The Elixir of Life Has Been Hiding in Your Kitchen Cabinets All Along

It turns out that my grey hair and the spectacular York Minster have something in common. Apparently, olive oil has the potential to reverse the effects of time for both.

During my recent vacation in the United Kingdom, a clerk at an Edinburgh newsagent caught me off guard when he mentioned that he noticed I had lots of grey hair. This isn’t news to me, of course, and I actually take pride in my grey. I’m hoping for an Emmylou Harris-style coif, or maybe a Cruella De Vil streak. But this gentleman seemed concerned about my prematurely greying locks (I’m quickly approaching an age at which I can’t consider it “premature,” but I am not there yet … shut up, no I’m not).

His solution: olive oil. Now, I know olive oil has a long history of a myriad of uses outside of the kitchen. The ancient Mediterranean civilizations used it to cleanse their bodies (they’d slather it on and scrape it off), in religious and burial ceremonies, and as currency. But as the “cure” for gray hair … that’s a new one.

He told me that I should rub olive oil in my hair and bellybutton (??!) before bed each night and only take tepid showers (my interpretation of his reference to “not too hot and not too cold”) and that my grey hair would eventually go away.Thanks, buddy, but you lost me at tepid showers.

That was weird, but then the topic of olive oil surfaced again on my trip (just to be clear, I did go to the UK and not Italy, though the island was experiencing a freakish, Mediterranean-like heat wave while we were there) when Rachel Alexander at Bricks + Mortar posted a link to an interesting bit about York Minster’s use of olive oil in its restoration efforts. The blog linked to an article from Mental Floss, which addressed the many issues shared by modern conservators of historic buildings of all types.


Image via Mental Floss (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan)

Buildings deteriorate over time naturally due to general wear and tear, but the modern world has added extra challenges like air pollution and acid rain. Not only do these cause exterior features to deteriorate but it also allows moisture to penetrate the building, causing damage to the interior as well. The trick is to find a way to seal the exterior stonework while still allowing the building to “breathe” from the inside out. So far, the York Minster conservators haven’t found an acceptable solution.  One attempt sealed the stone too effectively, exacerbating the moisture issues inside. Another (linseed oil) began to stain the limestone. But now, they are hopeful that they have hit the jackpot. According to Mental Floss:

For all it discolored the Minster, linseed oil did work. Which is why Dr. Karen Wilson, a reader in physical chemistry at the University of Cardiff, began experimenting with olive oil-based solutions to the problem of natural decay. By combining oleic acid with a Teflon-like compound called 1H,1H, 2H,2H-perfluoro-decyltrimethoxysilane, Wilson and her team think they’ve managed to find the perfect preservation tool: something that makes the Minster watertight while ensuring its architectural beauty isn’t compromised.

I was lucky enough to visit York Minster on my trip, and it was amazing to witness. The city calls the cathedral the “jewel” in the crown of the historic city, a title well earned. It was probably the most incredible site we visited on the trip—though the rugged scenery on the Isle of Skye gave it a run for its money. It towers over the half-timbered, medieval buildings, and is breathtaking to behold when it comes into view when you turn a corner.

It took more than 200 years to complete the Gothic Masterpiece, which is built on grounds
formerly occupied by a Roman fort.

At first I was a little bummed that the beauty of the towers was diminished because of the scaffolding, but that superficial impulse was overridden by my interest in the extensive restoration effort.

minster04 minster06

Top, the west towers of York Minster, added between 1438 and 1472,  seen from the city’s walls. Bottom, a view of the scaffolding covering the east facade of the cathedral, behind which the massive 14th-century stained glass window is being restored piece by piece. 

In the end, I was glad I was able to get a glimpse of the work being done. I would have loved to visit the new exhibit in the croft, which expounds on the work further, but we just missed it (it closes at 4, though they don’t publicize that). We did see the exhibits in the East End of the cathedral which provided a good bit of information on the project. The sorta weird, super-modern “Orb” gives viewers a unique, up-close view of efforts to restore the Minster’s unbelievably beautiful stained glass.

 minster10   minster13

Left, the famous west window, made in 1339 by the glazier Robert Ketelbarn. The Gothic tracery at the top of the window is often called the “Heart of Yorkshire.” Right, the “five sisters,” made c. 1250, features five lancets containing “grisaille glass” and is one of the largest examples of glass of this kind anywhere in Europe. 

minster17  minster18

The Pilgrimage Window (above), made around 1330,  is particularly interesting because of its border. Along the bottom of the window, animals parody human behavior. I find the scenes in the right-hand corner of the first panel the most interesting (see inset). In the far right, a monkey-doctor attends a sick ape and right behind him, a second monkey-doctor analyzes urine in a beaker (a common approach to diagnosis in the Middle Ages). Apparently in the 14th century, this scene might not have been uncommon (well … minus the monkeys) as “doctors” would have offered their services to church-goers. 

