Has anyone ever asked you, “What did you want to be when you grew up?” Feel free to use it as an opener at your next cocktail party. As children, we create dreams and aspirations that carry us through elementary school and beyond. For me, I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in history and architecture. As a child, my favorite classes were art and history. Let’s be honest, they were the only two subjects that I’m not embarrassed to disclose my grades. Growing up in the Berkshire Mountains of Connecticut, I was surrounded by history and beautiful architecture. The home I grew up in was built in 1823 and is the epitome of Federal architecture with white clapboards, fanlight windows, dark green wooden shutters, and at one time, a large wraparound porch. I may be biased, but New England history is infectious and obviously I fell under its charm.
MY DISCOVERY OF HISTORIC PRESERVATION
I don’t think I quite understood what my career path was until my first year in college. Looking back, there were plenty of signs - every year for my birthday I always convinced my parents to take me to Boston for the day, my room was decorated with antique furniture, I loved exploring large estates, on vacations I would always come back with photos of buildings, I would help my father at his antique furniture restoration business, and I had a deep curiosity when it came to abandoned buildings. I wanted to know the whole story behind every building - who lived there, what was daily life like, who were the builders and designers, and why was it abandoned? By the time I went to college in Lake Forest, Illinois, I didn’t see a major for exploring abandoned buildings.
What I did find was a college advisor who would change the course of my life by introducing me to architectural history. It was amazing. I was hooked immediately. Architecture? Cultural history? I couldn’t learn quick enough. I was also the only one who could stay awake every morning and evening for slides in the dark. After completing four years of college and many independent studies focused on architectural history and sustainability (because we all know historic buildings are sustainable), I knew I needed more. Luckily, Chicago has abundant opportunities for continuing education, and one school in particular was offering something called a Master of Sciences in Historic Preservation. Full on confession, I didn’t really know what preservation was at that point, but it kept me in Chicago and had the promise of learning more about architecture. I threw caution to the wind and decided to give it a try. At the Art Institute of Chicago, I took courses on the theory of architecture, historic building materials, preservation planning, building diagnostics, physical documentation, preservation law, and restoration design. The program was a great overview to a very complex profession that is constantly changing. As you can gather from the class titles, preservation cannot be defined in one simple term.
YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH PRESERVATION
When I was growing up, it didn’t seem like anyone was particularly focused on historic preservation. I grew up in a quaint New England town called Sharon, Connecticut (founded in 1739). Sharon is the type of town that one may see represented in a Norman Rockwell painting. A large town green lined with 100 year old trees sits at the center of town. The Green is bounded by the townhall, a public library, the historical society, a handful of business, a historic clocktower, and grand residences in the Federal style. Every year at Christmas time, the town would gather together at the Green and witness the annual lighting of the tree. The town always had a lot of pride for its history, and it was apparent in the way buildings were cared-for. I don’t recall one specific group calling for preservation within the community, But then how does a small town like Sharon, Connecticut continue to look the same decade after decade? I think the answer probably lies in the fact that many of us practice preservation daily without even realizing it. Have you purchased an older home, or have you invested in your current historic home? Do you shop in historic Main Street districts? Do you work in a historic district? Have you traveled to an area to explore architecture or social history? If you were able to say yes to any of these activities, then you are a supporter of historic preservation. I hate to be so simple about it but living, working, and supporting our historic communities is what keeps our culture and history alive (and extra materials out of landfills). I can’t imagine Cincinnati without OTR, the Art Academy, Music Hall, Union Terminal, or even the reptile house at the Cincinnati Zoo – minus the reptiles. These buildings (and I could write an entire blog just on architecture in Cincinnati) help define our city and give us context to how our area was first developed. Without visual representation of our history, our society would lose its identity. It’s the process of understanding how buildings define our environment that makes me love being a preservationist.
WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, AND WHY
Not unlike many other professional degrees, historic preservation is not just a name but an act. How can you preserve? Where do you preserve? What do you preserve? And finally, who do you preserve with? Luckily, the last question is simple, the extremely talented designers at MSA Design! (Shout out to my favorite architects and designers.) It may surprise you to hear that career roles in preservation are extremely diversified, but we all have the same end goal, protecting our national heritage through the conservation of buildings. There are endless ways to be involved. Many preservationists work at the state and federal levels, some work at museums, others are historians and archivists, some specialize in city planning, and others work for nonprofits. Side note, I highly recommend becoming a member of the Cincinnati Preservation Association and witness the extraordinary things they are doing within our city.
Here at MSA Design, we also play various roles within historic preservation. From historic tax credits, grant applications, National Register of Historic Places Nominations, historic consultant work, historic research, to rehabilitation services, we are able to offer our clients a variety of preservation services. With twenty years of experience in the design field (eleven of those years dedicated to preservation), I still find excitement and joy researching buildings and providing design solutions. I find it incredibly fulfilling when I’m able to bring purpose and energy back into buildings in such a way that honors our past. Every project is different, and I welcome the complexity of blending history together with modernization. Within our office, we’ve worked on some extraordinary projects that demonstrate how exactly we bring history together with today’s present needs. These buildings include MSA Design’s Headquarters, 3CDC Offices, Abigail Street, Goose & Elder, Pleasantry, Senate, and the list goes on.
Of course, many projects require a more traditional approach. We have many clients who prefer to maintain and preserve their existing buildings either through the National Nomination process, historic tax credits, or reconstruction. We are currently working on a National Nomination which I’m particularly excited about. Significant in women’s social history and art, this Nomination will be the first of its kind in the county. Stay tuned for more details in the near future! We are also working diligently on a theater restoration that we hope will serve as a catalyst for future development in Barnesville, Ohio. The Barnesville State Theater Company purchased a 1924 theater within their Main Street Historic District that has been vacant for over fifty-years. Due to severe water damage, many of the interior finishes have deteriorated or are missing. The Theater Group is currently raising funds to restore the historic theater back to its original glory. Our preservation design group has been assisting the Theater Company in grant applications and providing design solutions to get the theater up and running while waiting for grant funding to be awarded. The overall design of the theater will be reflective of the original Classical design and will have all the modern updates including new restrooms, accessible entrances, a new concession area, and all new interior finishes that are reflective of the 1920s. Yes, it’s true, sometimes it just takes one building to spark an interest of new development within a community. We have already head from other entities within the Barnesville community inquiring about future development along Main Street. It is one of our goals here at MSA Design to support communities through preservation and innovative design.
HOW MSA IS CONTRIBUTING TO HISTORIC PRESERVATION
At MSA Design, we have a modern approach to historic preservation that combines the traditional practices of preservation with forward thinking design. This requires a collaboration between our preservationists in the office and our designers. The language of compromise and harmony are instrumental between these two departments. In our office, we focus on maintaining the principal idea that we need to maintain our connection with our past and sense of place, but doing so in a way that reshapes our world to meet the demands of the future. Being a preservationist in the modern world requires a delicate balance between the new and the old. Whether we are working on rehabilitation projects, historic tax credit projects, historic grants, National Register of Historic Places Nominations, or simply doing a minor renovation, we are always collaborating, even if it’s just to bounce ideas off one another.
Historic preservation is not a new concept for us. MSA Design has been practicing preservation for decades. It all started in 1994 when Mike Schuster decided to form his new architecture firm within the West Fourth Street Historic District. Twenty-nine years later, we are still occupying the same building. Projects come and go but the cast iron storefront, Classical detailing, exposed brick walls, steel windows, and reinforced concrete remain constant and noble. I think back to all the projects designed within our space, and probably over 90% of the projects are within existing buildings. If I think about the historic districts we have maintained, the number of resources we have reused, the cost savings associated with preventing demolition, reducing the consumption of new materials, decreasing energy usage, and bringing new life into existing buildings, I would say MSA Design has been doing preservation work all along.