Elevating Women Leaders in Preservation to Create Change

By Special Contributor posted 05-26-2021 11:54

By Carolyn Kiernat 

It may seem contradictory, at least at first, but a change is afoot in historic preservation. 

Surely, preserving traditional influences is important to historic preservation, but with more women leading successful organizations and major initiatives dedicated to preservation and re-use, one tradition is moving beyond its historic past. Today, women are proving to be of more influence in preservation architecture than ever in a field that has been traditionally dominated by men and a legacy of “gentlemen’s firms,” that is, those founded and led by men (including this writer’s own company). 

Although notable women have led the shift, with a determined few forging the way as historic preservation began to take hold after the National Historic Preservation Act was passed in 1966, the broader field of architecture had, at the time, a scant number of women leading the charge, even though work related to the preservation and re-use of historic structures is a discipline that drew many female architects. 

The New Mission Theatre (now an Alamo Drafthouse movie theatre) in San Francisco was just one of the historic places that Alice Ross Carey fought to preserve during her career as an architect. | Thomas Hawk via Flickr CC BY-NC-2.0

Among them were women like Alice Ross Carey, who started her career in the San Francisco Bay Area as a carpenter and builder prior to becoming an architect, and who started one of the country’s first women-owned architecture firms focused on preservation in the early 1980s. Of the more recent female leaders recognized for their far-reaching careers in historic preservation is longstanding urban revitalization pioneer, Brenda A. Levin, FAIA, of Levin & Associates Architects in Los Angeles, who has made myriad contributions to our cultural heritage, including such high-profile projects as the renovations and expansions of the midcentury Dodgers Stadium and the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, or the landmark restoration of the 1929 Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

However, as we celebrate this broader trend, it is important to acknowledge the challenges women in preservation still face. In fact, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) reports that less than 1 in 5 new architects identify as racial or ethnic minority. There’s more. Findings from the 2020 study by NCARB and the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), ‘Report on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Architecture Licensing,’ show “disparities that impact women and people of color—often even more significant for women of color—along the path to licensure.”

Among the challenges faced by the Black, Latinx, Hispanic, and Asian women polled, many women of color could not point to people like themselves within their firm’s leadership team, and fewer women of color felt their firm provided the experience they needed for licensure exams than their white counterparts did. We need to be reminded that still today, only 2 percent of the United States’ licensed architects are Black, according to NCARB. Clearly, while the industry has made progress, there’s a long way to go, especially for women of color.

One of the first Black women to be licensed as an architect Norma Merrick Sklarek is known as a variety of projects including The Commons in Columbus, Indiana where she oversaw construction as the director of  construction at Gruen Associates. Learn more about Sklarek's work in a recent piece from Preservation magazine.| Credit: Gruen Associates

Building an Inclusive Preservation Movement

With the emerging impact and inspiring stories of women leaders, change in the preservation architecture profession has become palpable. And yet, while women’s influence in historic preservation has grown and even as equity conferences, mentoring programs, and focused activism have accelerated the upward trend of women in leadership roles in historic preservation we still see significant statistical disparities in the field of architecture as a whole.  

Just glance at the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, and one sees a continuing prevalence of men in leadership positions in architecture trades and disciplines. It’s similar to disparities found in other corporate and professional spheres, too.  

Yet the heroines of yesterday and today are inspiring more emerging preservation architects, keeping the momentum forward. Events like the AIA’s Equity by Design and San Francisco Heritage’s recent “Women in Preservation” shine a bright light on the need for more women in the field. While the AIA has had only a handful of female presidents in its 160-year history, other newer preservation organizations including Preservation Action, the National Preservation Institute and the American Institute for Conservation are or have been led by women. The chair and other positions on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Board of Directors have also enjoyed female leadership.