Below are some more photos of the Minster. I’ll make another post with pictures from the rest of the city of York, which is amazing in and of itself.

minster19   minster20

Left, the “Five Sisters” dominates the north transept (one of the arms of the “cross” that makes up Gothic cathedrals). Right, the “crossing,” or the mid-section of the cross, looking up at the central tower (which Bruce and I climbed, foolishly).

minster21   minster16

Above is the choir screen, which separates the nave of the church from the “choir,” at the back of which is the altar. The sculptures are kings of England from William the Conqueror (who secured his reign of the island here in York) to Henry VI.

minster12   minster11

minster07   minster03

  minster02   minster24

minster23   minster29

minster28   minster26

Preach it, brothers

I ended this past week with two days of workshops on historic preservation tax credits, hosted by Downtown Greensboro.  Thursday’s focus was income-producing properties, which are eligible for both federal and North Carolina credits. Much of the stuff I was already familiar with, but it was interesting to hear from property-owners who have utilized the tax credits and from professionals who had worked on tax credit projects.

The most inspiring session came last. Architect Eddie Belk gave a retrospective of his long and successful career rehabbing historic buildings. It was a fascinating talk, especially as he reflected on how his approach toward adaptive reuse has changed over the years. As a student, I am often frustrated by the “it’s always been done this way” argument, and it was refreshing to hear someone so respected in the field be so honest and open to change. Doing so doesn’t negate his past work, which was not only groundbreaking but also responsible in many ways for the positive change in places like downtown Durham. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation and am anxious to see his vision for Greensboro’s Revolution Mills (one of his current projects) fulfilled (see the Raleigh News & Record article here)!

Brightleaf Square was Belk's first project in Durham, and it has served as the cornerstone of that city's renaissance. Belk also is responsible for the crowning jewel: the American Tobacco campus. (Photo courtesy of the "Endangered Durham" blog.)

Brightleaf Square was Belk’s first project in Durham, and it has served as the cornerstone of that city’s renaissance. Belk also is responsible for the crowning jewel: the American Tobacco campus. (Photo courtesy of the blog “Endangered Durham)

Just following Thursday’s workshop, we headed over to The Empire Room to hear Charles Marohn (founder of the Strong Towns movement) and Joe Minicozzi (of the Asheville consulting firm Urban3) offer their views on urban growth in their presentation “Dollars & $ense: The True Cost and Benefits of Downtown Development Choices,” which was also sponsored by Downtown Greensboro.  Both of these guys were great, energetic speakers. That being said, it wasn’t like I was a hard sale. I was already on board when they started their talk, so I had more of an “Amen, brother” experience than eye-opening, but they were inspiring nonetheless.

Marohn’s talk was especially meaningful to me as a historian because he talked about the millennium of experience that has informed our approaches to development and how Americans have deviated from traditional urban patterns in the recent past. We have cast this new approach to development as “modern” and “progress,” but Marohn says, and I don’t think he’s wrong, that we are now seeing the consequences of this grand experiment. His talk carried on with the theme of my past semester: the post-World War II suburb (actually, the theme was more generally “suburbs,” because it included the early-20th-century version as well, but you get my point).

Charles Marohn and Joe Minicozzi presented "Dollars & $ense" Thursday night in Greensboro.

Charles Marohn and Joe Minicozzi presented “Dollars & $ense” Thursday night in Greensboro. The image behind them is from an amazing book called The Field Guide to Sprawl, brought to my attention last semester by a classmate.

With the growing popularity of speculative ventures like the Levittowns of the northeast (my example, not his) in the mid-20th century, Marohn argues that we abandoned the traditional, incremental growth patterns that had been the norm since the world’s very first city of Ur. (See what I mean? He really spoke to the history nerds in the crowd. Which was … you know … me.) And he says that doing so has come at a great cost that has manifested itself in a massive amount of public debt.

