The Preservation Trades, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Hugh C. Miller, FAIA
Presented at the 2005 International Trades Education Symposium Belmont Technical College, St. Clairsville, Ohio
October 6, 2005 (used with permission of the author)

I have been asked to discuss preservation trades education beginning with the Whitehill Report of 1967.  From my experience the Whitehill Report had no impact on preservation trades training programs of the National Park Services and apparently not for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  I also believe that there were few other historic preservation programs that could implement the Report’s recommendations.  The Report’s finding that there was a shortage of trained trades mechanics was a misconception and its proposal for solutions was not based on realities of the times.  For all intents and purpose the report was dead on arrival!  Let me explain. 

In 1967 when the Whitehill Report was formulated and released, I had worked in the Eastern Office of Design and Construction of the National Park Service (EODC) in Philadelphia for more than seven years as an architect preparing construction documents and supervising construction.  This work included the restoration of the Assembly Room of Independence Hall in the mid 1960s.  I had not experienced any shortage of competent tradesmen to carry out preservation work.  What I sometimes experienced were incompetent general contractors who were unable to organize the work.  Often, in spite of good trades mechanics.  For anyone working in the building industry the problem was the “specifications,” the procurement and building process and NOT the lack of skilled tradesmen. 

For me the Whitehill Report was a non-event!  It had little impact on program thought and action at the time for a variety of reasons.  Quite frankly, it had no influence on my preservation projects or professional activities in the NPS National Headquarters in Washington (1971-1988).  Only now, after the recent posting on the PTN website, have I studied it.  While I agree that it is an interesting document, the real history of the preservation trades has to do with the dynamic development of the preservation movement in North America and the major changes in the construction industry since World War II.  I am still mystified as to why the Whitehill Report is given so much creditability in the current history of the preservation trades training since it was written by seven people who had never laid hands on a building nor understood the dynamics of preservation as a building process. 

Preservation Activities Before 1966

The passage of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 is a useful threshold of preservation activities in North America and specifically in the United States, but a lot had happened prior to that time.  The major activities regarding historic buildings had been focused on the restoration or reconstruction of historic buildings, often with conjectural and disastrous outcomes.  There was a small core of owners or non-profit organizations who employed interested architects and responsive general contractors who had no trouble in finding capable craftsmen to carry out intended work in a "good workman-like manner".  Mount Vernon, along with Colonial Williamsburg, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) and other private historic sites, were the standard bearers.  Many states already had historic site preservation programs and were doing significant reconstruction or restoration work with skilled tradesmen.  The National Park Service got into the "history business" with the 1935 Antiquities Act and during the Depression construction work was done on Park Service properties by WPA and the CCC, sometimes repairing historic structures.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation was organized in 1949.   They soon began acquiring properties to preserve with the use of easily available contractors and skilled tradesmen, but they did not have an architect on staff until 1969.  

Perhaps the most active player in the restoration game after WWII was the National Park Service that in 1955 launched its major construction program "Mission 66".  Charles E. Peterson, FAIA, was in charge of the historic preservation projects for EODC.  (There was a similar program in the Western Office of Design and Construction in San Francisco.)  Perhaps most significant was his early employment of Henry A. Judd as a project architect.  Hank was the son of a general contractor who had set the standard for fine homebuilding in Connecticut.  Hank had studied architecture, worked as a general contractor and was a master craftsman excelling in woodworking.  He not only understood historic buildings and the building process but also soon learned the bureaucracy of preservation.  I credit him with hiring Gordy Whittington as the first craftsman who  "took the veil” as the model preservation craftsman.  Peterson and Judd soon massaged the U.S. Civil Service classification of "exhibit specialist (museum)” to  "exhibit specialist (restoration) “.  Suddenly, it was possible to have preservation trades mechanics on a salaried, permanent basis within the National Park Service. This made all the difference.  Hank Judd and Charles Peterson were able to hire a cadre of tradespeople for permanent jobs.  James Askins, whom I consider the godfather of crafts training in the NPS, was hired in 1963 as an exhibit specialist (restoration).  The job title "restoration specialist" is not yet in the U.S. civil service classification system.  The framework was set in the Mission 66 program for in-house research and documentation for restoration and reconstruction of NPS historic structures.  The work was carried out with a hybrid of construction systems that often depended on exhibit specialists, NPS day labor crews (paid wages without full benefits) and general contractors, or subcontractors.   

