by Sunny Townes Stewart
Each summer, UNC-G’s Historic Preservation graduate program offers its students a chance to attend a three-week Field School, giving them hands-on experience with a variety of preservation trades. I took the class in 2013, and it was an appropriate way to end that first year of the program. I had spent those semesters in the classroom building the foundational knowledge necessary to get out in the field, and I was anxious to “get my hands dirty,” both figuratively and literally.
The Field School always begins with a week at Old Salem, a restored eighteenth-century Moravian town that has been a crucial part of the preservation movement since its foundation as a historic overlay district in 1948. While there, we were given a number of behind-the-scenes tours by professionals in the field, where we learned about construction methods and how to date buildings using nail and wood types, saw marks, and brick and metal technologies and techniques. We also had the opportunity to try our hand at a number of eighteenth-century trades, including carpentry and blacksmithing, as well as plaster repair.
During the second week, students go to work on an active restoration project with specialist Dean Ruedrich. My group worked on an outbuilding at the Barker House, built in the mid-1700s in Henderson, North Carolina. Our main task was installing a cedar-shake roof, but we also honed other skills, including how to identify the type and age of wood, repair and reglaze historic windows, cut slate, form concrete, just to name a few.
In the third week, students get in-depth lessons on masonry repair and paint analysis. Our site was a mid-nineteenth century Quaker meeting house in High Point, North Carolina, where we repointed brick and repaired gravestones over the course of two days. Among the most memorable moments of the experience was our discovery of a small, nondescript soapstone marker engraved with only the name Julia Ann Jester. The stone had been dislodged and broken into three pieces, so we carefully repaired it and returned it to its home. Even though we didn’t know anything about Julia Ann, we all became attached to her gravestone. I was struck by the power of historic graveyards, which are poignant reminders of the fragility of life and I discovered that repairing and preserving markers—which may be the only lasting legacy of a person’s life—is a rewarding task.
On our last day, we returned to the classroom, armed with tiny tools and microscopes to practice paint analysis. The process was fascinating and I was blown away by the details that could be revealed just by peeling back the tiniest fleck of paint layers.
In looking back, those three weeks provided some of the most formative experiences of my time at UNCG. As preservationists, we spend a lot of time talking about the experiential qualities of historic buildings, those elements that we can feel but not necessarily quantify. In many respects, Field School is similar. While there is much to be learned in the classroom, the real lessons of preservation can only be acquired through direct observation and first-hand experience.
Beyond the preservation knowledge I acquired, I also took away from that experience a number of more general life lessons:
1. When at first you don’t succeed … you know the rest. Just ask Johann Gottlob Krause. Krause was a potter-turned-brick-maker in the Moravian town of Salem in the eighteenth century, and his first attempt at molding bricks was, from a modern perspective, a bit comical. The bricks and bond patterns in his first building–the Salem Tavern were awkward and irregular. But within a few years, he had become skilled enough to mark his initials using the bond patters of his buildings. Certainly his success is a lesson in perseverance.
2. The first step is always the hardest. I learned this during our plaster lesson with master plasterer Dwight Love, as I struggled to get the plaster from the hawk to the trowel without it splattering in a mess at my feet. Dwight said his father made him practice that one motion (which he made seem effortless, of course) over and over and over until he had mastered it. Another lesson in perseverance.
3. When all else fails, keep moving forward. Dwight Love told me this as I applied the plaster to the wall (once I finally got the plaster to the trowel) because I always wanted to go back and fix imperfections as I went. I decided that not only was it good advice for plasterwork, but that it was an excellent motto for life in general.
4. The line between too much pressure and not quite enough is a fine one. This was a lesson I learned while cutting glass for window repair. It was a job that I found terribly intimidating, but I somehow became the glasscutter for the project. It struck me that the lesson was yet another one that could be applied to life beyond preservation.
5. If you love your job, you won’t ever “work” a day in your life. By the end of week three, I was more confident than ever that my decision to return to school was one of the best I had ever made.