He interestingly did not appeal to the nostalgia for the past that you so often hear in New Urbanist ideology (this isn’t a criticism, as I share their nostalgia and it baffles me that the two movements seem to butt heads at times). Instead, this was, as the title of the talk indicated, about Dollars and Cents/Sense. Which, if you think about it, is the way you have to approach these kinds of subjects if you want to be persuasive. As I recently reflected about my experience at Preservation Action’s Lobby Day back in February, “I could talk ad nauseam about how much I love old buildings—the stories they tell, the history the represent, the beauty they reflect. I knew all about the environmental benefits of rehab projects. I even knew all about the economic benefits of preservation. It was really only after I participated in in Lobby Day that I felt like I could really talk about preservation in a really persuasive way.” And by “persuasive,” I meant in economic terms. Preservation projects generated this much revenue or this many jobs. Specifics. Hard numbers. People who aren’t swayed by a presence of place or nostalgia don’t respond to supporters’ starry-eyed romanticism. They are swayed by real data that proves the value of what we’re trying to convince them of. So that’s what Marohn and Minicozzi did. And well, I think.

He closed his presentation by arguing that we have reached a critical point, what he calls the “desperation phase,” of the suburban experiment. The mechanisms of growth that we have become accustomed to are waning and local governments are going to be forced to absorbed the local costs of the current development pattern, which he argues cannot be done without large tax increases and/or cuts in services.

Minicozzi spoke in depth about the fiscal inefficiency of suburban development as it has evolved since the 1950s, which he argues is largely responsible for the substantial public debt that Marohn spoke of. Like Marohn, Minicozzi also believes that the reason people built cities the same way for thousands of years was because it works. Density creates more efficiency, he argues, and therefore—according to “the relentless rules of humble arithmetic”—we are “building ourselves poor.” He then threw out a lot of numbers and charts (including a REALLY cool one using Google Earth) illustrating the tax dollars per acre of development generated by buildings downtown and buildings in the suburbs. He moved quickly and if you know me at all you know that my eyes glaze over when math gets involved, but he was certainly persuasive.

While I’d like a little more time with his charts and graphs to really feel comfortable with his argument, ultimately what he says isn’t anything new (nor does he say it is). He points out that the Council on Environmental Quality sponsored a report in 1974 called the Costs of Sprawl, which according to the Cato Institute “found that high density, planned communities are less costly to build and live in than low-density ‘sprawl.’ It also suggested that sprawl produces more pollution than planned high-density developments.”

This is not the first time since I returned to school that I find myself wondering WHY THE HECK ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT THIS??!

However mind-boggling, it seems that perhaps the study’s findings are finally starting to sink in (nearly forty!! years later).  In 2012, for the first time in nearly a century (1920, to be exact), American cities grew faster than residential communities outside of the urban center, a trend that has continued in 2013 (read more about it in this Wall Street Journal article). Urban communities around the country are experiencing revivals, as young people seek the vitality and diversity that often can’t be found in the ‘burbs. This comes with its own host of challenges and issues (like how to maintain housing costs for low-income residents when property values skyrocket after a place has become trendy), but that’s a topic for another post (boy howdy)!

Ultimately, while neither Marohn nor Minicozzi offered was a particular solution, I never expected them to. But they certainly hit on a topic that has increasingly captured my interest. I am really interested in learning more about what more they have to say. Marohn was kind enough to give me a copy of his book Thoughts on Building Strong Towns: Volume I, which I plan on taking with me to the UK next week. I also want to start including his Strong Towns podcast in my commuting soundtrack. So if you see me driving down Highway 421 with my hand raised, evangelical-style, just know that I have likely just spiritually connected with someone over the radio about urban planning.

Don’t worry. I’ll keep one hand on the wheel.

Sweet Julia Ann Jester

Though we didn’t have as much time to spend on it as might have wished, one of the things we touched on during Field School was memorial restoration and repair. We worked with preservation specialist extraordinaire Dean Ruedrich at the Springfield Friends Meeting House (a Quaker church in High Point), where we came across this sweet little headstone that needed some TLC.

Julia Ann 1

Julia Ann Jester’s soapstone grave marker was broken in two when we found it.

Julia Ann Jester’s marker was made out of soapstone, which is why the engraving on it is still clear, despite the fact that it had been lying face down for who knows how long. The engraving was enhanced by what Dean said was a lime putty, if I remember correctly (though I Googled it hoping to find more information about the tradition but came up empty).