At Independence Hall, in the mid 1960’s this included an architectural research team headed by Lee Nelson and Penny Batchler and a day laborer workforce, headed by Ed Whitlock as carpenter and general foreman.  There were more than sixteen master craftsmen, mostly carpenters, who had a shop set up in an abandoned historic building within Independence National Historical Park.  They did all the opening up of the fabric for investigation, as well as millwork, carpentry and painting for restoration or repair projects in the Park.  I developed a close working relationship with this crew.  I was honored when our patternmaker wood carver, John Pecoraio, gave me the key to his toolbox so I could leave my working papers at the jobsite.   For the restoration of the Assembly Room, I was charged to orchestrate the work of the general contractor and his own crew of remarkable craftsmen and subcontractors, with the NPS day labor crew.  After finishing the contract qualification and procurement process, there was no shortage of interested and qualified trades mechanics to carry out the work.  This was a learning experience for everybody in deciding how to undertake the work.  There was a common interest in the outcome and an excellence in problem-solving became the rewarding challenge.  This team had an acknowledged high standard of excellence! 

Historic Preservation on the Roll

The National Park Service was given a lead role for activities legislated by the 1966 Historic Preservation Act and NPS organized an Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (OAHP) in its Washington DC headquarters to carry out the programs.  This included the National Register of Historic Places, Grants to the States, overview of the archaeology programs as well as the cultural resources of the Park System.  Suddenly, the ideas of restoration took on a national interest and there was significant work in state, local and private projects.  Within NPS the restoration dynasty, established by Charles Peterson, was decentralized.  (Pete had retired and was teaching at Columbia University.)  Hank Judd and the program overview went to Washington.  Many of the historical architects and exhibit specialists were assigned to the parks out of the Washington Service Center (later relocated to Denver).  Each of the ten NPS regions developed a professional historic preservation staff.  Some had their own laboratories, workshops and training programs.  

Hank Judd and Lee H. Nelson put together a proposal in 1968 to establish a William Strickland Preservation Center in Philadelphia that would capture the energy of historical architects and trades mechanics, discovered earlier in the annual “Carpenter's Carnival” training workshop.  The Center was to be a three year focused-training program to provide the Park Service with people who would become full time NPS employees knowledgeable in the preservation process.  This plan was acknowledged publicly as a response to the Whitehill Report.  It probably was also a reaction to the fact that the “all-star” day-labor force at Independence Hall had been fired unceremoniously by the Park superintendent with no discussion with the interested parties. The proposed William Strickland Preservation Center had an approved and funded budget of $309,000 dollars for a pilot project, but unfortunately, in an end of the year budget mark-up, these funds were transferred to a promised preservation project in 1969.  Hank Judd was bitter; Lee Nelson was very disappointed.  (As an aside, New York State did have crafts training in its bicentennial preservation project work.) 

By the time I joined Hank Judd in 1971 in the historic architect's office of OAHP there was no discussion of the Whitehill Report, nor any real interest in training in general, and in the crafts in particular.  There was some open discussion by high level OAHP officials that the National Park Service should have no role in preservation education, contrary to the Whitehill Report recommendations.   

At this time most of the preservation treatments and activities in North America, as well as NPS, were focused on restoration of historic buildings.  Lee Nelson was charged with writing an encyclopedia of "restoration".  Among my other duties I became the technical director for a film that was to be made about restoration.  This introduced me to Jim Askins who was the promoter of the project as well as its lead "star".  He was a star craftsman, but not a star actor, and the film died in the process.  But, this was the beginning of a lifelong experience of working with Jim Askins in the art of the possible in training.  

