whole.

Working with my friend Dan Troth trying to figure out how to reconstruct the historic roof on an early 19th-century barn. The roof was replaced in the 20th century when the barn footprint was expanded, leaving little evidence of the original framing.

Working with my friend Dan Troth trying to figure out how to reconstruct the historic roof on an early 19th-century barn. The roof was replaced in the 20th century when the barn footprint was expanded, leaving little evidence of the original framing.

I think this malady itself is actually part of a much larger picture, which all too often we fail to see. Our natural tendency is to focus our observations on the things we are familiar with, or we think we understand. Unfortunately our own predisposition to look at what's between the blinders can lead us into situations where we actually misunderstand what we are observing because we think we understand a certain part of it. I don't believe this is a small problem, limited to our personal views, but rather a larger problem which we fail to comprehend at all because its limits are larger than our field of perspective.

A simple example of what I am trying to articulate was within a story RoyUnderhill told when he was the keynote speaker at the 2005 International Preservation Trades Workshop at Belmont Technical Institute in St. Clairsville, OH. He had been hired by Williamsburg as their lead carpenter and was determined to portray a colonial craftsman as best he could muster. Determined to start by felling trees and converting them to timbers by hand hewing, he went to the historic tool archives at the museum and found an unhandled axe head which had been discovered during a dig in a privy pit.

He asked the village blacksmith if he could reproduce the axe head, which Roy then hafted and went out to fell his first tree with it. Try as he might, the axe failed to give him acceptable results and ended up being so hard to use he took it back to the blacksmith to see what was wrong. The blacksmith told him the reproduction was completely accurate and pointed out to Roy that he now probably understood why the axe had been thrown down the privy in the first place. He was so focused on portraying a traditional tradesperson, that he had not seen the importance in understanding what makes a good working axe. Being a good craftsman requires good tools. A lesson he undoubtedly had had before.

When my own focus on timber framing began, roughly 30 years ago, I found numerous distractions to revel in. The tools themselves where a joy to hold, use and own. Working the wood was something I was pretty familiar with, but manipulating the various timbers, understanding how their life in the forest would affect how they would behave in service, and working the joinery to demanding tolerances became as much an obsession as a passion. I was quite literally so immersed in the process of designing and building timber-frame homes that I had no sense whatsoever of how little I understood about the history, cultural diversity or essence of timber framing itself. My qualifications were rooted in the present, rather than in the past.

When my friend and Timber Framers Guild member Dan Troth suggested I should look into being on the list of timber-frame companies asked to bid on replacing the historic timber frame barn at MalabarFarmsState Park, I realized how important my association with the Traditional Timberframe Research and Advisory Group was. The years I had spent doing "modern" timber framing had given me the skills I needed to layout and cut the timbers, as well as knowing where to source them, but what I was missing was a good understanding of how that work was done 150-200 years ago. The fact the barn had burned, and was then bulldozed and burned again before the replacement work was put out to bid, meant I needed an understanding I did not have of historic building patterns to replace something that had truly vanished.

As my work has evolved, over the last 20 years, into having a focus on restoration, I find that one of the immediate challenges of establishing a good working relationship with a client is trying to get them, and myself, to try to look at the big picture, instead of focusing on the rotted post, or collapsing foundation, or leaking slate roof. Interestingly enough, the process of discovery that follows the realization that something is wrong often causes the building owner to see things that they have never really looked at before. The challenge is to differentiate between what is actually related to the problem and what isn't.

More often than not, it’s something that has been that way for a long time and has recently come into focus as the owner actually started looking for "problems" that must be related, when in fact they are not. I think the difficulty we all seem to have, to one degree or another, of only seeing what we are focused on, is symptomatic of a cultural malady which we need to rid ourselves of before we can actually make strides in Historic Preservation. Unfortunately our North American perspective doesn't offer us a viewpoint from a place where preservation or conservation is a part of our make-up. As a young country we did our best to remove ourselves from the cultural bondage of the places we came from in an attempt to build something new with its foundations in freedom rather than heritage. We were almost single minded in our wish to create, not to preserve, as there wasn't anything we had built to preserve.

In modern day North America we are faced with the challenge of changing our viewpoint. Within the last century the need for preservation/conservation has begun to become a tangible reality. Rather than lose everything we built in our quest to build a new world, we are beginning to see the need to keep some of it as part of our world today and tomorrow; but what do we see when we look at that challenge?

Even as practitioners and technicians we often find ourselves focusing on what we understand, or think we understand. Rather than look at the cultural dynamics of preservation, we find ourselves looking at failing facades, or missing resources of skills and materials, and the bigger picture of how we change who we are so conservation is a part of how we think is overlooked, or worse, invisible.

When the Whitehill Report was submitted to the Trustees of the National Trust for Historic Preservation on April 15, 1968, it contained a significant focus on education in historic preservation. The implementation of this mandate was initially focused on graduate level academic programs and took decades to become part of hands-on trades education programs. It has yet to have any significant impact on K-12 public education. Why is that? I submit it’s because it isn't visible to the public school programs across America. It has no value because it doesn't even exist in the minds of the administrators and teachers in K-12, and for that matter, in the vast majority of higher education programs across the land.

If historic preservation is going to become part of the language we speak, we have to teach it to our young people. We need summer school programs and hands-on preservation camps for grade school and high school students. Until we can make historic preservation as important and reading, writing and arithmetic, we won't be educating students to leave high school looking for a job or a degree in the field. By not making students aware of preservation at a young age we are as good as blinding them to its existence. Their focus will be elsewhere, unless they are lucky enough to learn about it from their parents or peers.

We need a good preservation crime show on television. There are plenty of preservation crimes committed out there. Why isn't there a show about them? OK I'm kidding, but not a whole lot. Television is one of the biggest distractions out there. If public TV had real preservation shows, not shows about turning historic homes into eyesores in record time, I would watch them, and I'll bet a lot of other people would too. Eventually we might even begin to talk about preservation as if it was a real part of our world. Eventually it could become a real part of our culture.

I don't think we have much of a chance at make preservation popular if we don't take it seriously. I don't think a protest march would necessarily work all that well, but it would make the news. The truth is we have to make preservation a tangible part of the world we live in. If that is our goal we need to make it into something people can see and understand.

You and I might be able to sit down and enjoy a conversation over a beer about lime mortar, but Uncle Fred and Aunt Wilma would fall asleep. Our distraction with methods and materials has a place, but we need to make sure it doesn't keep us from seeing the whole picture. Historic preservation is not about saving our built environment first. It is about changing our culture first and then our built environment has a real chance of being saved.