Julia Ann 2

The engraving is still clear and the lime putty (?) still bright.

Even though we didn’t know anything about Julia Ann, we all became attached to her gravestone, and Dean used it to demonstrate the magic of stone epoxy and plastic wrap (which he used to secure the pieces since we wouldn’t be returning the next day … who knew that plastic wrap was so versatile?!).

Julia Ann 3

The mended marker, temporarily bound with plastic wrap until the epoxy sets.

I spent a few hours this evening trying to track down Julia Ann Jester on, but I couldn’t find much. There was a Julia Ann Jester who died in her 60s, but she was buried in a Quaker cemetery in Yadkin County (Jester seems to have an established North Carolina’s Quaker family). There was another who was 10 in 1940, but that’s the latest census to be digitized, so I ran into a dead end. I am also very curious about the tradition of using soapstone and lime putty in grave markers (I’ve added the book Sticks and Stones: Three Centuries of North Carolina Gravemarkers to my to-read list).

I also want to learn more about gravestone and memorial restoration and repair. Being in an old building is in many ways a spiritual experience for me, but I think graveyard work is perhaps even more meaningful. Historic graveyards, in particular, are powerful places, and they are poignant reminders of the fragility of life. Feeling the love of the dead’s survivors, literally etched into the stone, and doing this kind of work preserves what might be the only lasting legacy of a person’s life is a rewarding task, indeed.

On the Right Path

What in the world would I do without Cat?! For more pictures, visit !

Cat and I flexing our muscles at the Barker House! For more pictures, visit my flickr page!

Each summer, UNC-G’s Historic Preservation program offers its students a chance to attend a three-week Field School, giving them hands-on experience with a variety of preservation trades. Each year includes a week at Old Salem, during which students get a number of behind-the-scenes tours; lessons on historic wood, brick, and metals; and an opportunity to try their hand at a number of eighteenth-century trades.

This year also included a week at the Barker House in Henderson, North Carolina, a fascinating little house built in the mid-1700s, where we learned more about how to identify the type and age of wood and how to repair and reglaze historic windows, cut slate, form concrete, and install a wood shingle roof, just to name a few. Not only did I learn a lot, but I finished the week with all fingers in tact, despite some quality time with a chop saw, glass cutter, and nail gun.

We finished the class off with two days at the High Point Friends Meetinghouse doing masonry repointing and grave marker repair, followed by a lesson in historic paint analysis, which included spooning out a tiny fleck of paint layers and looking at the divot through a microscope to identify the different layers of paint that have been added to a surface over the years. Though I found the paint analysis fascinating, after two and a half weeks of wanting to DO ALL OF THE THINGS (!!!), I was relieved to discover one preservation profession that I do not want to do. While I am perfectly content to go down a rabbit hole in an archive, the tedious, microscopic detail of paint analysis was not for me! Now I know who to call if I need it done, though, and that makes me happy!

I learned so much during field school. Here are just a few of the lessons I took away:

Buildings talk, if you know how to listen. OK, so I knew this already, but before I really could only listen intuitively. I could stand in an old building and feel its history. And of course I know how to research buildings in archives. But in field school, we learned how to listen visually. The craftsmen and historians at Old Salem and Dean Ruedrich or Ruedrich Restorations taught us to date buildings using wood types, saw marks, nail technologies, and types of metal (among other details), and I am continuing to learn about the chronology of architectural styles (I think i am going to print architectural history flash cards). With an unlimited budget, dendrochronology (dating wood based on its rings) and paint analysis can also confirm observations made with the naked–but well-trained–eye.

Excitedly talking about the brick bond used in a restaurant will make your friends look at you weird.

The Moravians loved Flemish bonds. Even more interesting is the likelihood that they applied a red wash or paint to their brick buildings, as seen along the mortar joints here.

The Moravians loved Flemish bonds. Even more interesting is the likelihood that they applied a red wash or paint to their brick buildings, as seen along the mortar joints here.

Since I learned the different kinds of patterns used in masonry, I have become a brick-bond-identifying crazy person. “Flemish!” I proclaim in a restaurant with friends. “Common!” I explain to my husband as we walk downtown. It’s like I’m a toddler who has learned how to say a bad word, and I just won’t stop saying it (except this is probably way less amusing). This is really my penance for all the eye-rolling I did when my mother would turn over chairs in public places to see who manufactured them. Now my friends and family are rolling their eyes at me (as if that’s anything unusual)!