Jim was carrying out a number of restoration projects at Gettysburg, Antietam and Harpers Ferry using exhibit specialists and day labor crews.  It became apparent to me that much of this work was being carried out on buildings that had been restored ten or fifteen years earlier, but never maintained.  Together we organized the idea of a preservation maintenance training course for NPS architects and maintenance workers.  After some significant effort on our part, the idea was adopted by the NPS Harpers Ferry Training Center with the tentative blessing of the Washington Office.  The first two-week training course was offered in 1973 utilizing NPS skilled tradesmen, as well as professionals working in the parks and the private sector as faculty.  This course became an annual event and was the core for other NPS courses offered in the NPS regions, parks and to the private sector. 

In 1974 I met Bernard Fielden (later Sir Bernard) at a conference in Philadelphia.  On a whim, I invited him to Harper’s Ferry to address my preservation maintenance class for an hour or so.  He stayed all day.  He talked about seeing the building at arms length and how the hand “teaches the mind” for building and repair.   We talked about how the understanding of traditional building methods gives us insights into how to make repairs to make the system work, without necessarily making it better.  Sir Bernard and I have worked together on many international programs.  He became my mentor and good friend.  We still correspond today. 

I had coined the phrase "Maintenance Is Preservation" to promote the work of the Harpers Ferry Training Course.  This idea was picked up by Lee Nelson in the NPS Technical Assistant Program.  Henry Chambers of Chambers and Chambers Architects was given contracts to develop ideas for NPS publications.  Penny Batchler, historical architect at Independence Hall, created a banner  "MAINTENENCE IS PRESERVATION"  and had her crews that were working on Independence Hall wearing T-shirts with the same phrase.  The idea was to explain the scaffolding around the building  that the superintendent hated. This and the related exhibit about the role of maintenance in preservation was a sustainable public relations event that caught the imagination of the public.  It is  interesting to know that the banner “Maintenance is Preservation” in the photo on the cover of the Forum Journal Summer 2005 is another generation of the one that Penny created for Independence Hall in the mid 1970s.  

A Sea Change in Preservation Thought and Practice

1972 was a landmark year for a number of notable events in addition to my meeting Jim Askins and beginning to plan a NPS preservation training program focused on the people involved in maintenance of historic structures.  In September of that year more than 150 historic preservation practitioners, museum conservators and material scientists met in Williamsburg and Philadelphia to discuss the science and technology common to the conservation of museum objects and the preservation of building fabric.  This event, with its papers and its discussion about the philosophy of preservation and the treatment of historic materials, established the framework for preservation and conservation to be a preferred treatment.  People who called themselves "restorationists" or "restoration architects" began to define their new rolls and the practice of architectural conservation. 

There was significant discussion about the training for people to be involved in architectural conservation.  Professor Steven Jacobs of Cornell University set the tone with his paper regarding the current state of education and training.  During the course of the formal and informal comments and discussion it became clear that the preservation trades had an important role to play in the preservation treatments and in the new field of architectural conservation in North America.  Even before the end of the conference the limitations of the Whitehill Report were enumerated and the sense of the conference was to move beyond its doctrine.  The involvement of the trades within the process became apparent and the stakeholders in the implementation of training into the process were identified at this conference.  

This conference and other activities in the museum conservation community spurred the organization of the National Conservation Advisory Council (NCAC) to study the state of museum conservation.   They subsequently defined architectural conservation as a philosophy and practice.  It is interesting to learn that the 1980 NCAC report “Suggested Guidelines for Training in Architectural Conservation” influenced the curriculum for the Belmont Tech building/ restoration program that was established in 1989.

