Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Why the Trades Matter for Preservation 

12-09-2015 17:35

In 1853 when Ann Pamela Cunningham called on the ladies of America to save the home of George Washington as it fell into ruin along the banks of the Potomac River, she probably didn’t pause to consider whether there would be carpenters, masons, plasterers, painters, and roofers with the skills to restore it. Today, 150 years later, she might have struggled to find an experienced plasterer.

In the 1994 book How Buildings Learn author Stewart Brand observed: “It used to be that old buildings were universally understood to be less valuable than new. Now it is almost universally understood that old buildings are more valuable than new.”1 Inventing the concepts, language, and legal tools to preserve such places as Charleston, S.C., and San Antonio, Tex., and many others has been almost a century-long exercise in demonstrating the value of “old buildings.” Asking why the trades matter is like asking why old buildings matter.

A disaster such as Hurricane Hugo, which devastated Charleston in 1989, dramatically illustrates that conservation of the built environment is fundamentally dependent on the skill and availability of the men and women who do the actual physical work of preservation. In the weeks following the storm, the shortage of tradespeople with the knowledge and skills to repair the historic fabric of Charleston’s older buildings quickly emerged as one of the greatest challenges of the rebuilding effort.

1950s and ’60s Efforts to Provide Training for Craftspeople

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a large number of the inquiries received by historic preservation offices are from building owners desperate to find qualified contractors and tradespeople for preservation projects. The perception that the trades are in decline and traditional building skills are disappearing is not new. In 1956 National Park Service Historical Architects Charles E. Peterson and Henry Judd requested that the U.S. Civil Service Commission create a Building Restoration Specialist series in federal employment to provide appropriate recognition and compensation for the handful of master craftsmen working on preservation projects. In the 1960s Peterson organized “Carpenter’s Carnivals” for the historical architects and preservation specialists in the National Park Service to learn from each other and share preservation techniques. Commenting on the vital role of the trades, Peterson wrote:

The men who actually assemble a building on its site— by hand or with machines—work closely with the architect. In practice, it is just about impossible to define the boundaries between the two vocations. Architects must still rely on traditional practices and standards of the trades, for no building can be built with all of its details fully covered by drawings and written specifications.2

The Whitehill Report Addresses the Shortage

In 1967 the National Trust Committee on Professional and Public Education for Historic Preservation and Restoration issued the “Whitehill Report,” which examined both the state of architectural education for historic preservation and the condition of the traditional building trades.3 The committee found that the role of the trades was no less critical than that of the academic disciplines in conservation of the built environment. The committee also believed that these skills were in danger of dying out, and called for urgent action to insure their survival:

Technology has displaced the traditional building craftsmen as effectively as industry previously displaced the handcraftsmen who made the objects of domestic use and commerce. Not only has prefabricated and disposable construction destroyed the general need for such craftsmen, but artificial materials have replaced many of the natural materials used in earlier buildings whose properties are part of the craftsmen’s lore. These ancient crafts are a significant part of our national cultural resources. Their continuation as a living tradition is essential to insure the authentic conservation of our early buildings.

The survival of these crafts will require the most thoughtful solutions to human as well as economic problems. No existing formula can be used. A new solution must be found, based on a national realization of the importance of these skills to our continuing culture. Public knowledge of the standards and objectives required in such craftwork should be developed through education at all levels. Practical means for providing careers in such work need to be found through the joint efforts of government and private initiative. These objectives cannot be accomplished on a limited basis no matter how dedicated such projects might be, for the need is so urgent and so general in scope that it must be recognized as a national responsibility, requiring national leadership, direction, standards, and continuity.4

The committee recommended that the National Trust establish a Conservation Council for Traditional Building Crafts, and develop guidelines and standards for the establishment of regional trades training centers. The National Park Service followed in 1968 with a proposal to establish the William Strickland Preservation Center as a three-year pilot program to be funded by the National Park Foundation. The Strickland Center was envisioned as a component of the nationally coordinated effort proposed by the Whitehill Report, including a Building Crafts Program and Professional Field Program. Although the National Park Foundation endorsed the proposal, it was unable to secure the necessary funding.

The Park Service operated a small Historic Building Crafts Center at Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia until the construction program came to a halt in 1969, and all but 3 members of the 15-person preservation crew were laid off. A 1971 “Conference on Training for the Building Crafts” convened by the National Trust affirmed the commitment to the working principles of the Whitehill Report, and restated the need for establishment of preservation trades training centers by the National Park Service, the National Trust, and other entities.

