Monday, February 25, 2013

Careers in History: Historic Preservation


What is historic preservation?
Historic preservation, in its most basic definition, is any endeavor that seeks to preserve, conserve and protect buildings, objects, landscapes or other artifacts of historical significance.

On October 15, 1966, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), a piece of legislation that aimed to preserve historical and archeological sites throughout the United States. Among its provisions, the act created both the National Register of Historic Places and the list of National Historic Landmarks, established the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), and mandated that each state create their own Historic Preservation Office for the preservation of state and local historic sites.

Mount Vernon in disrepair, 1858, Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

Even before the NHPA, Americans had been deeply invested in saving, preserving, maintaining and recognizing our historic buildings and heritage. One of the first major historic preservation efforts was that of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. After Washington’s death, his beloved Virginia home passed through a series of relatives who could not afford the home’s expensive upkeep and allowed the mansion to fall into a state of disrepair. In 1858, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) purchased the home from Washington’s great-grandnephew and began raising money to restore and rebuild the home and surrounding land. It has been open to the public in various capacities since 1860. Today, Mount Vernon is still managed by the MVLA and is one of the most visited historic homes in the country.

 Main Street revitalization project, Bath, Maine

What does a historic preservationist do?
Historic preservationists serve in any number of capacities to preserve historic sites, buildings, and landmarks. Below is a list of common careers that fall under the guise of historic preservation:
  • Architectural conservator - Focuses specifically on the physical conservation of building materials.
  • Architectural historian - Primarily researches and writes statements expressing the historical significance of sites, most often in the form of nominations for the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Historic preservation planner - Most are employed by local, county, state, or federal government planning agencies to administer tax abatement programs, ensure compliance with local ordinances and state and federal legislation, and conduct design reviews to ensure that proposed projects will not harm historic and archaeological resources. At the state level, they are known as a State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) while at other levels of government they may be known as a Federal or Tribal Historic Preservation Officer.
  • Preservation architect - Design and develop architectural conservation plans and work specifications in consultation with engineers, historians, and planners, ensuring compliance with local design guidelines to protect sensitive historic building fabric.
  • Preservation craftsperson - Employs knowledge of traditional building techniques and contemporary conservation technologies to complete the conservation, repair, or restoration of historic buildings.
  • Preservation engineer - Works with architects to devise conservation solutions of a structural or material -specific nature.
  • Public historian/resource interpreters - Interprets the significance of historic resources for the general public.
  • Historic site administrator – Oversees the maintenance and upkeep of a historic site.

 Historic preservationists often work for one of three types of employers:
  • Non-profit Organizations – A variety of non-profit organizations are concerned with historic preservation advocacy, easements, and private foundations at the local, regional, statewide, or national levels. Like the MVLA, many non-profits manage and interpret individual historic sites or homes.  
  • Local, State, or Federal Agencies – On the federal level, most historic preservation work is overseen by the Department of the Interior through the offices of the National Park Service. Each state also operates a preservation office and employs State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO).  Many cities also have local preservation offices that oversee local preservation policies and promote historic heritage, often through buy local campaigns or revitalization of downtown “Main Streets” and shopping districts.
  • Private companies/firms – Many engineers, architects, and conservators find work in private firms that specialize in historic buildings. History consulting firms often employ architectural historians and preservationists to help draft nomination proposals.
A historic marble floor at Tudor Place Historic House & Garden gets a cleaning.

How do I become a historic preservationist?
Formalized education in historic preservation is still relatively new in its development but expanding every year. Because of historic preservation's interdisciplinary nature, degree and certificate programs are often varied in focus and frequently housed within related departments such as architecture, art history, history, urban planning, environmental design, and geography.  Programs emphasize aspects as diverse as restoration design, administration, documentation techniques, and architectural history.  Recently, many students have begun pursuing a joint degree in law and another preservation related field.  In addition to specific education and training, a basic understanding of business, economics, and governmental procedure is helpful, as is practical experience through internships and volunteer activities.

For help locating a graduate degree or certificate program in Historic Preservation, visit the National Council for Preservation Education’s (NCPE) lists:



 The best way to determine if pursuing a career in historic preservation is the path for you is to do an internship where you can gain hands-on experience. There are many options available to BYU history students both on campus and in-state, particularly with the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department, which oversees the preservation and interpretation of many of the Church's historic sites. They offer internships to 1-3 BYU students every semester, including this upcoming spring/summer. To learn more about these internships, please contact the Internship Coordinator, Liz Malone at liz_malone@byu.edu or drop into the History Department’s main office 2130 JFSB.


Further Reading and Resources
Preserve Net (great list of jobs/internships in Historic Preservation)

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