Before 1972, the Society for Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) had already embraced the concept of preserving its buildings “as received” – conservation and preservation as a treatment.  George Wrenn, Morgan Phillips and later, Andrew Ladygo were involved in connecting the science and craft of preservation in treatments of the more than 60 buildings in their management.  Their work became a model and an educational training opportunity embraced by the Association of Preservation Technology (APT) in its own programs in the United States and Canada.  Architectural conservation was coming of age and trades mechanics had an important role to play in these activities. 

Also, in 1972 the tropical storm Agnes hit the Potomac Valley with catastrophic flooding that washed out large sections the canal prism of the C & O Canal National Historic Park for more than 100 miles and decimated many of its stone structures.  Jim Askins was part of the initial emergency response team and with the Washington Office, the Region and the Park developed a multi-year restoration project.  This was funded immediately and Jim was charged with putting together the crews and contracts to carry out the work.  He opened a workshop and job headquarters in an abandoned brickyard building in Williamsport, Maryland. 

In the early 1970s the National Trust had organized its historic properties under the direction of a Vice-President, James C. Massey, and Blaine E. Cliver was employed as the historic architect for properties (1972-1974).  In 1973 he established a building crafts workshop and training program.  This was located at the Trust's property in Lyndhurst, New York under the direction of Allen Keiser.  This program provided repair, maintenance and restoration services for all National Trust properties along with crafts training for the participants in the workshop programs.  However, by 1983 the Trust closed the workshop and decentralized decision making about preservation treatments for their properties.  It is interesting that the Trust did not see this workshop was part of its mission for stewardship of its properties. 

The success of the NPS maintenance training program at Harper’s Ferry spurned some significant interest by Park Service trainers to export the training to other organizations such as State Parks or local preservation offices and the National Trust.  Initially, the National Trust education and training staff were not interested in course about maintenance or crafts training.  However, with some persuasion in meetings with the National Trust's CEO and the Preservation Service VP, they agreed that the National Trust would join with the NPS to present a course in preservation maintenance for decision makers.  The first course was offered in 1975 at Harpers Ferry with Jim Askins and me, as well as Martin E. Weaver from Parks Canada as key instructors.  Martin was the progenitor of architectural conservation in North America who could connect the science of conservation to the process for restoration, repair and maintenance.  This program with its emphasis of hands-on training continued for six years across the United States and was exported into Canada.   

There was an immediate response to the maintenance training courses that Jim Askins and I established for NPS.  Most significantly, David Battle in the NPS Southwest Regional Office and Blaine Cliver in the NPS Northeast Regional Office established preservation workshops with the goal of preserving Park Service buildings and training craftspeople.  Blaine had transferred from the National Trust to the National Park Service in 1974 and was successful in institutionalizing crafts training for maintenance workers with a certificate program that would reward their work with job status and promotions.   

Jim Askins was the consummate bureaucrat who not only organized complex preservation projects, but also used his position as a NPS trainer to see into the future.  He organized his project crews for training and began to lobby the powers that be within the NPS Washington Office and at the Denver Service Center to organize a formal multi-year training program.  It was interesting to me to be part of this conspiracy and while Jim says that he used the Whitehill Report to justify the idea of crafts training, he never discussed this report with me.  By 1977 the Williamsport Training Program was firmly established for the training of trades mechanics, preservation job supervisors and architects on the job.  

Jim recognized the need to formalize the position of trades mechanics within the U.S. Civil Service System.  He and I worked together with Gail Wittmer, a Human Resource Specialist at the Denver Service Center, to develop a Civil Service classification system for "Restoration Specialist".  This included detailed knowledge, skills and ability (KSA) qualifications for all grades from GS-5 to GS-15.  Unfortunately, in the efforts to simplify government  the Civil Service Administration never acted on these proposals.  Since Jim's  retirement, the NPS Historic Preservation Training Center (HPTC)  work continues under the direction of Tom McGrath; however, the program is now located in Frederick, Maryland.  (Tom tells me that they have expanded the GS rating standards to be benchmarks for KSA in the HPTC.  This could be a model for today’s exercise about the preservation trades education initiative). 