Some of the lessons were as applicable to life in general as preservation. For example, you don’t always get something right on the first try. Just ask Johann Gottlob Krause. (We’ll call this Philosophical Life Lesson from Field School #1.)

My friend Cat with one of Krauss's oversized bricks.

Cat with one of Krause’s oversized bricks.

Krauss was a potter-turned-brick-maker in eighteenth-century Salem, and his first attempt at molding bricks was, from a modern perspective, a bit comical. The bricks and bond patterns in his first building–the Tavern–were awkward and irregular. But within a few years, he had become skilled enough to mark his initials using the bond patters of his buildings. A lesson in perseverance.

The first step is always the hardest. Or, getting the plaster from the hawk to the trowel is the hardest part. (Philosophical Life Lesson from Field School #2)

My first (unsuccessful) attempt at transferring the plaster from hawk to trowel. I finally got it. ... Sort of.

My first (unsuccessful) attempt at transferring the plaster from hawk to trowel. I finally got it. … Sort of.

Master plasterer Dwight Love’s lesson also featured the moral of perseverance. It’s interesting that the hardest part of the process is the first step. Well, at least I think it is. I only took a few swipes at the wall with the trowel, so I can’t really say that it’s easier than getting the plaster to the trowel in the first place. But the first step is hard. That much I know. Dwight said his father made him practice that one motion (which he made seem effortless, of course) over and over and over until he had mastered it. He also started out doing the plaster work in closets, so when he messed up, nobody would notice. Our afternoon with Dwight was awesome and though none of us will be master plasterers anytime soon, we did learn a lot about the craft (and life in general)!

Keep moving forward. (Philosophical Life Lesson from Field School #3)

Me, pushing forward.

Me, pushing forward.

Dwight Love told me this as I prepared to apply the plaster to the wall (once I finally got the plaster to the trowel), and I decided it was my new motto for life.

Sometimes, it’s hard to master the fine line between too much pressure and not quite enough. I found this to be true with cutting glass for window repair and life in general. (Philosophical Life Lesson from Field School #4)
glass  Windows
I really struggled with cutting glass for window repair. Slate was no problem (Dean even convinced me not to be scared to punch a hole in a piece of slate while I was holding it in my hand), but glass was hard. I somehow became the glass cutter for the project, but I never got completely comfortable with it. So I definitely want to do it some more. Anybody have a window repair project they’re willing to let me fool with?

Things were much harder without power tools. Does this really need any explanation? Our time at Old Salem gave us a new appreciation for craftsmen of the pre-modern period (and the modern ones working at Old Salem today)!

rivingsawExcept sometimes power tools can make things more difficult. The nail gun and I … how can I put this … we didn’t really hit it off. I on more than one occasion channeled my inner construction worker and called it many bad things. I think at one point, after I was sure I had it working  and then it failed me again, I might have even shed a little tear. It finally started working better for Cat and, while I’m still not quite over it, we persevered and got the roof DONE! Well, half of it, anyway.

I loved working on the roof (really), but the nail gun and I had a very turbulent relationship.

I loved working on the roof (really), but the nail gun and I had a very turbulent relationship.

Teamwork is important.

The nail gun liked Cat more than me, but that was OK because in the end, we achieved our goal of half the roof finished!

The nail gun liked Cat more than me, but that was OK because in the end, we achieved our goal of half the roof finished!

And so is laughter.

I found something hilarious.

I found something hilarious.

This might have been the most important lesson I learned: If you love your job and you surround yourself with good people, you won’t ever “work” a day in your life. At the end of these three weeks, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I knew that I was definitely on the right path.

One year down, one to go!


UNC-G’s Field School 2013 in front of the 19th-century wash house that the group help to spruce up.

So, um … about this blog. Whose idea was it to undertake such a project in the middle of one crazy semester? Oh. It was mine. Oops! That wasn’t very smart, now was it? Now that it’s summer, I’ll try again.

The end of the first year of my “Grad School: Redux” experience came to a close in early May, quickly followed by a three-week “Field School,” which was an appropriate end to the spring semester in a variety of ways. I had a number of exciting educational experiences that left me feeling empowered and more confident in my professional future. Field School was part of that, though I did get overwhelmed as I added more and more skills to my “want to master” list. I chalk this up partially to ADD, but I think that even more it’s a good indication that I am doing something that I truly love! All in all not a bad problem to have!

