Preservation Field School

This spring, Carrie and I took our two boys out to Field Day at Camp Namanu in Sandy, Oregon. Carrie attended Camp Namanu several times as a girl and the current director of the summer camp is a former teaching colleague of hers. The Field Day was essentially an open house to give parents and kids a feel for what to expect at a week-long session of summer camp. On our walk back to the van, the boys were begging to know if they could sign up. I said, "Camp is wasted on the wrong people. When do I get to go spend a week at camp?" Well, as it turns out, my opportunity came a couple weeks ago...

  Cutting a new timber to replace  in-kind  a rotted lookout on Cabin L125, built by the CCC in 1937.

Cutting a new timber to replace in-kind a rotted lookout on Cabin L125, built by the CCC in 1937.

I attended the University of Oregon's Pacific Northwest Preservation Field School at Mt. Rainier National Park where we did preservation work on a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cabin built in 1937 at Longmire Village. Coincidentally, we were in the park for Founder's Day, and this year was the centennial celebration of the National Park Service which was established on August 25th, 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act creating its enabling legislation

"to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wild life therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." 

This week at the Field School was eye opening to say the least. While many architects understand the basic issues and tenets of historic preservation, as a whole, we rarely scratch beyond the surface. The same can be said for physically constructing the very details that we draw and communicate to builders throughout our careers. I would assert that most practicing architects today, if put on the spot, would be hard-pressed to explain the difference between a mullion and a muntin, windows and fenestration, or an elevation and a façade.

  Cabin L125, built by the CCC in 1937, sporting its new lookout that I cut and sanded.

Cabin L125, built by the CCC in 1937, sporting its new lookout that I cut and sanded.

This Field School provided an easy and enjoyable entrée into historic preservation. The combination of formal presentation by experts, hands-on work under the guidance of professional craftspeople and preservationists, Socratic discourse in the field, as well as socializing and dining together boarding house style is to be applauded. Preservation has its own language and terminology as well as sets of ethics and values, which I know I have only just begun to understand. (Prior to this week, I used terms like preservation, restoration, rehabilitation, and reconstruction as synonyms!) The instructors, presenters, and participants were very open and willing to discuss the reasons behind what they do. They shared their trials, tribulations, and lessons from the field. They challenged us with questions. They taught their skills. They demonstrated that action should only follow thorough investigation and critical thinking. I liked the summary that our Field School Director, Shannon Sardell, offered:

"Historic preservation is the application of scientific principles to a value set."

Everyone with whom I interacted, student and instructor alike, was clearly involved out of a passion for protecting our heritage. The Field School is not just helping to preserve places of significance for posterity, but history and cultural resources for interpretation now and in the future, and the knowledge and craft of construction methods largely forgotten. It reminds me of a phrase Jake Shivery, proprietor of Blue Moon Camera & Machine in Portland, uses regarding his own business: “Postponing the fall of Rome.”

I think the most valuable thing the Field School offers is perspective. It is easy to be myopic, to get wrapped up in here-and-now and the promise of tomorrow. There is a much bigger, older, more complex world out there and we have a choice to understand, respect, learn from, and care for it. 

My friend and mentor Michael Parker, PFLA, told me that he and photographer Robert Adams were discussing the work of Wright Morris recently. Mike remarked that they couldn't have had the conversation they were having if they both didn't have an extensive background in the history of photography and early photographers. He said Adams' response was, "If photographers don't understand history of photography, they are just pissing in the wind." I suspect this sentiment is true for professions other than that of photographer.

My personal hope is that this centennial for the National Park Service might also mark the beginning of my involvement in the field of historic preservation, not merely a one-off experience. Certainly, a better understanding about preservation will help inform my photography of historic places.

Next time: What We Learned in Field School