Crafts Training and the Challenges Today

I agree that there is now a problem in connecting trades training to the preservation treatment and the construction process.  I believe the glass is more than half full, and it is time to stop “whining” and hand-wringing and take action.  We can look at the crafts training programs that have survived ten, fifteen or twenty years.  They each have lessons to teach as we think about their future and additional programs.  The NPS HPTC Program, RESTORE, Belmont Technical College and a myriad of others are effective because they have a successful output that meets the expectations of their sponsors and client groups.  In examination, these programs connect to a larger involvement with the preservation community and even the construction industry.  That is their success! 

It is important for us in the U.S. to realize that the national trades training program that work in Sweden, France, Germany or Japan, will probably not work in the U.S.  At this time the national preservation community of the National Trust and the National Park Service are not the “buttons to push.”  We need to focus on other stakeholders in the construction industry doing tax act rehabilitation projects.   For instance, in 2004 there was $38.8 Billion spent on rehabilitation tax act projects.   Developers, contractors and specifiers may have incentives for crafts training from the Departmetn of Labor or the Perkins Act Grants.  From the success stories about programs in the College of the Redwoods, Colorado State University, in Charleston South Carolina and New York City High Schools, we should remember that all preservation is local (it may have a national scope, but it is local) and “Preservation is the Art of the Possible!” 

The critical aspect of crafts training today is to relate it to the business of construction as well as to the knowledge of materials and methods of construction based on science and technology.  There must be a full understanding about why the building construction industry today is fundamentally different from the builders who erected buildings in the 17th, 18th and even the early 20th century.  

My mentor, William Allen, an English architect, building scientist and educator, points out that there are many reasons for weak-links in building construction as practiced today even in the so-called "traditional building".  He notes that:

Since 1945, the pace of building as a craft has passed  . . . never to be seen again.  We now see fast change . . . many materials and novel engineering and design often without appropriate standards or codes. 

Although systems are getting better, because of science, experience and standards, the basic physical, chemical, biological, thermal and mechanical forces are still at work to find the weak-links . . . often in unusual ways. 

Building products or systems are often designed without redundancy (safety factor) or without the "knowledge of the pharmacology" of materials when combined. 

Design decisions usually are not about performance or maintainability. 

Buildings are bigger and more complex without the requisite coordination of information for the outcome of design, construction, operation and maintenance. 

Architects, engineers, contractors, trade mechanics and clients, along with others interested in the excellence in design and construction and preservation of the building stock, have done little to change these realities of construction today.  These people still have a direct impact on the way that projects are conceived and executed.  Furthermore, there is a direct relationship with the execution of work to maintain, rehabilitate and restore existing historic buildings.  Education will provide the knowledge base for these challenges, but there are deeply engrained practices and attitudes that “stonewall” any change in the way of doing business.  Together we must find ways to “learn from landmarks” not only to preserve our building heritage, but to build better new buildings. 

We should recognize the challenges of today's opportunities for economic benefit and social well being, as well as lots of work to preserve buildings..  For all of us professionals working in the field of preserving the built environment, I see the challenges as quantity, quality and “weak links.”  

The quantity of historic buildings, historic landscapes and historic districts listed on the National Register, will increase at an explosive rate.  Now there are about 78,700 individual listings, but there are actually over 1.2 million resources, mostly buildings in historic districts now in the National Register.   It is a fact that of these 1.2 million buildings fewer than 20% were built in the 20th century.  The buildings of the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s are being listed at an increasing rate.  I believe that by 2012 another million resources will be added to the National Register . . . over 2 million historic buildings – WOW! 

There is a sudden awareness of the tax benefits for rehabilitation and more buildings and districts are being listed for economic development and investment strategies by localities and local preservation organizations.  Last year alone there were more than 1200 projects nationwide representing more than  $3.88 billion in rehab expenses.  (Interesting to note that 1/3 of these projects were valued at more than $1 million.) There is a lot of work here for everyone who is organized.   

