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The Value of Stewardship

Saving historic structures requires compassion and learning about the builder.

In December I was asked to speak at the Jefferson Center in Mandalay, Myanmar. In preparing for the presentation, which was open to the public, I decided to talk just a little about my background in the trades before I addressed the topic of conservation of the Golden Palace Monastery. It came as a bit of a surprise when I realized that I have been working professionally as a carpenter for over 50 years. It hasn’t always been full time, as I started when I was going to college majoring in mechanical engineering. But even then, my go-to resource for making a little extra income led me to picking up my carpentry tools, which I had learned to use from my immigrant grandfather.

Pretty much all of the carpentry work I did when I was young involved new construction. Even when I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the ancient trade of timber framing, the projects I undertook were building new timber structures. Some of those were additions to historic homes, but my work most often focused on turning trees into habitat. What is interesting to me now is that building new structures was a reward in itself, given that it gave me the opportunity to do my best work, but what it didn’t do was provide me with the joy I find now working on someone else’s work centuries after they did it.

Obviously, over 50 years I have had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of structures and have been fortunate enough to practice my trade in many different countries all over the world, but what I find more and more interesting as time goes by are the roles that people play in those projects. As you might have imagined, those roles aren’t always positive, and in some cases have even been destructive, or at least severely detrimental. Looking back on the differences between the positive and negative roles people have played, it becomes obvious that in the majority of cases it had to do with how people are influenced by money.

Projects where money is no object are few and far between, but all too often money plays a major role in the decision-making process when conservation work takes place. In some cases, the owner of a building chooses to hire unskilled workers based on the assumption that skilled ones will break the budget. In others, totally inappropriate materials are used because the owner, architect or contractor believes quality materials will be cost prohibitive. And these types of uninformed decisions often doom buildings to irreversible damage instead of sensitive intervention.


I know that sounds pretty elementary, but I feel it is much more insidious than simple for a number of reasons. The root of this assumption lies in compassion. I never really had much of an opportunity to realize how much compassion influences conservation until I began working on historic barns, or at least it was never so obvious. Nearly every historic barn we have ever worked on was built in a time when its very existence was critical to the livelihood of the family who built it. It housed their livestock and their crops and provided a work space for maintaining their farm implements and caring for their animals, and if you believe the old saying, even functioned as a maternity ward from time to time.

As the world we live in has changed, the value of the old barn in everyday life has diminished, or more likely vanished, and yet we have people calling us on a regular basis to help them save their old barns. Why? Restoring their old barn won’t change their lives to be more like it might have been before the world evolved to what it is today. Finding a new use for the barn is difficult at best, and yet they feel passionate about saving that tangible relic of days gone by. And the truth is the money they put into that barn can be hard to justify, at least as far as the way an accountant or real estate appraiser might look at it.

The  ca 1810 Africa House at Melrose Plantation, Melrose, LA.   

The  ca 1810 Africa House at Melrose Plantation, Melrose, LA.   

What I have come to realize is that in many cases owners of historic properties are asking us to help them take care of them because it feels good, and if you listen, you can hear them say that. They don’t use those words. In fact, they often can’t even come up with a better reason than it’s something they should have done a long time ago. But when they commit to having the work done, usually long overdue, they are far less interested in the amount of money it will cost than if what has been done by time and lack of maintenance can be undone. They want to know if they can still be good stewards.

I have heard it said many times, and by many people I greatly respect, that preservation is maintenance. Those of you who know me know my first inclination would be to ask them if they don’t actually mean conservation is maintenance, but over the years I have come to realize that the concept that conservation is stewardship can be much more powerful. Stewardship exemplifies compassion and makes conservation as much about people as about the artifacts they create. True conservation is about keeping things useful and stewardship puts the humanity in the concept.

One of the things that I find particularly annoying about conservation work is how often the apparent role of people is relegated to those who practice the intervention needed, whether they play a role in financing, planning, specifying or the actual hands-on work required to affect the needed changes. These people are all important in their particular roles, but no more so than the people who came before them who are the reason the artifact is there at all. And from my way of looking at it, those are also the people who can teach us the most if we can take the time to listen and learn.

Learn about the Builder

I have a long list of projects I have done which I look back on and wish I had taken more time to get to know the builder better before I started working on his work. In almost every case, that person has long since gone to that big workshop in the sky because most of the buildings we work on now are several lifetimes old. But as I work on more and more of those buildings, it becomes obvious that the opportunity to learn something about the builder, their tools and the resources they had to work with exists if we just take the time to observe and try to understand what we are seeing.

This is anything but an easy task for several reasons. The principle one is how differently we think, and even see things now, compared to the centuries gone by. For tradespeople, it is easy to assume that the builder two or three centuries ago would have worked in a similar manner to how we work today. For those of us who like to feel as though we are part of saving old knowledge and ways of doing things, feeling we are part of preserving the trades themselves can lull us into this belief. But the more we try to learn from the tradespeople of the past, the more we realize how little of their work we understand.

Studying early written works about the trades reveals that a critical component of how we once built was based on geometry. This practice is so shrouded in mystery today that recent writing about it often refers to it as sacred geometry. But to yesterday’s builder it was much more practical than sacred, and would have been as common as using mathematical measurement is to today’s builder.


Careful study of most old timber and log buildings can reveal the marks used by the tradesperson when geometry was employed, and yet today they mean almost nothing to most builders. In fact, it’s common today to read articles which attribute the daisy wheels and other geometric symbols used by builders of the past, during building layout, to witchcraft and hex signs used to ward off evil spirits. Understanding and using geometry is but one of many aspects of how differently we think now compared to when much of the built environment came to be.

One of the geometric symbols, of unknown meaning, found on the cypress logs used to construct the Africa House.   

One of the geometric symbols, of unknown meaning, found on the cypress logs used to construct the Africa House.   

When the Smithsonian Institution expanded the display area for the Ipswich House in the American History Museum, the house was deconstructed and reconstructed at the museum. I was offered the opportunity to study the structure and discovered the carpenter’s marks used by the builders to identify the various components of the frame, an ancient European building tradition. I was asked to do a presentation during which I described the use of the carpenter’s marks and I suggested to the curators that the marks, which no one had even recognized before, should be documented before the siding was replaced. It was never done.

The value of the ancient knowledge employed by the trades is rarely considered when buildings are conserved. Usually, if preservation, restoration or rehabilitation occurs, the goals of the project focus on the methods and specifications that will be employed during the process. This is an artifact-oriented methodology which has evolved during the process of self-education that has occurred in little more than half a century since the Historic Preservation Act was passed. Conserving the artifact for the secrets it contains is normally not a consideration.

In my mind, this is the driving force of stewardship. Stewardship is not about economics. It is about humanity and how it is contained in the man-made world around us. It is about old ways of thinking. It is about old ways of living. It is about much of what oftentimes seems to have vanished from the world we live in today.

It may or may not be true that conservation can preserve embodied knowledge, and it may or may not be true that stewardship can help us recognize it and learn from it. But when I help people save the past by truly taking responsibility for it, it becomes easier to understand why they can’t describe why they are doing it beyond feeling like they should, and I believe it’s because they know there is value in it, even if they don’t clearly understand what it is.

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