Nancy Schamu: Celebrating Four Decades of Service to Preservation

By Special Contributor posted 02-25-2013 16:13

By Elizabeth Byrd Wood

Nancy SchamuPreservationists often jokingly refer to some of the early pioneers in the preservation movement as "little old ladies in tennis shoes standing in front of bulldozers."  But as we all know the movement changed dramatically in 1966 following the enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act, when a wave of young history graduates, eager to assume positions in the recently created state historic preservation offices, soon began to replace the feisty, determined volunteers of the early part of the century.

Nancy Schamu, who is retiring in March after 26 years with the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO), was one of them, and she strode confidently into the new preservation profession with all the energy and idealism of her 1960s generation. From the early days of rousing Section 106 battles over elevated highways to today’s advocacy efforts to protect the tax credits, Schamu has been more than willing to “raise her hand,” as she puts it, to speak out clearly--and often quite forcefully--in favor of preservation. She has been a leader since the 1960s, “when the trend was to tear down the old and replace with the new,” says Nellie Longsworth, the first president of Preservation Action.

Fresh out of graduate school at Virginia Tech with a degree in history, Schamu began working for the Maryland Historical Trust (the SHPO) in 1969. She says, “When I graduated from college in 1968 everyone I knew was going to be a secretary or getting married. I couldn’t be a secretary because I didn’t know how to type. And I wasn’t getting married. So I decided to get a degree in library science. But then the chair of the history department at Hollins where I went to college mentioned the availability of a scholarship for a master’s program in history at Virginia Tech. So I got a master’s in history instead.” Her graduate advisor found out that the Maryland SHPO was looking for someone to do a statewide preservation plan. Schamu applied and got the job.

Schamu worked at the Maryland SHPO until 1980, making her way up the ranks to the position of deputy SHPO. She says that the 1970s were a heady time to be involved in preservation. “It was a great time to get involved in Section 106 because there were such huge projects going on in Maryland. I was still in my 20s and got to tell big, beefy highway engineers, ‘no you can’t build that road.’  In many meetings I was the only woman. Our really big success in Baltimore was to stop a proposed elevated highway that would have cut through a number of historic districts including Fells Point.” She earned her stripes during those battles and was not shy stating her case. But, she says jokingly, “sometimes you just have to be in your 20s and dumb enough to speak out.”

In 1980 she became the executive director of Preservation Maryland, which, at the time was located in rural Marriottsville. “You had to drive four miles just to buy a Coke,” she says. During her time at Preservation Maryland, Schamu was involved in one of the early National Trust initiatives for statewide preservation programs. Although she commented that it was fun “running your own show,” she took the job of deputy director at NCSHPO in 1986, working under Eric Hertfelder. When he retired in 2000 Schamu became director.

Carol Shull, Interim Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, praises Schamu’s tireless work on behalf of the SHPOs. “Throughout her long career in historic preservation, Nancy has been a very strong advocate for what she believes is in the best interests of the state historic preservation officers and their programs.”

Changes in the Preservation Movement

Schamu has seen the preservation movement evolve over the years--from a relatively unknown field to a more mainstream movement. “People don’t realize how huge the transformation is and how much preservation has become a part of our national culture. In the 1970s people thought the Trust was a bank. Nobody knew what the National Register was. This is not to say that everyone loves preservation, but we have managed to become part of the American psyche.”

To get to this point, however, Schamu experienced firsthand some of the triumphs and setbacks.  When asked about the most exciting events in her career, Schamu lists stopping the construction of interstate highways from destroying historic resources in Maryland; getting the 1992 amendments to NHPA passed; rescuing the tax credits in 1986; working with the National Trust to get historic buildings included in the Americans with Disabilities Act; rewriting Section 106 regulations in the early 1980s and '90s, and fighting to maintain continued funding for the states through the Historic Preservation Fund.

Her colleagues praise her for being the “face” of the NCSHPO during all of these events. Ruth Pierpont, deputy state historic preservation officer for New York State and outgoing president of NCSHPO notes that Schamu has provided a strong and eloquent voice for preservation in Washington. “Nancy’s focus, knowledge and determination have strengthened the SHPOs' relationships with partners, federal agencies, Congress and the administration,” says Pierpont.

Jay Vogt, state historic preservation officer for South Dakota, concurs.  “With over a quarter of a century of providing leadership for the National Conference, Nancy has been an outspoken promoter of historic preservation in general and the state historic preservation officers specifically.”

Much of Schamu’s work involved partnerships with other organizations, especially the National Park Service.  “She has been a staunch supporter of the cooperative agreement between the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers and the National Park Service under which we have accomplished so much that is worthwhile together. Our partnership to develop the ongoing online NPS Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary Series is just one example,” says Shull.

A long-time member of the National Trust--she joined in 1968--Schamu also served on the Forum advisory board for many years and has been a valued supporter of the Forum program since its inception.

Looking back, Schamu comments that the best part of her job has been working with the SHPOs. “They are such terrific people and they are doing such a great job with limited resources,” she says. She also enjoyed the opportunity to travel to places she might not have ever visited. She reminisces about a trip to Pierre, S.D., in the summer, making coffee, watching the Missouri River and the wind blow through the cottonwoods. And being in New Orleans in July craving a cold dinner and finding nothing but hot and spicy food in every restaurant.

When asked about the future of the preservation movement Schamu says that she feels the preservation movement has settled down a bit. “I’ve said for awhile that preservation is sort of becalmed in a way. All the tension and torment of 70s and 80s has been resolved. I don’t know what the next big challenge will be. The next generation will have to find out what the next big thing is.”

And Schamu has some advice for the next generation. “I always said if you want to be a preservationist, just raise your hand. And say ‘I’m a preservationist.’  When you are looking for a job you have two choices: job or location. If the job is important then you have to be willing to move around the country. But if location is important, you are more limited in your options. Volunteering is a good way to get started.”

Schamu and her husband Walter, a Baltimore architect, live in historic Federal Hill, near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  When she retires this spring, she says she has a few projects in the pipeline: to do more work on her master’s thesis on Maryland politician Thomas Swann, using recently released family papers; collaborate with her husband on an article or book about Baltimore architects Palmer and Lamdin; and work with her sister on family genealogy. Plus she hopes to spend more time at the family summer home in Michigan.

But on the first day of her retirement, she plans to burn the MARC commuter train schedule. Schamu has been commuting from Baltimore to Washington for 26 years, and she will no longer have to catch the 7:15 morning train. She says she doesn’t really want to travel after all her years of commuting and will be happy to stay at home. Her fellow commuters, however, (and I am one of them) will miss her greatly.

While Schamu could never be described as one of the little old ladies--she is tall and is known for her colorful scarves, not tennis shoes, and she has never stood in front of a bulldozer--she ranks with the leaders of the movement. She didn't always take "no" for an answer, she spoke up even if her position was unpopular, and she was committed to ensuring that the state historic preservation offices were well represented. Just ask her staff.  “Nancy has been and always will be a stalwart historic preservation advocate!  Her insight and knowledge of the preservation movement is unparalleled,” says Elizabeth Hebron, government relations director for NCSHPO, “I am extremely grateful for the years that I’ve spent working with her.”

And the rest of us, too, are also extremely grateful.

Elizabeth Byrd Wood is senior content manager at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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