As the challenges of numbers of buildings in the National Register increases, we in preservation need to define the quality of these buildings in ways that are fully understood by the larger community particularly by elected officials and public administrators.  We can look at the challenges of quality in three ways: 

1.  The quality of buildings is about the significance of the type.  Are they "high road" design as monuments or signature buildings or are they vernacular buildings such as diners, steel houses or trailer parks? This all raises questions of values, excellence and recording the built culture.  Who cares?  What about the 1950s Firestone Tire store with its modern design as a possible rehabilitation tax credits project?  So who cares about the 1950s motel as a modern survivor?   You all can think of “back home examples.” 

2.  The quality of construction since World War II (1945) has more "inherent vice " in materials and methods of construction where material performance has threatened the building’s physical integrity.  There may be very significant buildings that are extremely deteriorated. 

3. The quality of preservation treatments in the repair and replacement of these buildings raises serious questions of "how, what and to what standard"  (Is there a standard for a "drivevit" repair?) 

This leads to the questions of “weak links” in our universe of 20th century heritage buildings.  The “weak links” can be defined in two parts that we must understand and factor into our problem solving.  The first is material weaknesses and the other is system weaknesses having to do with the specifiers and the practitioners, the procurement process and construction delivery system.  We need to effect change in the construction industry. 

As the work to rehabilitate and restore 20th century buildings has been undertaken, it is evident that the material and methods used in their construction are not as forgiving as the traditional materials used in earlier periods.  Corroding steel and spalling concrete is hard to repair or replace.  Are jalousie hardware and fittings or fiberglass panels available today?    These are not insurmountable problems . . . architects and engineers are problem solvers.  Short course and training are now being offered to help learn about the preservation and repair of modern materials.  Nurturing and stewardship of the building trades is the most important challenge in solving the problems of “weak links” in buildings.  There is a growing interest by young men and women to learn the building crafts but where is the system that will help them to get work and to keep working?  How do we retrain the trades mechanics and contractors to forget short cuts and poor practices?  They too need to understand how modern materials work and weather as well as how to   keep the “good work up.” 

The second “weak link” is the challenge for selling our concepts in the market place of ideas in order to affect public policy and administration of education and training to focus on the construction process as it applies to the preservation of our built heritage.  Perhaps the best future for preservation trades training is to connect it with the other professions concerned with the execution of preservation projects.  Architects, engineers, conservators, trades mechanics, contractors, suppliers, etc. have the opportunity to define their niche in this specialized work.  The trades, with the related preservation professions, should be able to define their specialties within the building industry so that they are well qualified to do proposals for work at any scale of intervention within a proposed project.   

Collectively, we should think of preservation work as a continuum, rather than as individual projects that have a start and an end.  There is certainly a lot of preservation work to do when experienced crews are out of a job.  For the preservation of buildings perhaps we should be thinking about the organization of an HMO for building preservation that will provide for old buildings continued health.  Collectively, we should be able to join together to speak for building and the owner’s stewardship… think about the commissioners, specifiers and practitioners as stakeholders.   

We all need to find new ways to do business; emphasizing marketing, public relations and the involvement of the preservation team as part of the building industry.  We must be advocates for preservation and to be proactive in historic preservation policy and decision-making.  We need to articulate the breadth and the depth of historic resources and recognize that the flow of history is not static but dynamic . . . not only national or statewide, but local!  As in politics – all preservation is local. 

Hugh C. Miller is an adjunct professor at Goucher College where he teaches preservation technology and directs the writing of theses for the Masters of Arts in Historic Preservation program. He served 28 years in the National Park Service and was Chief Historical Architect for the National Park Service from 1979 to 1988. He has been an active member of the Association for Preservation Technology since 1972, serving on their Board of Directors where he directed the publications program. He is a member of the APT College of Fellows, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.