In 1973 the National Trust revisited the Whitehill Report. The Trust conducted a survey of existing trades education and apprenticeship programs and found that mechanical and technical skills in the building trades were not dying out but were successfully adapting to changes in building technology and market demand.5 Overall, findings of the review suggested that the focus of the Whitehill Report on “traditional building crafts” as a distinct category, divorced from the building trades generally, created an unrealistic view of the actual supply and capabilities of the trades.

The National Trust drafted new recommendations which called for the development of short courses in preservation skills, establishment of a small training program at a Trust property, and creation of partnerships with trades education programs to introduce preservation philosophy and methodology into existing curricula. The Trust’s Education Services Division developed a workshop which was held at Lyndhurst, a Trust property in Tarrytown, N.Y., to provide preservation training for two to three craftspeople. Other Trust properties developed training courses in historic property maintenance, and craft sessions were added to National Preservation Conferences.

The National Park Service continued to evaluate the need for an in-house training program and in 1977 established the Williamsport Preservation Training Center in Williamsport, Md. Under the direction of James S. Askins, a preservation craftsman and National Park Service employee since 1963, the WPTC program consisted of a three-year training period executing “hands on” project work on NPS historic structures throughout the National Park system. A permanent staff of journeyman carpenters and masons were employed to train the six to seven interns enrolled in the program. Graduates filled positions as preservation specialists in Park staffs, program centers, and regional offices. The program continues to operate as the NPS Historic Preservation Training Center (HPTC) in Frederick, Md.

New Programs Promote Restoration Skills

During the 1970s publications such as The Old House Journal helped generate public interest in traditional building methods and create markets for builders with restoration skills. RESTORE, Inc., a nonprofit educational organization chartered in 1976, began offering a range of workshops and courses on the technology of architectural preservation, targeted to an audience of trade workers, design professionals, and property owners. The Preservation Education Institute, in Windsor, Vt., was established as a training and certificate program in historic preservation skills, technology, and philosophy and has served more than 2,000 students since its inception in 1982.

In 1984, the Timber Framers Guild was formed to provide educational and networking opportunities and publications related to the craft of timber frame construction. The Guild has evolved into an organization of more than 2,000 members with a highly developed preservation component in the Traditional Timber Frame Research and Advisory Group (TTRAG). Graduates of the North Bennett Street School in Boston established businesses and found jobs with federal and state agencies and nonprofit organizations. Belmont Technical College in St. Clairsville, Ohio, began offering an associate degree in Building Preservation Technology in 1989.

Federal programs continued to address the issue of preservation and trade skills. Lee Nelson of the National Park Service provided the inspiration for development of a “Catalog of Professional Skills Needed by Historical Architects” that serves equally well as a training plan in historic building technology and preservation philosophy for preservation specialists. Emogene A. Bevitt, formerly a program analyst in the NPS Technical Preservation Services Division, and Hugh C. Miller, former NPS chief historical architect, guided and developed the catalog, which was released in 1986 as a part of the “Skills Development Plan.”

A 1986 report of the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment on Technologies for Prehistoric and Historic Preservation cited the need for training programs to: … return to craftsmen the decision-making capability that has been gradually and systematically denied them by the construction and building industries for the last few decades. Craftsmanship has been sacrificed to uniformity, massproduction, and economy. Restoration is challenging, varied, and often difficult. Every practitioner involved in structural restoration and rehabilitation should comprehend the behavior of materials and their basic physical and chemical properties.6

This report was instrumental in the creation of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) in Natchitoches, La., in 1992. Congress created NCPTT as an interdisciplinary program of the National Park Service to advance the art, craft, and science of historic preservation in the fields of archeology, historic architecture, historic landscapes, objects and materials conservation, and interpretation. One of the missions of NCPTT is to research, develop, and provide training for preservation and conservation practitioners. Since its inception, NCPPT has provided support for several trades-related projects conducted by the Timber Framers Guild, Dry Stone Conservancy, and Preservation Education Institute.

In 1993 the World Monuments Fund (WMF) sponsored the conference “Employment Strategies for the Restoration Arts: Craft Training in the Service of Preservation” to address “the continuing erosion of the historic fabric of New York City; the continuing loss of craft skills that produced the architectural legacy of the city; and the growing disintegration of the social fabric of the city.”7 More than 70 preservationists, architects, and representatives of government agencies, foundations, and existing craft training programs heard presentations on preservation training programs and partnerships. Some of the efforts highlighted included the Cathedral Stoneworks program at the Church of St. John the Divine, a summer youth employment initiative in restoration trades at the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights, Youth Action/Youth Build programs, and the “Churches: Symbols of Community” program of the New Mexico Community Foundation.