My field school experience was just one of several “Eureka!” moments I’ve had in 2013. As I mentioned in my last post, this past spring, my cohort also had the opportunity to participate in Preservation Action’s  Lobby Day/Preservation Advocacy Week (during which I began to master the art of  talking about preservation in a persuasive way, an experience akin to learning a new language), take a preservation-themed tour of New York City over spring break, and receive a behind-the-scenes tour of the beautiful Crabtree Jones House from preservation specialist and tradesman Dean Ruedrich (who also led a portion of our Field School) and Myrick Howard, director of Preservation North Carolina. All of that plus a class with one of the most challenging (the good kind) professor’s I’ve ever had left me pretty overwhelmed (again, the good kind) and thankful for my Prius! 🙂

With each of these experiences, I have had the opportunity to meet a group of amazing professionals, many of whom have probably forgotten more about preservation that most people learn in a lifetime! Their work is truly inspiring and I am lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from them.

My (revised) plan for the blog now is to upload some photos from these experiences and try again to reflect on them as I can (since my last attempt failed fizzled after one post). Summer is a bit less psychotic than the fall and spring were, though only just. I have some exciting projects I’m working on but I am MOST excited about our trip to the UK for a much-delayed honeymoon of sorts in July! I have never travelled off of the continent before, and I can’t wait! I have lots of nerdy historic tours and side trips lined up, so I’ll post pictures of those too.

*Note to self: Remember to schedule some down time during “summer.”

A whirlwind of activity — and inspiration!

According to Facebook, some people spent their Spring Breaks soaking up sun on a sandy beach. I spent it schlepping across New York City with a group of UNCG historic preservation students, soaking up knowledge, and I couldn’t be happier about it. The New York trip came on the heels of an inspiring and incredibly educational visit to Washington, D.C., for the annual Preservation Advocacy Week, sponsored by D.C.-based Preservation Action. [Side note: Speaking of heels, among the valuable lessons I learned was that wearing high-heeled shoes in either city is not of the faint of heart.] Squished in between the two, I got to meet Wendy Hillis of Preservation Durham, the advocacy group in a city that is a poster child for how preservation inspires positive change.

Why, yes, I am exhausted. But also incredibly inspired.

This is really the first chance I’ve had to process any of these experiences, and while I really should be reading about the New Deal for my U.S. History class, I want to take a bit of time to reflect on some of the things I’ve been able to do and learn, interspersed with some interesting preservation news from around the country. I’ve narrowed it down to five themes, which I have split into separate posts for the sake of time (yours and mine both). The first one follows.


Photo from The New York Times’ “City Room” (13 July 2009).

1. My Jane Jacobs experience.

Perhaps my biggest preservation-nerd moment in New York was in Greenwich Village on a post-dinner stroll back to the subway. Somehow I was the navigator of the group, which I attribute to my iPhone skills more than my sense of direction (which is pretty much non-existent, to the constant frustration of my husband), and I glanced to the street sign to make sure that we were on the right path. We were, but even more exciting was that we were walking down Jane Jacobs Way (a.k.a., Hudson Street). I know, a preservation cliché if there ever was one. Whatever. I’m not ashamed to admit that I get all swoony when someone invokes Jacobs’ name, not to mention when I can invoke her name, in conversation (yes, that happened and yes I was quite pleased with myself).

I first read Jacobs’ book Death and Life of Great American Cities last semester (thanks, Autumn), and was, like so many others, blown away by her observations. Even more stunning to me was that she wrote it fifty years ago. And yet, cities still continue to make the same mistakes over and over again as they try to force inadequate solutions onto neighborhoods. More recent philosophies like New Urbanism have taken many of Jacobs’ lessons to heart, but ultimately their creations turn out bland, inauthentic, and unnatural. But as many have noted, historic neighborhoods naturally have all of the qualities valued by New Urbanists and their ilk, and, more importantly, have what new, contrived communities lack: soul. Donovan Rypkema has lots of great quotes about why “old urbanism” is more effective than “new urbanism” (one thing I’ve learned is that if I ever need a preservation pick-me-up, Rypkema is generally a good source of inspiration), like in this 2007 keynote address where he responded to a list of principles (mixed use, open space, pedestrian friendly, etc.) heralded by advocates of New Community Design:

Great list. But you know what? We don’t need new community design to rescue us. That list of principles is exactly what our historic neighborhoods are providing right now. We just need to make sure they are protected.