Both Constance Lai, (left) and Mary Brush, (right) are paving the way in their respective roles at Grunley Construction and Brush Architects. Lai is pictured here on the roof of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building, a National Trust easement property in Washington, D.C. Another of her projects, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, is in the background. Brush is shown in 2005 during her work in France as part of the Richard Morris Fellowship. | Credit: Scott Suchman (Lai photo), Brush Architects (Brush Photo)


Along with that, women experts in technology, cultural resources and architectural history are continuing their forerunners’ legacy of historic preservation and paving paths for new and exciting opportunities, like Mary Brush, FAIA, of Brush Architects in Chicago, who is leading the way in façade inspection, design and restoration with the use of swing stage and industrial rope systems. Other powerful advocates for preservation include Constance Lai, FAIA, the influential architect and historic preservation manager for Grunley Construction in Washington, D.C. The prominent cultural landscape planner, Laurie Matthews, ASLA has effected real change through her role as director of preservation planning at MIG in Portland, Oregon. In the building trades and historic craft arenas essential to implementation, more women are finding mentors and rewarding career paths, too, such as master decorative painter Jacqueline Canning-Riccio. 

These prominent roles offer a new dimension for countering disparity, helping to address the architecture and preservation universe’s continuing gender gaps. Look at efforts by the National Trust and local groups that show how, despite the obstacles, women through history have made preservation a priority, such as Enid Sales, who restored dozens of historic homes in Northern California and became chief of residential rehabilitation for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency from 1966 to 1976. 

An Inflection Point 

Some would argue that we have reached a significant inflection point in the preservation world. Consider, for example, that some of those longstanding gentlemen’s firms have become women-owned and -led enterprises. Page & Turnbull, a firm started 50 years ago by Charles Page and Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award recipient Jay Turnbull, FAIA, now benefits from those founders’ prescience, which contributed to the company’s present standing as a women-led and majority women-owned enterprise, including its female president and principal, H. Ruth Todd, FAIA.

Sarah Brummett, Associate AIA with Page & Turnbull, is shown leading the award-winning relocation and restoration of the Livermore Railroad Depot in Livermore, California. | Credit: Sarah Brummett


Other women-led firms dedicated to historic preservation are fortifying the industry with substantive work that is benefiting communities and opening doors for future generations. For instance, Ione R. Stiegler, FAIA, the founding principal of IS Architecture in La Jolla, Calif., has led the firm’s award-winning, interdisciplinary approach to historic preservation. As well, powerful female advocates for historic preservation are looking toward the future by mentoring colleagues and emerging talent, such as prominent advocate Elise Quasebarth of Higgins Quasebarth & Partners in New York. For cultural resources and historic landscapes, leaders like Chris Pattillo, FASLA, of PGAdesign in Oakland, Calif., is known for dedication that extends to helping the next generation flourish by recognizing and cultivating talent. Elisa Hernandez Skaggs, AIA, of Page & Turnbull whose expertise in the adaptive reuse of historic structures is furthered by her position as a board member of San Francisco Heritage. 

All these professionals are also identifying, nurturing, and grooming a range of emerging professionals who will lead the drive for historic preservation with sustained energy and optimism. Women advocates for preservation know their work is about remembering the past. It is also about securing a future that honors and celebrates what was by preserving, advancing, and forwarding their ideals through commitment, passion, and innovation.  

Today, we are seeing more women becoming involved in historic preservation, with talented architects, designers, and planners in the field contributing to the movement’s growth across the globe. As increasing numbers of women advance the industry, their influence is sure to broaden the awareness of the value of safeguarding cultural heritage through the preservation of historic buildings, inspiring other women—and men—to join the effort.  

Carolyn Kiernat, AIA, is an architect and principal with Page & Turnbull. The firm is a full-service architecture, design, planning, and preservation firm that transforms the built environment, bringing together architects, planners, historians, and conservators to build new structures or imbue new life into existing structures by adapting them to meet contemporary needs. 


Get Connected

Discuss this blog post and more on Forum’s new online community. Sign up now.