One of the main proposals to emerge from the conference was the creation of a High School for the Preservation Arts in the New York City school system. Brooklyn City Council Member Kenneth Fisher championed the initiative, which was subsequently developed by the New Jersey Institute of Technology Center for Architecture and Building Science Research (NJIT Center) in partnership with the New York City Board of Education, with support from the World Monuments Fund. In March 2000, the Board of Education approved the establishment of the Brooklyn High School of the Arts. The first graduating class of the Preservation Arts & Technology High School received their diplomas in 2004. (For more on this, see “Lessons for Introducing Young People to the Traditional Building and Preservation Arts,” in this issue.)

New educational programs in the preservation trades have emerged in increasing numbers in recent years. In Lexington, Ky., the Dry Stone Conservancy offers the only national certification program for drystone masons in the United States. The program is modeled on the professional registry of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain (DSWA). The College of the Redwoods in Eureka, Calif., established the Historic Preservation and Restoration Technology Program, the first certificate program west of the Mississippi, in 1996. Harford Community College in Bel Air, Md., began a Building Preservation and Restoration certificate program in 2003. The School of the Building Arts in Charleston, S.C., which has been renamed the American College of the Building Arts, is preparing to offer the first four-year degree program in the preservation trades in the United States.

The Preservation Trades Network Formed

The Preservation Trades Network was founded in 1995, initially as a Special Task Force of the Association for Preservation Technology, to address the perception that the role of tradespeople and contractors was not adequately recognized or acknowledged in the preservation industry. A nonprofit membership association, PTN provides education, networking, and outreach based on the principle that opportunities for education, employment, and compensation of people in the trades are directly reflected in the quality of the built environment and the effective stewardship of cultural heritage.

The British wood turner David Pye defined “craftsmanship” as the product of the judgment, knowledge, skill, and dexterity of the worker.8 Men and women in the trades who demonstrate these qualities are involved in the maintenance, repair, construction, and long-term conservation of the built environment both within and outside the building industry and the preservation mainstream. The work of the trades embraces the continuity of traditional craft practices and at the same time the appropriate application of new technologies, materials, and methods. The development of trade skills, whether through apprenticeship, individual learning, or academic programs, is a lifelong process.

The year 2007 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Whitehill Report. Although some of its assumptions about the nature of the trades were flawed, it remains significant as the first formal recognition by the principal preservation agencies and institutions of the vital role of the trades in the conservation of cultural heritage. The preservation movement has grown and developed in ways that could hardly have been anticipated by the authors of the Whitehill Report. The evolution of the trades has been a significant part of that process. As long as the built heritage continues to be valued there will be a need for men and women to do the physical work of maintaining and preserving it.


1 Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built (Willard, Ohio: R.R. Donnelly & Sons Company, 1994), p. 109.

2 Charles E. Peterson, “The Role of the Architect in Historical Restorations,” Preservation and Conservation: Principles and Practices, Sharon Timmons, ed. (Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1976), p. 5.

3 In January 1967, the chairman of the National Trust for Historic Preservation appointed a Committee on Professional and Public Education for Historic Preservation and Restoration. Walter Muir Whitehill, director and librarian of the Boston Athenaeum, served as the chair of the committee, which included representatives from the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Virginia, the Winterthur Museum, the Ford Foundation, and the National Park Service, as well as the National Trust. Two subcommittees were established—one on Architectural Curricula and one on the Conservation of the Traditional Building Crafts. The final report of the two subcommittees is known generally as the Whitehill Report, and was approved by the Board of the National Trust during its annual meeting in October 1967. An extant copy of the report was scanned from a manuscript provided by John Fugelso of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. It is reproduced in full with permission of the National Trust for Historic Preservation at

4 Ibid.,, May 18, 2005.

5John Fugelso, “Research Reveals Vitality in the Building Trades,” Preservation News supplement “Preservation Training for the Building Trades” (Washington, D.C.: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1977).

6U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Technologies for Prehistoric and Historic Preservation, OTA-E-319 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, September, 1986), p. 153.

7World Monuments Fund, Employment Strategies of the Restoration Arts: Craft Training in the Service of Historic Preservation, Report of a Symposium Organized by the World Monuments Fund July 26-28, 1993 (ISBN 0 9627931 3 2), p. 5.

8 David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge University Press, 1968), p. 4.

Publication Date: Summer 2005


Subtitle:A Half-Century of Promoting Traditional Building Skills for Preservation
Author(s):Lisa Sasser