I agree that good urban design is a part of “Quality of Life”. But ultimately quality of life will be determined by five senses: the sense of place, the sense of evolution, the sense of ownership, the sense of identity and the sense of community itself

This concept is nothing new for preservationists, but Jacobs’ ideas have been getting some press recently (appropriate since March is Women’s History Month and Jacobs is recognized as one of the field’s most prominent and passionate female activists). A recent article in The Atlantic Cities highlighted a new study being published in the upcoming issue of the journal Urban Studies that addresses Jacobs’ theory that “healthy neighborhoods must ‘mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones.’” Eric Jaffe writes that Duke sociologist Katherine King sought empirical evidence that Jacobs ideas about “gradual (as opposed to grand) redevelopment carries a number of possible social implications—a chief one being that it should promote stronger community relationships.” Using Chicago neighborhoods as a case study, King established four metrics to measure social ties and “age diversity” of buildings. Her findings revealed that, lo and behold, Jacobs was onto something! She concluded:

Empirical results show significant links between housing age diversity (historical development pace) and four measures of neighbourly social relations, even when controlling for other neighbourhood housing features, social composition and individual sociodemographics. It may be that gradual redevelopment preserves community ties, which may take decades to form and which new residents may ‘inherit’ from previous neighbours.

Someone probably needs to send this article to the New York City Housing Authority, because apparently they haven’t been paying attention. On a Tenement Museum tour of the Lower East Side (If you haven’t been there yet, go now! No really! Now! It’s amazing!), our tour guide Matt told us that the city was hatching a plan to capitalize on the neighborhood’s rising real estate value. You can read more about it here, but basically, the city is going to lease land adjacent to housing projects (ironically the vacant lots were meant for more projects that were never completed) to developers who will build high-rise apartment buildings with mostly “market-rate” (i.e., high-end, unregulated) apartments with some token “affordable housing” thrown in.

In theory, mixed-income housing creates less social isolation and provides opportunities for public housing residents to break out of the poverty cycle. And in cases where this kind of mixed-income residences occurs organically, it would be effective. But in cases like this, when the NYCHA imposes it from above, it creates resentment and discord and threatens to displace long-time residents from their home. Granted, this isn’t a preservation issue, per se, but it speaks to the larger point that Jacobs was trying to make. This new NYCHA plan is the same kind of grand scheme that she fought against fifty years ago; she argued that they didn’t work then (and King’s research has now verified her claim), and it’s unlikely they will work today. The Lower East Side is such a vibrant, diverse, amazing place with an incredibly rich history. This new plan threatens all of that.

So, as I strolled along Jane Jacobs Way in her beloved Village, I felt a little discouraged. If nothing has changed in all these years, will it ever? But in the end, I found encouragement in the memory of the woman who went up against some of the most powerful men in New York City and, against all odds, won.

Good news from downtown Boone

This article from The Mountain Times is so exciting! Efforts to turn the old theater on King Street into the Appalachian Theatre venue is moving along! The building was nearly lost, but thanks to the efforts of local preservationists and the town of Boone, it is on the verge of becoming something very cool for the community. The building itself has such a rich history. When I first moved to Boone, it was still serving its original purpose, showing second-run movies for $1 (hence, everyone called it the “Dollar Theater”). Its closing was so sad, and I have been following the story closely to see how it all played out (no pun intended). Boone has long needed a community venue, and I have high hopes for its future! You can learn more (and DONATE to the cause!) here:

Good on ya, Johnson City!


My hometown newspaper (where I worked for several years as a copyeditor) reported today that the Johnson City (Tennessee) City Commission will vote tonight (March 7) on expanding the downtown Historic Zoning/Conservation Overlay District to better reflect the  buildings that have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Benefits include federal tax credits for improvement projects, increased property values, protection on investment and overall economic benefits.

Read more on the proposed boundaries and benefits of the expansion HERE! 

My Architectural Conservation class spent last Thursday documenting the Hedgecock Farmstead in High Point. As a daughter of an Interior Designer, I felt right at home measuring and recording the interior layout of the 1890s I-house with a rear “ell.” You can read more about the efforts to conserve the house and its property here and here.