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Moving Forward, Looking Back

What the Whitehill Report got right and what it didn't

I was talking to a friend yesterday about some ideas for trades education initiatives, and he mentioned how much had changed since he and I started getting involved in projects together five years ago. It got me to thinking how much really has changed since the Whitehill Report. The Whitehill Report, a product of the Committee on Professional and Public Education for Historic Preservation and Restoration formed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), was published April 15, 1968. The committee was formed in January 1967 less than three months after the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) became law.

The NHPA had given us the National Register of Historic Places, the list of National Historic Landmarks and the State Historic Preservation Offices, but it did nothing to enable the actual process of historic preservation or restoration. The Whitehill Report, named for the committee’s chairman, Walter Muir Whitehill, was the NTHP’s attempt to establish the extent or limitations of the human resources to carry out this work and the degree to which the educational system of the United States was able to produce them. The conclusions it came to were as disheartening as they were enlightening.

The report states: “Technology has displaced the traditional building craftsmen as effectively as industry previously displaced the handcraftsmen who made the objects of domestic use and commerce. Not only has prefabricated and disposable construction destroyed the general need for such craftsmen, but artificial materials have replaced many of the natural materials used in earlier buildings whose properties are part of the craftsmen's lore.” In other words, the committee came to the conclusions that the trades had not just vanished, but had been methodically made obsolete, while recognizing that “earlier buildings” required both natural materials and craftsmen skilled in their use.

The report went on to say: “These ancient crafts are a significant part of our national cultural resources. Their continuation as a living tradition is essential to insure the authentic conservation of our early buildings. The survival of these crafts will require the most thoughtful solutions to human as well as economic problems. No existing formula can be used. A new solution must be found, based on a national realization of the importance of these skills to our continuing culture. Public knowledge of the standards and objectives required in such craftwork should be developed through education at all levels.” Again, the commission recognized the crucial loss of the educational resources to even create modern craftsmen with the skills needed to work on our architectural heritage.

Forty years later, the National Council for Preservation Education’s (NCPE) Guide to Academic Programs has 59 programs, including both colleges and universities with undergraduate and graduate programs in historic preservation. Many of those programs date back to soon after the Whitehill Report was written, but until 20 years ago, only academic programs were available to students. Even though the report clearly stated that skilled tradespeople would be needed to carry out the actual hands-on process of historic preservation, formal hands-on trades education only started to become available 20 years after it was written. 

Even today, there are fewer than ten programs offering hands-on trades education.

It’s important to note that the Whitehill Report was wrong in its assumption the trades had “vanished”. In reality, there have always been highly skilled trades people, and the NHPA was an important law in that it started a process that gives more and better work to those skilled craftsmen today than they have had for generations. Much is being done to pass the knowledge those tradespeople possess on to future generations. The Preservation Trades Network is holding its fourth hands-on summer field school program in New Orleans in partnership with Tulane University in July. The Timber Framers Guild’s apprenticeship program has just been granted approval by the Department of Labor. The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission has partnered with Thaddeus Stevens College to teach hands-on trades education through their Preservation Trades Technology Program.

I’m happy to say there are more programs available than I can list in this blog, but the need for skilled tradespeople far outweighs the number practicing their crafts today; and the problem will get worse every year if more high quality programs aren’t created at a much faster rate than they are being created today. The fact that America is finally beginning to see the value of its historic architecture is in many ways a double-edged sword. But I guess a sword is just another tool, and we need to learn how to use this one for the good of historic preservation and the good of the trades.

Some useful links:
The PTN field school.

The “Guide to Academic Programs” listed in the article.

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