Monday, April 4, 2011

We Need More Historic Building Tradespeople!

I may have mentioned before that it is nearly impossible to find anyone in our area that knows how to work on an old house (or new one for that matter, but that's another story).  In addition to working on our own rehabilitation projects, we are both museum directors responsible for historic house museums and their upkeep.  At home, we can take things apart, work on them, put them back together, and learn during the process. At work, it's not our responsibility (thank Heavens!) to fix bubbling plaster or make the windows functional again. But, that means we have to find someone who can.  And not just someone who can, but someone who knows what they are doing.

We may live in Virginia, but we are far from Jamestown, Williamsburg, Richmond, and the historic places where buildings matter.  We are in the mountainous southwestern part of the state that was settled much later than the east.  Our county has just celebrated its bicentennial.  The farther south and west you go, the younger the community.  And, for whatever reason, there isn't a reverence for historic buildings that translates to their upkeep.  People revere the land that their ancestors have owned for generations and will gladly point out their homeplace.  But, more often than not, that homeplace is falling to the ground.

So when it comes to finding someone to do plaster work, properly repoint brick, repair wooden windows, or replicate old woodwork, it's nearly impossible.  The trades consist of vinyl, vinyl, and more vinyl: siding, windows, porch columns...  Replace it don't fix it.  Just another example of our throw away society.  Throw away the old, dependable fixtures.  Throw away money.

Our consumptive Walmart society is one problem.   The American view that all children must go to college to be successful is also problematic.  No matter that a person who is successful at a historic building trade is likely to make more over their lifetime than many college graduates and not spend their life paying back college loans.   There is an unfortunate stigma related to the trades, that can lead high school students who would be far happier working with their hands tackling a new preservation problem to a long, struggle through college classes and an unsatisfying desk job. 

And for those high school students who might want to pursue historic building trades, they probably don't know the opportunity exists.  In our area in particular, it is likely that students don't recognize that historic buildings are different than new construction.  If their school happens to have a technical track, it is likely they will build a new vinyl house with metal studs.  A two-pronged approach requires an understanding of the built environment and different types of construction, as well as the technical skills and critical thinking required to build or repair different types of buildings.  Until we can make the preservation trades a mainstream educational track, it will be difficult to find young people to replace the older generation and it will be come increasingly harder to find someone qualified to fix the amazing features of old and historic houses.  

Note: The Preservation Trades Network preserves and teaches historic building trades and is working to develop education initiatives to keep the trades alive.

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